By Nick Evershed, of NPA Bulletin
Newspapers have seen a number of new media outlets present both threats and opportunities over the years, from radio and TV to the internet.
Now there is a new one to add to the list - non-profit news publishers.
It has been announced that the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism in Melbourne, Australia, intends to present a new model for funding news content.
Margaret Simons, chair of the foundation, says they are considering three or four models which are partially based on the US organisation, Spot.us.
“The existing business models are in crisis,” she says. “It’s hard to persuade the established business models to innovate.”
She says the foundation would be an experiment in “community-driven commissioning”.
Spot.us uses a system of “crowd funding”. A pitch for a story is placed on their website, and then members of the public can donate money to fund a registered freelance journalist to write the story.
Publishers can also donate money to story pitches, and if they fund 50 per cent of a story pitch they gain first-publishing rights on the story. If they pay for all of it, they gain exclusive rights to the story.
The founder of Spot.us, David Cohn, says they are not in competition with traditional news publishers. Rather, they are helping them.
He says his model allows newspaper to reduce their freelance costs as the public will help to fund stories they want to see published.
“When I talk with people in traditional news organisations, they like the idea,” he says.
Even if a publisher does not pay a cent towards a story, they can still benefit. Stories are released under Creative Commons licensing if a media company does not buy publishing rights.
The Creative Commons system allows users to release content from certain aspects of copyright, while maintaining others. In the case of Spot.us, this allows content to be freely used by news organisations, so long as the work is attributed to the original author.
In this way, Cohn says Spot.us “can be a little bit of an Associated Press in a sense”.
Despite the potential to reduce publisher’s costs, he stresses that non-profits are not “some kind of saviour” for the financial troubles of the newspaper industry.
“This is not a silver bullet,” he says. “I don’t think there is any such thing.” He adds that while individuals in traditional news organisations are enthusiastic about Spot.us, he finds newspapers executives cautious about using his service.
The San Francisco Chronicle is the largest newspaper in Spot.us’ area of operation, the San Francisco Bay area. The Chronicle has also seen a 25 percent drop in circulation in the last six months, the largest of any major US newspaper.
The Chronicle’s editor-at-large, Phil Bronstein, sits on the board of the Centre for Investigative Reporting, the oldest non-profit news organisation in America.
New content ventures
He says he always keeps an eye out for new content ventures, and likes Spot.us.
“If a newspaper loses 10, 15, 30 or even 75 percent of its staff, there’s clearly going to be things that you’re no longer covering,” he says.
“So you need to look for other ways to fill those gaps.”
Bronstein says it’s possible Spot.us will help the Chronicle save money. However his newspaper has been cautious but discussed with Spot.us staff about collaborating on some projects.
He says smaller, independent news models are also better placed to experiment and test new ideas, which can be difficult in the “somewhat insular” business model of a large newspaper.
“It’s a great way to get ideas that don’t come from the Chronicle,” he says.
Cohn agrees with this: “Traditional news organisations are somewhat slow to adopt new things,” he says.
“Small, independent organisations are a lot more flexible.”
Pacific Scoop debut
Pacific Scoop, launched in August this year, is a New Zealand-based non-profit news publisher that formed from a partnership between Auckland University of Technology’s Pacific Media Centre and Scoop, an independent New Zealand news site.
They also publish under Creative Commons, and have associations with traditional news outlets in the Pacific region.
Associate Professor David Robie (pictured), editor of Pacific Scoop, says they rely on graduate journalism students - some from the University of the South Pacific which is operating in an environment of censorship in Fiji - and contributing journalists volunteering their content.
“What we’re trying to do is independent journalism, stories and journalism neglected by the mainstream media,” he says.
He adds that despite being the newest addition to the Scoop site, Pacific Scoop is the fastest growing with around 30,000 unique visitors monthly. He attributes the site's popularity to their dedicated coverage of the Pacific region outside New Zealand.
“The New Zealand audience is not particularly well served for Pacific news,” he says.
“There’s no media organisation catering for the mix of strong environmental, human rights, development, cultural and conflict issues that we offer.”
Indeed, it seems most non-profit news publishers are generally skewed towards investigative journalism along these lines.
Niche funding model
Professor Wendy Bacon, at the Australian Centre for Investigative Journalism (ACIJ), says this niche isn’t being adequately filled by traditional publishers.
“As far as I’m concerned there does need to be another funding model for investigative journalism,” she says, adding that there was always a shortage of funds for investigative journalism, even when the newspapers weren’t in the financial trouble that they’re in now.
“It’s probably a good idea to pursue more than one model of publishing, because everything is in a state of flux at the moment,” she says.
In the US, funding non-profits is big business. Billionaire Warren Hellman reportedly donated US $5 million to start up a new non-profit publisher in San Francisco.
Locally, the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism is also calling on philanthropists to support the initiative. Margaret Simons says they have had interest from a few donors, including one “five-figure sum expressed”.
Nick Evershed is a volunteer for Reportage, an ACIJ news website
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