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Nonprofit news ventures flourish in California

September 29, 2009

Hi Folks,

Over the past year or so, a number of new, nonprofit news ventures have been announced, serving both a national and California audience. Largely funded by foundations, these ventures are designed to help plug the news reporting hole resulting from severe staff cutbacks at news organizations across the country in recent years. The four ventures are ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting's California Watch, the Voice of OC (Orange County) and the Bay Area News Project.

Recognizing that the for-profit business media business model is not so profitable these days, a nonprofit model is now being pioneered. First the San Francisco-based Sandler Foundation stepped up in early 2008 with a $10 million, three-year minimum investment to launch and fund ProPublica which is producing hard-hitting investigative pieces and collaborating with commercial news organizations to produce and distribute its stories. 

This year, the Hewlett, Knight and Irvine foundations announced their multi-million, multi-year investment to support California Watch, whose staff and editors include many of the finest journalists I have known in California, such as former San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Bob Salladay. The mission of this project, according to its web site, is to "emphasize story telling that holds powerful interests accountable and shines a light on key areas of interest – education, health care, criminal justice, the environment and government oversight. The goal of our reporting is to expose hidden truths, prompt debate and spark change."

More recently, on September 15, down in Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County, The Voice of OC was announced, which is yet another non-profit news venture, but focused specifically on Orange County issues and featuring exclusively online reporting. According to the LA Times' story about this project, the seed funding was obtained from the Orange County Employees Association. The key backers include former state senator Joe Dunn and former veteran LA Times reporter Dan Morain who is serving on the Voice's board. 

And just last week, it was reported that San Francisco investor (and host of the beloved Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park) Warren Hellman's family foundation is donating $5 million to start up the Bay Area News Project, in collaboration with KQED and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. 

It's exciting to see all these new ventures get underway, and to see so many public-spirited journalists finding new, innovative avenues for sharing their talent. In the past few years the number of reporters covering Sacramento has dropped significantly. Fortunately now there is a growing number of reporters who will keep tabs on what's happening in Sacramento, Santa Ana, San Francisco and beyond.

I believe a significant precursor to all this public-interest journalism was the civic journalism movement, which was supported back in the 1990s by the Knight Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which funded the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. I participated in a number of the Pew Center's projects and conferences, and recall how skeptical and even hostile journalists from commercial news organizations were to the notion of civic journalism, and the Pew Center's mission to "create and refine better ways of reporting the news to re-engage people in public life". 

Technology and necessity have changed the reporting equation. Of course, nonprofit news is not quite the same as civic journalism, but it stems from a similar sentiment, which is the idea that news coverage is something that should be designed to benefit the public interest and hold politicians accountable. By taking the profit requirement out of the equation the public will hopefully benefit enormously from all these ventures letting loose dozens of public-spirited reporters to watchdog politicians, and will succeed in establishing a new model for journalism.

-- Kim Alexander


Kim Alexander, President & Founder
California Voter Foundation

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This page was first published on September 29, 2009 | Last updated on September 29, 2009
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