CrackerClips Stock Media/shutterstock

CrackerClips Stock Media/shutterstock

In a recent piece, Inside Philanthropy’s Erik D’Amato laid out “23 Pitfalls Facing Donor-funded Journalism Initiatives.” Pitfall number three was “Trying to go it alone,” while number four was “Not exploring all possible business models.”

While outlets intuitively understand these and other pitfalls, applying them in a real-world context is often easier said than done. This helps to explain why, millions—if not billions—of dollars later, funders and struggling local outlets keep searching for the ever-elusive “sustainable business model.”

All of which makes recent developments involving two of the heaviest hitters in nonprofit journalism so tantalizing. Last month, ProPublica and the Texas Tribune announced that they have teamed up to launch a jointly operated, 11-person investigative reporting unit serving Texas. The outfit, which will be based in the Tribune’s Austin newsroom but will serve both organizations, will invest more than $1.6 million a year into “critical accountability and watchdog journalism” in the state.

Serious Backing

The initiative is being supported by a five-year commitment of $5.75 million from Houston-based Arnold Ventures, the philanthropic vehicle of Giving Pledge members John D. Arnold, a former Enron trader and hedge fund manager, and his wife Laura Arnold.

Additional support comes from the Energy Foundation, the Catena Foundation, the Charles Butt Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, and attorneys Marc Stanley and Mikal Watts. The initiative’s stakeholders also plan to raise an additional $3 million “over and above the annual ask for operations of each entity,” said Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.

“No state is more in need of watchdog reporting than Texas,” said Smith. “It’s a target-rich environment if you’re in the business of holding people in power and institutions accountable, but the human and financial resources available to realize this worthy mission are always inadequate. Teaming up with ProPublica, the very best investigative journalism org in the country, expands the limits of what’s possible and will serve the public interest in ways that make our state better. This is a big win for all Texans.”

While I certainly won’t dispute Smith’s assertion, I’d like to go one step further. Should the well-funded and deeply networked ProPublica eventually export this collaborative model beyond Texas, it will also be a “big win” for other local news ecosystems across the country.

Help Wanted

Let’s start with the mechanics of the new initiative. The team will consist of a senior editor, five reporters, a research reporter, and a producer from ProPublica. Texas Tribune will provide a data visuals reporter, engagement reporter, and development associate. The producer will work out of ProPublica’s New York newsroom. Both news organizations will publish the team’s stories beginning February 1, 2020.

All the content that the unit produces will run jointly on ProPublica and the Texas Tribune’s sites, and will be free for everyone to read and for other publications to run. “In the past,” Smith said, “when we’ve published and produced significant collaborations with ProPublica, pretty much every newspaper in the state has run it. We expect that’s probably going to be the case with most of the stuff we publish here.” The new investigative unit will not have its own distinct brand or separate web presence.

“A Permanent Step”

Clearly, countless struggling local news ecosystems can also benefit from robust investigative journalism that exposes, to quote Smith, “waste, fraud and abuse, public corruption, agency malfeasance, campaign finance shenanigans and the like.” And so the big question here is the extent to which ProPublica, equipped with formidable investigative chops, national funding connections, and a powerful brand, can export this model elsewhere. That seems to be the plan.

ProPublica launched it its first state-level expansion in Illinois in 2017. A year later, it kicked off its Local Reporting Network to “help to remedy the lack of investigative reporting at the local level.” ProPublica currently partners with more than 20 newsrooms across the country and will be accepting applications for its next groups of partners over the coming months.

Most of these local partnerships, writes CNN’s Brian Stelter, are “one-offs.” The Texas Tribune partnership is different because, as ProPublica president Richard Tofel said, it is “envisioned as a permanent step, and it starts with a five-year commitment.” Ideally, Tofel said, the new initiative will “catch on, the content will prove itself out, and we’ll be able to grow it over time.”

If anyone still had doubts, Smith let the cat out of the bag with regards to ProPublica’s long-term plans. He said that ProPublica’s “ability to tap into statehouse investigations has been limited because they have an entire country to cover, but they’ve got designs on figuring out where they can do the most good a level down from their national investigative journalism.”

“Elites Supporting Elites?”

Those ambitions are encouraging to NiemanLab’s Laura Hazard Owen, who wrote that the ProPublica and the Texas Tribune can “model the sort of national/local collaboration that will likely become more important as the fortunes of the commercial local news business continue to wane.”

The broad contours of the collaboration will look familiar to readers attuned to the larger philanthrosphere. It’s perfectly common for national nonprofits to team up with and assist local counterparts in fields like education, the environment, and health care. ProPublica is applying this familiar playbook to a field that can use all the creative ideas it can get.

The ProPublica/Texas Tribune partnership hits on another key trend across the philanthrosphere and the nonprofit journalism space—the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Last year, researchers Northeastern University assessed the $1.8 billions-worth of grants distributed by foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. Most of the funding flowed to “high-profile and well-connected nonprofits in coastal cities,” a phenomenon the authors described as “elites supporting elites.”

If smaller organizations can’t secure sufficient support, writes Monash University’s Bill Birnbauer in The Conversation, “nonprofit journalism will not reach its potential, no matter how valuable its coverage, nor will it abate the spread of ‘news deserts’ across the United States.”

ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, of course, are not small organizations by any stretch. Herb Sandler, who passed away earlier this year at 87, committed $10 million a year to the former, which launched in 2008. Since then, ProPublica has built out a startling fundraising apparatus. While the Sandler Foundation accounted for 93 percent of ProPublica’s funding in 2008, that figure had dropped below 10 percent in 2018.

But the ProPublica/Texas Tribune partnership suggests the “elites supporting elites” narrative needn’t be a zero-sum game. ProPublica can still rake in millions and simultaneously help small local outlets in a host of financial and non-financial ways. For instance, D’Amato’s journalism pitfall #15 is “underestimating the difficulty of building a brand.” ProPublica, writes CNN’s Stelter “is widely thought to be the gold standard of nonprofit investigative journalism.” If partnering outlets can leverage ProPublica’s brand to better reach consumers, that’s a very good thing.

In addition, local outlets lack, to quote ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network’s home page, “a mix of specialized skills…including data, research, design and social media.” ProPublica has these skills in abundance and proven itself to be more than willing to share its expertise.

A Precondition for Progress

It’s not surprising to see that John and Laura Arnold are the main backers of the new ProPublica/Texas Tribune initiative. The couple has been among the most interesting philanthropists to watch in recent years, charging into a range of tough issue areas like criminal justice reform, drug pricing, K-12 education, and public accountability. They’ve made more than $1 billion in grants since 2011 through the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, including $4 million to ProPublica since 2013, and more than $250 million to various nonprofits in 2018 alone.

While supporting nonprofit journalism has not been a major pillar of the couple’s funding, they’ve long made grants in this area, which fits well with their broader goals of bringing greater rationality to public policy and challenging powerful interests.

Last year, in remarks at TribFeast, a dinner to support the Texas Tribune, Laura Arnold explained why she and John support nonprofit journalism: “Policy work won’t mean a thing if we have no democracy, if our political institutions are broken, and if there’s no check on power. Unfortunately, we can’t rely solely on private journalism to carry the banner of transparency and rigorous reporting. The business model of journalism is broken.”

As for the ProPublica/Texas Tribune partnership, Arnold said recently: “We are delighted to support this endeavor, which brings together two of our most accomplished and tenacious grantees… Texas is a big state and it needs big journalism to look under each cactus and behind every skyscraper.”

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