Can the ProPublica Funding Model Work Locally?

created on Feb 9, 2017

And can it work successfully at hundreds of locales around the U.S.? One national version that succeeds is great, but the enthusiasm needs to be tempered until the model can work at the local or regional level.

Feb 9, 2017 - - Flush from its Trump-bump, ProPublica is staffing up to cover the president

Covering the president, eh? That's original. Nobody else is covering the president. And what about previous presidents? Why does it seem that NOW is the time for journalists to do their jobs at the national level?

It's pointless for local journalists to cover Trump. Too much uniqueness exists at the local level for journalists at a local daily or weekly paper to waste their resources on Trump. The dozens of national media orgs will cover Trump well.

The Toledo Blade doesn't need to cover Trump because ProPublica, NY Times, WaPo, WSJ, and the USA Today won't be covering the Toledo area.

From the Poynter story:

Bleak about the future of journalism? Here are some encouraging statistics:

Wait, what type of journalism? Local, regional, state, or national?

  • In 2015, ProPublica ended the year with $450,000 in small donations (contributions less than $10,000 that weren't individually solicited).
  • In 2016, that amount was $2.9 million.
  • So far this year, that number is already more than $600,000.
  • ProPublica received $4,500 from monthly recurring donations in the month of October.
  • By January, that number had increased to $104,000.

Though much of the local and regional press is taking a financial beating, ProPublica is flush with cash from public-spirited contributors looking to finance hard-hitting journalism.

But ProPublica's success does little to offset the financial demise of local media.

Since John Oliver gave the nonprofit investigative newsroom outlet a shoutout on "Last Week Tonight" last year, they've seen one-time and monthly recurring donations skyrocket.

Ahh. That's the model. Get mentioned on TV talk show. Okay.

Now, flush with cash, they're staffing up to bring the newsroom's resources to bear on the Trump White House.

This year, ProPublica is planning to add somewhere between 15 and 25 journalists to its newsrooms in New York and Illinois. The total news staff will grow from 45 to between 60 or 70 journalists. Ten or 12 of those jobs will be for ProPublica Illinois, its new statewide venture in Chicago.

In 2016, ProPublica announced its Illinois initiative. It will be interesting to see if it's truly a statewide media venture or primarily Chicago-focused.

When the ProPublica model is successfully executed at the local or metro level in an area like Des Moines, Louisville, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe, or Chattanooga, then that will be an eye-opener.

The hires are part of a broader remaking of ProPublica's newsroom, which reoriented itself to cover the Trump administration after the election. They've added beats on Trump's business conflicts, workers rights and White supremacy, and there are more to follow.

More proof that Trump has been a money-maker for the media, since Trump announced his intention to run for president in the summer of 2015. Covering Trump over the past 18-plus months has meant more viewers, listeners, and readers. Subscriptions and donations have increased.

Trump may be the best thing to happen to national media orgs this decade.

At the end of January, ProPublica published its list of beats and promised to continue serving up "hard-hitting, rigorous journalism."

"There are a zillion stories here," Tofel said. "And as long as you can find good, individual stories, you can make a contribution."

If Trump loses in 2020 or exits sooner, does that mean contributions to ProPublica will decline, leading to a retraction? Without Trump, will those beats still be covered? Without Trump, will the interest by readers still exist?

December 2016 Poynter story titled ProPublica isn’t planning to expand past Illinois — yet

Since announcing the creation of ProPublica Illinois, president Richard Tofel has heard from people in other states hoping the nonprofit investigative organization will set up shop in their cities, too.

And it might.

But first, they have to figure out the prairie state.

Yeah, a long, slow approach is best. Expanding too quickly could enable a quick demise like BackFence.

And nothing stops the rest of us from trying to start something like ProPublica at the local level.

ProPublica announced [in Dec 2016] the creation of ProPublica Illinois, the search for a Chicago-based editor and seed funding from the Ford Foundation.

Two important things the nonprofit looked for were a place with a track record of needing accountability journalism and a place where that work made a difference. They also wanted a place that could support that work.

The Chicago area is large enough that if only a fraction of the residents contribute to ProPublica Illinois, then that might be enough to sustain it.

Enough people exist in the Toledo area to support that business model, but in reality, only a fraction of residents would contribute. Would that enough?

But it's not a bureau, Tofel told Crain's on Wednesday. Then what is it? Here's the analogy he offered Poynter: Consider the old newspaper model.

"This is not a bureau of a national newspaper," he said. "This is a newspaper owned ultimately by a national company."

And from a reader's perspective, Tofel said, there's a need for more coverage at the regional level.

"A very big part of our publication model is through and with partners, and we hope to do that with a wide range of partners in Illinois, ranging from distribution to joint reporting."

ProPublica Illinois will use the seed funding to get started, then start local fundraising to support the organization. The plan, should they expand elsewhere, isn't to move money around the country, but for each state to be able to support itself. And while ProPublica has worked at a national level, both with work and support, there's still a lot to be learned at the state level.

And even more to be learned at the local level. An Ohio version would probably under-serve each locale. But trying a state version in a state with one of the largest cities in the U.S. is a good test. Then maybe ProPublica would cover another state. And if those state versions are successful, then maybe one year in the future, ProPublica will try a local version. The Illinois version will probably double as a local version for Chicago.

So, for now, no hints about where they might go next.

"It's just too soon," Tofel said. "This has to work first, and it's got to work on all levels. It needs to work editorially, it needs to work for readers and distribution, and it needs to work financially."

He doesn't know when they'll know all that, Tofel said, and until they do, "we won't be looking at a next place."

Not local but still interesting.