Friday, July 07, 2017

On the future(s) of nonprofit journalism

When Evan Smith launched the Texas Tribune and nonprofits like Politico and Pro Publica popped up on the journalistic landscape, Grits wasn't surprised. It seemed to me at the time like the logical extension of where journalism must go, or risk an ignominious death by per-click advertising methods. The economic basis that historically paid for journalism has evaporated, but not the need for the public good being provided.

In the alternative, rich folks can either buy a media outlet - like Jeff Bezos purchasing the Washington Post - or subsidize them through tax deductions. But nobody needs to know what's going on in the world more than people in charge of large institutions. So I've long expected the nonprofit sector to step up to fill this public-ed gap; Grits didn't expect to ever reach a point where there'd be NO news.

Ten or 15 years ago, media mavens fantasized that blogs like this one would help fill the gap. Occasionally what happens on Grits is mistaken for journalism for one simple reason: I'm writing about issues that aren't well covered in the MSM and so sometimes an advocate must perform journalistic functions just to lay out a problem, potential solutions, etc.. Your correspondent was blessed in his youth to enjoy some brief-if-formative journalistic experience and learn a few skills. But journalism is a job and if nobody's paying anyone to do it, it generally won't get done. The volume of blogging on Grits goes up and down inversely proportionate to the workload at my paid gig, and that means it's hard for blogs to be a consistent, reliable source of news. Plus, to be clear for what must be the thousandth time, I'm not a neutral source. What you read here are (hopefully) well-informed editorials, for the most part, and only, at most, incidentally "news."

Grits for a while had hopes for the SCOTUSBlog model, where professionals in an issue area - in this case lawyers who practice before the US Supreme Court - finance journalism to fill gaps which professionals need filled. But that project remains unique. In the areas to which I pay attention, there aren't many if any comparable projects. Most actors in the criminal-justice system would prefer journalists NOT cover their activities, given their druthers.

The Marshall Project was the first nonprofit media outlet I'm aware of to focus on a single, broad issue area - criminal justice - by almost quaintly combining the traditional nonprofit and journalism models: Hire a newsroom and run it like the newsrooms of old, just with a donation-based revenue apparatus. The Texas Tribune does this in Texas, as do ProPublica and Politico at the national level: Grits thinks of this model as "Journalism as Charity Case."

What I didn't anticipate was what Grits now perhaps optimistically sees as the next wave of the nonprofit journalism trend: Nonprofits in a specific issue area hiring established professional journalists to cover an under-covered topic - not as communications directors or public relations experts, but as journalists, frequently in collaboration with or even edited by established media outlets.

The first example where I was aware of this was Sam Gross' National Exoneration Registry. Prof. Gross hired Maurice Possley, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from the Chicago Tribune who himself had broken important innocence stories. Their site is essentially a journalistic function.

There have been other isolated examples. When in 2015, the Legislature created a new Texas data source to identify police shootings, the Charles Koch Foundation funded veteran crime-beat journalist, UT graduate student, and Grits contributor Eva Ruth Moravec to write a series of investigative reports on police shootings of unarmed people. Moravec's Point of Impact series (she's still in the middle of producing it) has been published in three major Texas dailies, bringing to light important stories which otherwise would not have been covered in depth. (Full disclosure: your correspondent introduced Ms. Moravec to the Koch Foundation people after I spoke at one of their events in 2015. From all I know, it's been a productive partnership.)

But the good folks at the Fair Punishment Project - a project of the Harvard Law School - are taking that model to the next level. They've hired a small clutch of journalists to cover issues related to prosecutors in national publications.

Admittedly, prosecutors are an under-covered topic. (The pfocus must please Prof. Pfaff.) But it's also an oddly myopic lens through which to view a justice system that at times may veer away from justice but is ever and always a system, which means multiple parts coordinated. The prosecutor is an important player, but not the only important one. To name another: Judges are incredibly under-covered, too, considering how powerful they are. E.g., no journalists routinely cover Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decisions. Indeed, more than a couple of CCA judges have told me that Grits' coverage of the court is superior to all of the MSM's. (That's damning with faint praise, something being better than nothing.)

Parole boards,  probation departments, county jails, misdemeanor courts, debtors-prison practices: Many parts of the criminal-justice system remain under-covered, in part because it's so decentralized and locally based - a national story based on a million local stories. FPP has chosen perhaps the most opaque aspect of the justice system to shine a light on, so more power to them. But it's an interesting and non-obvious choice - a national-in-scope journalism project aimed primarily at local actors.

In addition to their own blog (and hey, doesn't every third as%#ole have his own blog?), the Fair Punishment Project has entered into collaborations with Slate, in a series called Trials and Error, and Medium (a site embodying Twitter founder Evan Williams' vision of the media's future) for a feature series titled In Justice Today. But the journalists are employed by a nonprofit advocacy organization. (FP has offices in Houston, D.C., and presumably elsewhere - their office phone has a Raleigh, N.C. area code.)

There has always been a version of nonprofit reporting. Your correspondent has written many, many "reports" for various nonprofits over the last three decades which at the end of the day were glorified investigative journalism projects with a tad longer timelines, more footnotes, and depending on the client, better or worse production values. Such publications are produced to fill gaps in journalism that for-profit reporters would otherwise never fill and one of their functions is to secure "earned media" or "earned coverage" of this or that topic, as well as to educate MSM reporters in hopes that they'll pick up the ball. Whether nonprofits call folks writing such documents "journalists," journalism is what's going on. I've known more than a few ex-reporters who've become somebody's research director which, like communications director, can be a logical extension of the same skill set.

But those are examples of hiring journalists to be something else. Harvard's Fair Punishment Project has hired journalists to perform journalism alongside a more traditional advocacy program. The group has also hired a team of lawyers whom their website says is "helping to create a fair and accountable justice system through legal action, public discourse, and educational initiatives." Asked to describe their non-journalism work in a declarative sentence, FPP's Jessica Brand told me via text that, "We provide academic research on criminal-justice reforms players with power can implement to reduce incarceration and make the system more fair."

My sense is that journalists may struggle at first under these employment scenarios. The targets of their reporting will be less likely to help them compared to MSM journalists who are likely to print DA quotes uncritically and move on to the next story. They will have to develop sources and methods to workaround such stonewalling and still honestly portray the challenges facing prosecutors, who may understandably hesitate to talk to them on hot-button topics. And FPP must perform this work without the advantages of local beat reporters, who have better access to human intelligence. It's not an impossible task, but FPP journalists will have to work harder than their peers to produce a quality product because of the topic they've chosen.

OTOH, prosecutors are for the most part only telling reporters whatever PR-driven message they want the public to hear, not necessarily what the public needs to know. And the get-a-quote model of modern journalism can make journalists lazy and cause them to stop once they get it. Coming at the task from an advocacy stance may just eliminate the pretense, which in turn could force FPP journalists to more routinely take the more difficult path of investigative reporting and records-based documentation. At least, that's been your correspondent's experience regarding advocacy-based reportage.

Regardless, I'm glad they're doing the work. Today, about half as many professional journalists are employed in America compared to when Grits left college. There just aren't as many warm bodies covering news as when our parents picked up a paper in past generations. Grits was created 13 years ago to help plug that gap,* which has thankfully grown a tad less yawning since I started out. So I'm particularly thankful to see others attempting to step into the space on my issue areas and am glad folks are testing a variety of different models. The good ones will be replicated, new institutions will develop, and with a little luck, that's how 21st century journalism survives.

*Prior to creating Grits, from 1997-2004 your correspondent operated a website on police reform, first as the "Austin Police Department Hall of Shame" and then expanding to a statewide focus as the "Texas Police Reform Center." That site was hand-coded in html, for a long time uploaded via dial-up, and predated the era of blog-commenting software. This was all done as a hobby/personal project.


jdgalt said...

I very much appreciate the work of Grits, along with other journalists and sites that cover criminal justice such as Radley Balko, CopBlock, and PINAC.

But what I think would be even more useful, if it could be done, would be information about the records of judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs when they come up for (re-)election. It seems silly not to get to use that voting power effectively when we already have it.

Anonymous said...

Grits - we'll gladly pay you to write an article for us - giving an unbiased perspective. How do we contact you? Kristie Vaughn

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh, this wasn't a plea for funding, Kristie, I've got a job!

@ jdgalt, that's campaign work, the MSM cannot (or just as often, will not) dig deeply into a candidate during a race. If oppo people don't do it and put it out independently, it won't get covered. Plus, it's too labor-intensive to excavate incumbent's records. Unrealistic to expect the media as constituted to do that. There's insufficient demand for it.

Anonymous said...

The brain dead voters and the free shit army could care less......

Anonymous said...

Publicizing the fact that more cops are convicted of child sex crimes that all other professions combined will do more for criminal justice than anything. The perception that police officers are somehow better than the rest of us must be shattered and the only way for this to happen is to inform and educate the public so they realize just exactly who they worship.

Anonymous said...

The ex speaker of the house is in jail for 15 months and I am sure will be out before that but meanwhile a child molester in my county was just sent up for 30 years. said...

Anonymous 5:00 AM I couldn't agree more and here's another example of that by an officer who I witnessed first hand take his handcuffs and beat my friend over the head so many times he started to have convulsions at which time this same officer asked me, "what the fuck is wrong with your friend dude" and when I explained that he had just come out of a diabetic coma and his foot was just amputated and he had a serious heart condition, and high blood pressure he responded, "God damn it I need an ambulance I've got a guy faking a seizure or something over here" as my handicapped unarmed and totally defenseless friend lay there bleeding and barely conscience and the "reason" this officer attacked my friend in his own complex's parking lot? Because said officer "Kimball" stated that he had given him a "no trespass warning the last time he saw him and that he wasn't allowed to be at that complex" and whenever my friend started to explain that he's been living here for three months the beating started. Now this same -now ex- officer is charged with:

Debbie said...

FYI ACLU of Michigan has an investigative journalist, Curt Guyette, who uncovered all that lead in the water in Flint; and ACLU of Texas has me in the same role since November of last year. I'm based in Brownsville; my "beat" is border militarization in the Rio Grande Valley and its effects on immigrants mainly in that area but also in Texas in general. I'm publishing in various media including Austin Chronicle and Fusion, and currently working on a very interesting collaboration with two publications, one in Texas and one national, for whom this will be their first time working together. I'm identified in my writing as ACLU of Texas' investigative reporter, and as freelancing. This new hybrid seems to fit (more or less?) into the model you're describing.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ah, hi Debbie, I heard ACLU hired you, this is the first I heard any details. Congratulations!

ACLU of Texas has come a long way, I guess. I worked there when I started Grits for Breakfast, as fate would have it. Will Harrell, the E.D. at the time, was supportive, but lots of people were unhappy and I was told I had to do it under my own name, on my own time, because it didn't have anything to do with my advocacy work. (!) Ironically, when I was run out on a rail at ACLUTX few years later, some of my internal critics felt the blog had too much to do with my advocacy work (which, bc they'd insisted it be separate, wasn't under their control). If I'd had my original preference, this blog would have been an ACLUTX project from the get go. Indeed, perhaps, in some alternative, parallel universe, like in a sci-fi novel, it is one!

But yes, that's exactly the model I'm talking about - nonprofits hiring (usually established) journalists to straight up perform journalism. I've seen a couple of other examples, too, just didn't document them.

A quarter century ago when the Dallas Times Herald closed and dumped hundreds of veteran reporters on the TX market (followed by the Houston Post not long after), folks like me thought "How can I sell a journalistic skill set to employers masked as some other job, like communications director, researcher, etc.?" For me, it became "opposition researcher," supplemented by investigative work for attorneys and writing reports for nonprofits. Nobody outside the traditional media hired "reporters" per se. So this is a welcome change.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Addendum: If under the new model, nonprofits only hire established journalists to avoid the advocacy tag, does that make the MSM the new Farm League under this model, where people get experience there but move on to more lucrative nonprofit gigs once they make a name for themselves? Just a thought. ¿Quien sabe? Who knows how all this will play out?

Anonymous said...

My guy is a huge fan of yours and he's been reading this blog for a long time. You probably know him. He knows Will. He's drafted an opinion on Texas politics and wants a second opinion before he sends it. It's pretty charged. It's pretty in tune with what you've been addressing in your blog. It's "Animal Farm." lets us know. xo :) Kris

Anonymous said...

Grits, I so admire and appreciate what you do here and recognize the time it takes you away from family, friends, and things you'd probably enjoy more! Your readers really do appreciate it and you are changing the world. I'm reminded of a saying that I like a lot: "We are called not to be successful, but to be faithful." But by being the latter, you are often the former.

Debbie, look forward to more of your work!