Faced with both the global recession and the unstoppable momentum of the Internet, traditional commercial models for newspapers are becoming outdated.
Alternative news organisations have emerged, allowing journalism to thrive even in one of the most unstable times newspapers have ever known. The non-profit news sector has attracted a lot of attention in particular, as they are redefining how news organisations work. The newsrooms, which rely on donations, grants, and sponsorships, have been cropping up across the U.S. Although they have been praised for their commitment to investigative journalism and democracy, they have not been collectively put under a giant microscope - until now.
Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study on non-profit newsrooms this week, in which it explored biases and which organisations maintained the most objectivity. Forty-six national and state-level news sites were examined and categorized based on their transparency, political bias, number of revenue streams, and productivity. The sites fell into three basic categories: Group Sites, part of formal families organized by a single funder, Associated Sites, those that shared content but otherwise operated independently, and Commercial Sites with similar goals as the non-profits but used as points of comparison. The findings found some clear correlation. Non-profit news organisations that are transparent about funding offer a much more balanced perspective.
According to journalism.org, roughly half of the news sites surveyed produced content with a clear ideological bent. This was most common in Group Sites. For example, "Watchdog.org" sites tended to be conservative, and were all mainly funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Another group of sites, funded by the American Independent News Network, had a clear liberal bias.
Sites that operated entirely on their own were the least ideological, such as Connecticut Mirror, The Texas Tribune, and ProPublica. These tended to be have multiple funders and be transparent about revenue streams. ProPublica took the spot for most transparent and most balanced coverage. Unlike other organisations, it even published its tax form listing the salaries of its staff.
The study includes interactive features to help understand the data. Each publication is ranked on a spectrum of productivity and shaded based on how ideologically biased they are.
For non-profit organisations looking to attract more funding, the Editors Weblog previously noted that quality was key. The Texas Tribune manages to raise millions of dollars in part because of the journalism awards it has won. Last October, it was awarded the General Excellence award for small sites by the Online Journalism Awards. ProPublica has also been the recipient of awards, specificially for its renowned investigative journalism. One piece by ProPublica Reporter Marshall Allen not only won IRE awards, but also led to three new laws being introduced in Nevada.
The Economist's recent report on the state of the newspaper industry called the not-for-profit news phenomenon "philanthrojournalism". While the general goals of non-profit news are noble (civil engagement and government accountability), they are tarnished without an unbiased approach to news. The PEW study noted that only two percent of stories on all the sites listed more than one point of view. To truly create a different kind of journalism, shouldn't non-profit sites incorporate more perspectives into quality reporting?
The Pew Research Center report can be found here.
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