Nonprofits see a revenue model: universities

The headlines from last month’s meeting of investigative reporting profits focused on one thing – their formation of a network to support investigative reporting and provide a showcase for the groups’ work.

The new organization, for now called the Investigative News Network, could be a big deal, and the 10 members of its steering committee went right to work getting it up and running.

But another big theme rumbled through the meeting outside New York City at the Rockefeller estate, and that was the nonprofits’ mad dash for new revenue models. “My personal passion is sustainability,” said MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer. By the end of the meeting, nearly all of the roughly three dozen participants had said a version of the same thing.

The cause of investigative reporting is hot right now, and many new groups have caught the attention of foundations. But they fear this money could fade quickly, so there’s an urgency about their exploration of new revenue models. A bunch of new ideas, some already in practice, flew around the room.

One of the most prominent is to find support from universities and their journalism schools. Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, is well along on this road. At $10,000 per year, he’s signing up universities to be partners of the Pulitzer Center, thus eligible to receive a number of benefits. Among them: two campus visits per year by center reporters to discuss their reporting projects, and eligibility for students to apply for $2,000 travel scholarships.

Sawyer said seven schools are charter members, and he expects to enlist more. “There’s a whiff of sustainability in the universities,” he said.

Margaret Engel, director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation Program, said universities could do far more to support journalism nonprofits – particularly by flipping the traditional internship model and paying the news organizations that hire interns.

“We’re training students but not getting anything for it,” said Engel. “The students are receiving academic credit for this. The universities should pay.” Engel also recommended that journalism schools provide housing for nonprofit reporters when they’re on assignment in their communities.

Many nonprofits are looking to universities to house their operations or provide program support for their work.  Some of the newest investigative nonprofits – the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the new Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, the even newer San Diego Watchdog Institute – have robust university connections or are seeking them.

Working as I do on a campus that — like all colleges and universities — is struggling in the down economy, I’m not sure  how deep the academy’s pockets will go. But if the Annenberg School of Journalism is any indication (and I think it is), journalism schools are aggressively looking for collaborative models that could be good matches for some of the nonprofits’ needs.

The academy wasn’t the only revenue model suggested by the nonprofits:

Several, like the New England Center, are planning to set up separate investigative reporting-for-hire operations that match up their research strengths with revenue opportunities. This mirrors, to an extent, the recent trend of investigative reporters establishing their own research and consulting businesses. (Example: the recent move by Susan Schmidt and Glenn Simpson to set up SNS Global LLC.)

Others, like Trent Seibert of Texas Watchdog, think there’s money to be made in training – specifically in Seibert’s case the training of “people who want to know public data.” Laurie Hearn, about to set up the newest investigative nonprofit, offered up an entirely new funding model.  The owners of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the newspaper she’s just leaving, agreed to help bankroll a new investigative reporting nonprofit she hopes to establish at San Diego State University. Presumably the newspaper will end up saving some money by eliminating its own investigative reporting unit, but it’s a better outcome than losing it all together.

This is not to say that the investigative nonprofits are souring on foundation support and philanthropy. Most are aggressively looking in those directions, and some are bullish that they may prove to be long-term funders. “I agree we need to go beyond foundation funding” said John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project. But he added, “I can’t help but feel that we’ve only scratched the surface of foundation support… There are thousands of foundations out there, 99 percent of whom have not heard of us yet.”

Schidlovsky said he expects existing supporters will contribute more as they understand the severity of journalism cuts and realize that groups like IRP can take up the slack.

Two other significant trends were apparent at this meeting.

The first is collaboration. There are places in journalism where collaboration is still seen as a cave-in to competition, but the investigative nonprofit space is not one of them. In fact, one of the arguments against creating a new investigative network was that so many of these groups are doing collaboration quite robustly already.

“This is something we know and believe in and are doing,” said Sawyer. His relatively young group has forged dozens of partnerships, including a recent one with the folks at GlobalPost.

One of the most recent new partnerships: an announcement by the Associated Press that it would begin disseminating the work of four major nonprofits: the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Virtually every participant at the conference talked about their partnership activities – from Margie Freivogel at the St. Louis Beacon, to Sandy Close at New America Media, to Florence Graves at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute. If collaborations are a critical piece of the future, these groups are on course.

The other significant trend apparent at this meeting was public broadcasting’s aspirations to fill a much bigger role in American journalism. That’s a topic for another post.