The pioneers who paved the way

7 December 2009

(Cross posted at Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur)

With fresh non-profit news ventures seemingly turning up left and right, you would think this was a brand new idea.  But it’s not.

A wide variety of non-profit news ventures have been providing unique, professional-caliber, and invigorating perspectives on our world for many years.  A number of ventures – like the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ms., or my own organization, Mother Jones – predate the popularization of the Internet by more than two decades (and let’s not even begin to count how many years The Progressive, Harpers, NatGeo, or The Nation Institute have been around!).

The pioneers of non-profit news cover the full array of media, from magazines, to radio and television, to online. Here’s an incomplete list of nonprofit journalism orgs that pre-date the latest wave (you can find links to many of these at the Media Consortium website – of which many but not all are members):

The American Prospect
Bitch Magazine
Center for Investigative Reporting
Center for Public Integrity
Democracy Now
Free Speech TV
High Country News
In These Times
Mother Jones
The Nation Institute
National Geographic
New America Media
The Progressive
Public News Service
The Real News
Southern Exposure/Facing South
The Texas Observer
The Washington Monthly
Yes! Magazine

It’s obvious that this is a pretty polyglot list, representing what admittedly is a messy, diverse gang of organizations. Some are larger and financially stronger than others, some hew to the traditional canon of journalism more than others, some serve a general audience while others are very focused, and so on.

These veteran non-profit publishers don’t tightly cluster around one platform, function, or one way of looking at the world. That makes them notably less homogeneous than the new local and regional news startups that seem to be capturing so much attention – and funding.

The proliferation of new local-news projects seems to have been caused not only by the well documented decline of traditional newspapers, but also because of how the money has been flowing lately: in the direction of these new news operations. Chalk that up, in part at least, to the influence of the Knight Foundation, the philanthropic leader in funding innovative experiments in journalism.

Here’s the problem, though: the veteran non-profit journalism organizations – all of which produce their own original content, all of which generate genuine news for an attentive audience – represent an ensemble of voices that too often gets shunted to the side in  “the future of news” conversation.

This has the effect – unintended, mostly – of excluding not just Mother Jones but other non-profit journalism outfits that for one reason or another don’t fit into the new meme about what constitutes legitimate non-profit journalism.

I fear this may reproduce the traditional – and these days irrelevant – division between “mainstream” and “alternative” media, and narrow the conversation about our shared future,. Why not learn from the experience of many people who have struggled for years with the same issues the new news outfits are confronting today?

For the start-ups especially, that’s a real loss. It’s not as if these guys really need to reinvent the wheel all by themselves. The rest of us have been at it for a long time, with, well, sobering results: there are benefits and costs of doing this non profit approach – there’s no magic, just a lot of hard work.

Common ground for a productive conversation, I’d say.

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