Media Veterans Get in on the Nonprofit News Boom

March 3rd, 2016  |  Source:

American Media Institute staffs up

After more than two decades at The New York Times, editor Tom Kuntz left the paper of record earlier this year to head up American Media Institute (AMI), a donor-supported nonprofit news organization dedicated to “in-depth investigations, city news and regional spot stories.”

“I was at a point in my career at the Times when I was clearly not going to be running the place,” Mr. Kuntz, who, during his tenure at the Times, had served as a foreign editor, a Week in Review editor, a series editor, a pop music editor, a television producer, and most recently, a special sections editor. “There’s no journalism heaven, but I figured this was a good opportunity. So I made the move.”

Journalism heaven may not exist but American Media Institute, like ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and hundreds of other donor-supported news ventures that have cropped up recently, does present a journalistic haven for many former newspaper editors and reporters.

There has been a huge boom in nonprofit media in the past few years—there are currently at least 200 such outlets and “more are being added all the time,” according to Rick Edmonds, the media business analyst for The Poynter Institute who has studied the model.

“[Non-profits are] not dependent on ads and don’t have to satisfy shareholders, so those are pluses,” Mr. Edmonds said. “On the other hand, it’s a fairly crowded field and establishing a reputation really relies on both producing good work and having that work get picked up and widely noticed.”

But despite the inherent challenges of this model, Mr. Kuntz is not only former Times staffer to take the gamble.

There is Bill Keller, who was the executive editor of The New York Times until 2011, when he stepped down from the top spot on the masthead but continued to write for the paper. Two years ago, Mr. Keller left the Times to become the editor in chief of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice. Times vet Steve Engelberg joined ProPublica in 2008 and became the organization’s editor in chief in 2013. And three, as any Times alum can attest, is a trend.

Hiring respected journalists from respected legacy publications is, to be sure, a good way to establish credibility. It is also practical.

“It’s not necessarily a young millennial type crowd,” Mr. Edmonds said of many of the new hires heading to nonprofits. “A lot of these are experienced journalists who have either been made redundant at their existing organizations, or just didn’t like the way the legacy business is going and decided it would be a good move to strike out and do something else.”

When it comes to nonprofit, donor-supported journalism, there are a few main models. There are outlets that focus on single issues such as the education system, climate change or healthcare. There are those that concentrate on issues in specific regions. Many of these organizations focus on investigative reporting.

AMI aims to combine the three, and cites ProPublica and The Marshall Project as inspirations. Richard Miniter, a journalist, editor and the author of popular—and controversial—non-fiction books about national security and politics like Leading from Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors Who Decide for Him —founded AMI four years ago, but his nonprofit recently expanded after receiving an influx of donations that allowed the organization to go on a hiring spree.

AMI’s business model sounds too good to be true: for a subscription fee of a dollar a year, news organizations get access to AMI’s content. The organization has three pipelines: investigative news, a news service for mostly small African-American papers called the Urban News Service, and a fledgling regional newswire with a goal to become an alternative to the Associated Press.

“It’s an upstream model, whereas traditional news outlets are downstream and find their budgets crimped by the decline in advertising revenue. So we get donor financing to finance the journalism that many of them can no longer afford,” Mr. Kuntz said. “As an upstream organization, we offer it to the downstream organizations and everybody is happy because we get credit and they get content they can afford.”

AMI relies on donor contributions, which this year has added up to a budget of around 6.1 million up from 3.4 million the previous year and $760,0000 the year before that, according to Mr. Miniter.

Funders include the major donor and hedge fund honcho Sean Fieler, an outspoken anti-gay marriage advocate, a retired UPS accounting executive, a former executive at the GE plant in Schenectady and the owner of a trucking company in West Texas. “We don’t really have any donors who are former journalists,” Mr. Miniter noted. “But I think that’s because retirement programs for people in our field aren’t that great.”

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