Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new study that looks at the new universe of nonprofit journalism. The study looked at who is publishing news under the legal structure of a 501(c)3 exemption. After all, “nonprofit” signals a tax status, not a belief system or a commitment to any particular fair and balanced set of ideals, journalistic or otherwise.
In 1910, nearly 60% of cities had competing daily papers, but today that completion of viewpoints has all but disappeared. More than two-thirds of independently-owned newspapers have disappeared over the last 35 years with more than 200 publishing companies disappearing over the last 20 years. Vin Crosbie, a noted Syracuse University professor and consultant, has predicted that more than half of the approximately 1,400 daily newspapers publishing in the country today could be out of business by 2020.
Newspaper publishers have reduced daily newsroom staffing by more than 29% from since 2001 as circulation and advertising revenues have plummeted over the last decade. Every year there are fewer and fewer newspaper reporters covering state capitols and city halls, while the number of states with newspapers covering the U.S. Congress full-time has dwindled from 35 in 1985 to just 21 in 2010.
As traditional newsrooms have shrunk, a group of institutions and funders motivated by something other than profit are entering the journalism arena. This distinguishes them from the commercial news institutions that dominated the 20th century, whose primary sources of revenue—advertising and circulation—were self-evident. The emergence of these new online news sources is significant since a national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 1-5, 2010, found that more people cite the internet than newspapers as their main source of news.
Who are these new players in journalism? Are these sites delivering, as they generally purport to be, independent and disinterested news reporting? Or are some of them more political and ideological in their reporting? How can audiences assess this for themselves? In short, what role are these operations playing in the changing ecosystem of news?
Pew examined 46 national and state nonprofit news websites and found more than a little ideology lurking under the IRS's 501(c)3 nonprofit status of the new "news organizations." Of the 46 sites Pew studied — 39 nonprofit and 7 commercial as a control —56 percent “produced news coverage that was clearly ideological in nature,” the researchers report.
A few of the new nonprofits, like ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and California Watch followed traditional journalistic guidelines for news reporting. They’re transparent about their funding sources, which are numerous; their doesn’t skew too far in one political direction; they produce a lot of journalism, compared to their nonprofit peers.
But the major national networks of state politics sites — the conservative Watchdog.org sites and the liberal American Independent News Network — don’t reveal much about who’s paying their bills, and their work skews clearly in one direction, both in the topics they cover and the content of individual stories. More than half of emerging nonprofit news sites produce content with a clear ideological bent.
The more ideological sites tended to be funded mostly or entirely by one parent organization, although that group may have multiple contributors, the study said. Those sites tended to produce less content and be less transparent about who they are and where their funding comes from. Sites with a more balanced political perspective tended to have multiple sources of funding with more transparency and more content flow, the study found.
The most progressive sites were nine operating under the umbrella of the American Independent News Network, which is funded by a variety of individuals and organizations, including the Open Society Foundations.
The most conservative sites were 12 that shared the common name "Watchdog" and were funded chiefly by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, which was launched in part by the libertarian group the Sam Adams Alliance.
The report found that topics covered also correlated with the political orientation of the sites and their backers. The Pew study found that the American Independent News sites heavily favored stories on organized labor and the environment, while the Watchdog.org sites focused on stories about government waste and inefficiency.