The American nonprofit news milieu

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By Charles Lewis

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Once upon a time, there were only two notable, nonprofit news organizations in the United States — the Associated Press, founded in 1846 as a cooperative, unincorporated association of U.S. newspapers and [eventually] broadcasters and its reporting thus far has received 54 Pulitzer Prizes — and the Christian Science Monitor, founded in 1908 by an 87-year-old woman named Mary Baker Eddy. The Monitor’s goal was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” and that newspaper went on to subsequently win seven Pulitzer Prizes, the latest in 2002 for editorial cartooning.

In July 2009, the leaders of over 20 nonprofit news organizations from throughout the U.S. gathered for daylong, weekend work sessions at the Pocantico Conference Center at John D.  Rockefeller’s estate roughly 50 miles north of New York City, thanks to the generosity of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The issues at hand were how the various nonprofit news organizations could collaborate journalistically with each other across the United States, and  how would the basic professional news standards be established and respected. I, along with  three others, helped draft what we called the “Pocantico Declaration,” which ended with this  hopeful sentence: “We have hereby established, for the first time ever, an Investigative News  Network of nonprofit, news publishers throughout the United States of America.” In 2015, the organization changed its name to the Institute for Nonprofit News, also known as INN.

Besides the aforementioned Associated Press and the Christian Science Monitor, in the second half of the 20th century in the U.S., three additional, important nonprofit news organizations emerged, starting with The Center for Investigative Reporting, founded by David Weir, Dan Noyes, and Lowell Bergman in 1977. Its offices were initially located in downtown Oakland, California, and today they are based in Emeryville, California. This was the first nonprofit news organization in the United States to be specifically focused on investigative reporting. (Also of note: Mother Jones magazine, founded in 1976, is America’s longest-established investigative news organization.)

And from 1979 to today, the Center for Investigative Reporting, also known as Reveal, has been honored with a whopping 327 journalism awards!

The second nonprofit news organization, the Center for Responsive Politics, also known as Open Secrets, was founded in 1983 in Washington D.C. and officially incorporated in 1984 by retired U.S. Senators Frank Church of Idaho, of the Democratic Party, and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, of the Republican Party. Based in the nation’s capital, in the 1980s Church and Scott pursued “money-in-politics” projects which became large, printed books. Their first book, published in 1988, tracked spending patterns in congressional elections from 1974 through 1986, and it was entitled “Spending in Congressional Elections: A Never-Ending Spiral.” According to longtime executive director Sheila Krumholz, from 1983 to today, the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets has published a total of 47 books about money and politics in America.

The third nonprofit news organization, the Center for Public Integrity, is based in Washington, D.C. and was founded in 1989 by yours truly and two other journalists, Alejandro Benes and Charles Piller. To date, the Center has published over 60 archived books and reports, with ISBN numbers and accessibility via the Library of Congress. Between 1996 and 2004, the Center published “The Buying of the President” (1996); “The Buying of the Congress” (1998); “The Buying of the President 2000; The Cheating of America” (2001); and “The Buying of the President 2004,” a national, New York Times bestselling book. The Center has been honored over 70 times, including with the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2014. The above, three nonprofit news organizations were among the earliest such journalism newsrooms in the United States. But fast forward now to today.

According to Sue Cross, president and CEO of INN since 2015, its 308 nonprofit, member publications are currently publishing or in the process of launching. And separately, there are an additional 18 support organizations — affiliate members. Altogether, there are now a total of 326 nonprofit, news organizations in INN membership.

Prior to her leadership at INN, she previously served as senior vice president for the global news agency Associated Press, and also founded Cross Strategy to help news companies and causes grow in fast-changing environments. At AP, Cross managed a nationwide news cooperative, developed digital partnerships across the U.S. and Latin America, expanded Spanish language news and introduced digital video to thousands of news websites. Her product and business development work at AP built on years of reporting and editing experience in newsrooms from Alaska to Texas.

The past decades we have witnessed the crushing disappearance of over 600 newspapers nationwide, and the number of newspaper newsroom employees has dropped by 51% between 2008 and 2019, from about 71,000 workers to 35,000. At the same time, thankfully, philanthropic foundations and concerned, individual citizens across the United States have tried to support and fill the breach with the financial support of hundreds of millions of dollars to sustain the nonprofit news milieu. Bravo and many thanks to them all!