Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


December 9, 2009

Non-Profit in New York

Non-profit news isn't entirely a new phenomenon. The Gotham Gazette has been at it for over a decade.

Vincent Valk

Gotham Gazette, a local-news portal backed by the Citizens Union Foundation, has been serving up five-borough-centric news and commentary for a decade. The site, which relies on foundations and individual contributions for funding, tries to interpret serious policy issues for those of us who are not policy wonks, editor Gail Robinson tells Gelf. It focuses on specific issues, such as foreclosures and reckless driving, while running a blog that covers a wide variety of local issues and even coming up with web-based games that "let you—the reader—make policy."

In the following interview, conducted via phone and edited for length and clarity, Robinson discusses Gotham Gazette's mission, its business model, and whether nonprofit can sustain larger news organizations.

Gail Robinson
"The real problem with all these models is sustaining them. We started with a very generous grant, but foundations are generally not in the business of sustaining publications indefinitely."

Gail Robinson

Gelf Magazine: Tell us a little about Gotham Gazette. What sets it apart from other local-news organizations?

Gail Robinson: We were founded 10 years ago, and we thought there was a gap in local politics and policy coverage. The Citizens Union Foundation, which backs us, is always looking for ways to get people more involved in local policy and politics. Since then we've changed, but we think we are still mostly a politics and policy website. We try to make it clear that this stuff matters to people who are not policy wonks. Also, because we are independent and a nonprofit, we link to everything, including our so-called competitors.

Gelf Magazine: Does the Citizens Union Foundation exist solely to provide funds to Gotham Gazette?

Gail Robinson: No. The Citizens Union was founded in the 1890s to fight Tammany Hall. It actually was a political party at first; it won a mayoral race at one point. In the 1940s, the Union started a tax-exempt foundation that does research work. It also helps recruit poll workers and commissions studies. Aside from sharing the basic goal of informing citizens about government, policy, and politics, we are pretty independent of the union. Their executive director does not participate in editorial meetings nor review articles on the site. We do not endorse candidates and the Union does. It is somewhat arm's length; the executive director of Citizens Union is sort of like the publisher of Gotham Gazette.

Gelf Magazine: What are the advantages of the nonprofit model? What are the disadvantages?

Gail Robinson: The big advantage is that you do not have to return a profit to shareholders, which would be pretty hard for us to do. We can go after foundation funding and contributions. In terms of disadvantages, it is hard to sustain. There are a lot of good nonprofit sites that have struggled, and some that have not made it. There has been a lot written in media criticism that nonprofit is a magic bullet, and it's not.

Gelf Magazine: It seems as though most successful news nonprofits focus on local issues or have fairly specific missions. Is nonprofit a sustainable model for a larger news organization with more diverse coverage?

Gail Robinson: The big challenge for that would be getting backing from wealthy donors at first, and then making it sustainable. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any reason why it wouldn't be scalable, provided you could do that. You would have to change the mindset of people, though. Now people buy stock in a major media company hoping for a return on investment. So, you would need to replace that source of income from investors. It could be ads, donations, or subscriber fees. I know there is a lot of discussion about all of that, but nobody really knows what the answer is. Nonprofit does work for NPR and PBS, but whether you could make the New York Times a nonprofit without any government startup money would depend on whether there was a really rich person out there who wanted to back it. There is a status thing attached to the Times, of course. But let's say you wanted to start a new national-news operation. Whether you would be able to line up that kind of money it is hard to know. You could not just do it off small donations. That's a problem with this and with all these models.

Gelf Magazine: Has the recession impacted your funding? If so, how?

Gail Robinson: We've probably been less affected than a lot of people. Our foundation support is down somewhat, though. None of our foundations had money with Madoff, so we were fortunate in that they did not get battered as badly as some. I'd say probably people are giving a little bit less in terms of their regular contributions. Donations are down, but not disastrously. It has affected us, but I feel lucky compared to a lot of others out there.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think reporters and editors at nonprofit publications have more or less editorial freedom? Is there a tangible difference?

Gail Robinson: It really depends on the group. Obviously there are for-profit publications with a lot of freedom and ones with very little. I'd say that is probably the same in nonprofit world. In the for-profit world, it is advertisers who have sway; in non-profit, foundations have a lot of clout.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like Gotham Gazette has a somewhat different model from, say, Voice of San Diego, and especially something like the Center for Investigative Reporting. What differentiates these models of nonprofit news?

Gail Robinson: Some of those organizations, like Voice of San Diego or ChiTown Daily News (which no longer really exists) have foundation money; some have angel backers; some take ads. Sometimes all three. I think most people who start those sites say that starting is not easy, but possible. The real problem with all these models is sustaining them. We started with a very generous grant from the Revson Foundation, but foundations are generally not in the business of sustaining publications indefinitely. The problem, then, is how to keep your site going. That's a problem across the board. I don't think any of these models have found a magic solution to that. Obviously if you are an independent news site, as opposed to a foundation-backed site, the plus is that you are independent. The plus for us is that we get the prestige and the backing of an organization with a pretty illustrious board of directors. We also share certain expenses like office space and employee benefits with Citizens Union. In terms of models [such as CIR] that develop things and farm them out, that's hard for a local site. It is a wonderful model and people are doing exciting things with it, but it seems difficult to apply to the kind of thing that we do. Though we are looking at collaborating with sites in other ways to bolster our coverage.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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