You can’t reduce journalism to a simple formula. But if you had to try, a pretty good guess might be “good content + effective distribution = success.”
A new partnership announced between Digital First Media and ProPublica fits well into the equation. As part of the deal, ProPublica will provide Digital First Media with pre-publication access to its news apps, which in the past have taken the form of easily searchable databases of information in the public interest, such as Dollars for Docs, which allows users to see how much money their doctor has accepted from pharmaceutical companies. Digital First Media will then be able to use the content of these apps as a basis for stories at different publications across its large network of local newspapers.
Yet it would be an inaccurate undersell to say that ProPublica is simply providing information and Digital First Media sharing it. Digital First Media journalists won’t simply be distributing the data, they should be building on it to create stories that show its specific local relevance.
According to Richard Tofel, general manager of ProPublica, the idea behind the project is that Digital First Media journalists will “publish stories that will bring… data home for people in communities around the country.” He says the process should “help us deepen and broaden the impact” that the news apps have – something that’s a core part of ProPublica’s mission.
In fact, the deal is similar to one that ProPublica made with NBC at the end of last year, which promised to give 10 NBC-owned television stations “a first look” at ProPublica news apps.
As part of the partnership, Digital First Media is donating money to ProPublica, which operates as a non-profit organisation. But Tofel stresses that this does not amount to DFM paying for the privilege of advance access to ProPublica news apps. “They’re making a contribution,” he states, “it’s not strictly a quid pro quo”.
According to Tofel, ProPublica depends “almost entirely on philanthropy” but he says that even if the organisation were accepting money in return for content from Digital First Media “it wouldn’t be a tweak to our business model.” Tofel points out that, “we’re very happy to sell our content. We sell our content through eBooks, we charge partners for content on occasions and hope to do more of that. So we’re all for earned revenue.” The bottom line, he says, is that “we need revenue and whether it’s strictly speaking earned or donated is of less consequence to us.”
The funding of non-profit news organisations has received a lot of coverage lately, as Chicago News Cooperative ceased operations last month after its main funder, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, changed the way it was funded, as the New York Times reported. Nieman Lab also notes that the Voice of San Diego was forced to cut staff due to lack of funds, and the Center for Investigative Reporting is due to merge with the Bay Citizen. As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out last year, financial problems at non-profit journalism organisations have stemmed from long delays in them being granted tax exempt status.
Yet despite this, Tofel seems confident that “there is a bright future for non-profit investigative journalism” although he stresses that is “not to say that, because you declare yourself a non-profit it’s a guaranteed route to success.”
According to Tofel the first step to success is “exclusive, distinctive, valuable content.” The second step, which is “less important, but not unimportant,” is “effective business management.” Both of these factors are “the keys to making any publishing organisation successful.” Now there’s another formula we can rely on.