An investment in trust: Public support grows for nonprofit newsrooms

Sue Cross is executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Below she writes about the Knight News Match, sponsored by Knight Foundation. 

Across the country, the reporters of America’s nonprofit newsrooms are finding new ways to produce investigative, explanatory and fact-based community news with one special interest: the public interest.

And the public is stepping up to support them.

In the wake of last year’s divisive presidential campaign, donations have flowed into nonprofit news organizations. Donors see that these newsrooms play a growing role in the kind of watchdog coverage that people rely on to know what their government is doing. Now Knight Foundation has launched a $1.5 million #newsmatch initiative to help build public awareness and support for nonprofit newsrooms, particularly at the local and regional level. And these public service journalists are finding new supporters — from individuals pledging $10 a month to local foundations including journalism in grant portfolios strengthening the fabric of our civic life.

I encourage you to join this movement and donate to nonprofit newsrooms. Particularly now, when for one more week — through 11:59 p.m. ET Jan. 19 — your donations will be doubled for those in Knight’s #newsmatch program.

This move toward community support of news marks a sea change.

People are turning their attention from the loss of traditional news to step up and support new models of news in their communities.

In Pennsylvania, donations help support investigative reporting by PublicSource. In the last year, PublicSource found that half of Pittsburgh’s homicides were going unsolved and that the state was treating juvenile offenders with extraordinary levels of psychiatric drugs, a story that led to legislative hearings on youth treatment.

Public contributions helped fund reporting by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that disclosed toxic lead threats from public water systems similar to those in Flint, Michigan. Soon after publication, the city of Milwaukee notified 70,000 residents they had lead pipes and the state created a fund to help people replace them.

In Maryland, readers support Len Lazarick, whose Maryland Reporter continues a kind of reporting that isn’t always flashy but that we all need: day-in, day-out, solid, trustworthy coverage of state government and issues. Shoe-leather reporting.

There are hundreds of nonprofit newsrooms like these. They vary according to what topics they cover and the communities they serve, but they share some common threads.

Nonprofits can stay close to community needs, whether that’s a community of place or community of interest. They aren’t chasing clickbait or the lighter fare that drives traffic for commercial media but doesn’t do much to help us understand or become involved with civic life or issues. They focus on facts.

Nonprofit news organizations are transparent, by culture and by law. As nonprofits, they publicly report their funding and how they spend it. They do not engage in partisan politics. Who pays for their reporting is generally out in the open. The great majority post their ethics policies and practices as well.

They draw top editorial talent. A study in the Journal of Journalism Practice found that in 2013, nearly 25 percent of investigative reporters said they were working for nonprofits. It’s a good bet that percentage is even higher today. These newsrooms punch above their weight in national journalism awards. They are a growing force in expert, in-depth reporting of complex topics, from education and environment to criminal justice and campaign finance.

They’re born out of deep dedication. Reporters and editors in nonprofit newsrooms are generally rooted in their communities, deeply committed to them. They live in the places they cover. And they invite their communities to know them, through public forums, meet-ups and open invitations to help them shape coverage. At a time when it’s on journalists to increase public trust in their reporting, these are the kinds of personal connections that build community bonds around news.

Increasingly, it is nonprofit newsrooms like these — many of them startups, launched by stellar investigative and community-based journalists — that are providing the kinds of news coverage that is critical to democracy. Heck, just to figuring out how to live your life.

Please support them. By donating, you’re building journalism as a public service. You’re investing in trust. And ultimately, you’re investing in a journalist. A real one, reporting for you.

Follow the Institute for Nonprofit News on Twitter @INN. For a complete list of the 57 organizations participating in the Knight News Match, visit Knight Foundation will match individual donations up to $1,000 made through 11:59 p.m. Jan. 19, up to $25,000 per organization.