Structures to Support Independent Journalism / Federating Associations

Friday afternoon, May 15

Hosts: Kevin Davis, KLJD Consulting, formerly Investigative News Network

Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, The Media Consortium


Richard Logan, The Reva and David Logan Foundation

Linda Jue, G. W. Williams Center for Independent Journalism

Sarah van Gelder, YES! Magazine

Michael Stoll, SF Public Press

Richard Tofel, ProPublica

Bill Densmore, Reynolds Journalism Institute/InfoValet Project

Note taker: Michael Stoll

Jo Ellen: There are at least 14 associations to support independent journalism. They’re all either too small (50-100 organizations) or so big that they don’t pay attention to the news organization they support. There are opportunities in getting these groups to work together, but there are also dangers.

Kevin: Pursuing organic growth based on where news organizations are now, and just hanging on, isn’t going to succeed. What scalable structures can be introduced? Can we find a way to have shared back-end (underwriting, fundraising business functions), yet independent “front ends” (i.e. the branding and the content) that are unique to each organization.

Jo Ellen: Other possible shared services include technology, payroll and joint conferences. Alt weeklies have an ad exchange program. Could they expand their ad network to organizations belonging to other organizations they collaborate with?

Michael: INN offers Largo. More should be able to use it. Media Consortium does a lot of collaborations, such as Climate Desk. Each association could offer the services it specializes in to the others.

Jo Ellen: The associations themselves aren’t sustainable, and yet they each have membership directors, boards and 501(c)3 status. Should they federate to work more efficiently?

Sarah: Media Consortium can learn a lot from the Independent Press Association, which was a great peer network. Media Consortium helped Yes! transition to new database for subscriptions and donors.

Jo Ellen: We created that at a meeting with 20 people. So far only 3 orgs — Yes!, Bitch and High Country News — are using it. But they have an RFP out to expand it.

Kevin: What if the associations went away?

Michael: Associations are useful in helping foundations distribute money in “block grants” that might be too small for the foundation officers to bother with. Helps filter needed resources down to the ground level. Foundations would not ordinarily give such small allocations.

Richard L: Never funded an association before, but he’d like to see these organizations better supported. Might also explore culling ones that don’t work. Might consider giving block grants.

Jo Ellen: The Media Consortium has been given grants on issue areas, anywhere between three and 50 outlets able to do beat reporting, for example on media policy. INN specializes in services to members and best practices.

Kevin: Organizations can merge if they’re organized on the basis of a business model.

Jo Ellen: So far, all the associations are too small. INN has about 100 members, AAN has 118, Media Consortium has 75.

… Here’s a vision — foundations should have a roundtable with funders and associations to see how they can work together. Some might be consolidated, others differentiated.

… The Media Consortium is now in merger talks with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The alt weeklies need more content, so it makes no sense for the organizations to be completely siloed.

Kevin: The business models are very similar.

Sarah: Not completely overlapping, though.

Kevin: Advertisers look for efficiency, and if they can make a bigger ad buy, that brings more revenue.

Richard L: How do you do a friendly merger?

Jo Ellen: There are culture issues, and differences in mission between MC (“serious”) and AAN (“fun-loving”). Alt weeklies like to be local, have a rebel identity. Long-form investigative. The media consortium is serious, dedicated to the cause of what is right. The alt weeklies like to over-order liquor.

… Importantly, the alt weeklies have a reserve of cash, about $1 million. But there is a declining number of them.

Richard L: Culture clashes can stop many mergers.

Jo Ellen: There’s an 18-month strategic planning process, including joint conferences.

Richard L: Maybe there needs to be a new organization?

Sarah: Independent media needs sustainable funding that taps into broad demand for services.

Kevin: Market dynamics drive excellence. But if you create support organizations, in which everyone has the same employee ID number, they can all compete on the journalism but have a common set of tools, with savvy business leaders running the back end, and savvy local editors on the front end. For example, MSO organizations in health care. The reason INN can’t get into that business is that each organization has a separate employee ID number. If more of them were merged, they could effectively leverage their scale.

Jo Ellen: Another problem is that organizations have different missions.

Richard L: You could limit the extent of possible shared services to business functions such as taxes, benefits, accounts payable, tech, insurance, conferences.

Michael: But each organization can be independent editorially by having local boards under a larger board.

Kevin: So, is independent media fulfilling its mission?

Jo Ellen: Alternative media was always supposed to be supplemental, but what happens when mainstream news leaves a vast, gaping hole?

Kevin: Another possibility is to create an investment fund to have some organizations spin off franchises.

Jo Ellen: Not like Patch, which had the same approach to each community and wasn’t authentic.

Kevin: To be authentic, each organization has to be editorially independent. It needs to be responsive to the community. It can’t bee commoditized.

Richard L: So, what can be shared?

Jo Ellen: INN, LION, MC and AAN all have a lot in common.

… culture of standing apart and questioning power

… investigations

… never taking PR at face value

… all offer services others can benefit from. These include PR databases, content management systems, etc.

… all interested in fundraising

… all need advocates

There’s a need to start convening these associations.

Richard T: You can start federating slowly, by pooling resources one by one. If successful, membership will ask for more collaborations.

… ProPublica has no interest in anyone advocating on his behalf. When you advocate you end up being a supplicant.

Sarah: Start with having a joint conference.

Kevin: Overall, things have been happening too slowly.

Richard T: Yes, there is an expiration date to the current economic expansion. The industry needs to be in a better place before the next recession hits. Otherwise the whole field will suffer.

Sarah: Need to start with specific kinds of collaborations.

Richard T: It’s worth exploring a group buy with Zenefits, a middleman that offers insurance and employee benefits. ProPublica spends about 22 percent of payroll on benefits, and if it can save some it would be worth exploring.

Kevin: Another thing is standardized contracts.

Jo Ellen: Federating would enable bulk discounts on technology tools.

Kevin: You could also establish lines of credit.

Richard L: One potential problem with federations is no one lets go of special interests. If it’s not done right it can get ugly and lead to splintering. Federation should happen in a narrow band before associations consider merging entirely.