A piece in The New York Times last week, on the front page, caught my eye. It was yet another reminder of the lessons in the current recession—and the grand opportunity for nonprofits (or for any cause, for that matter) to tell their own stories to the world using social media. Truth is, given the trends in the journalism business, telling your own story seems to keep getting easier.
I’m referring specifically to the piece that ran last Tuesday by Richard Perez-Pena, datelined San Diego, called “Web Sites That Dig for News Rise as Community Watchdogs.”
Increasingly, information and its consumption is becoming a nonprofit activity, more like public broadcasting than anything else.
Perez-Pena’s piece focused on Voice of San Diego.org which does original reporting at close to half the costs of what it probably would cost offline. Similar nonprofit Web operations have cropped up in other cities, including Chicago and Seattle; earlier this year, news nonprofits without a specific geographic focus—ProPublica, devoted to investigative journalism-for-hire—also became part of the new landscape of journalism that’s filling the void left by the near-collapse of the newspaper industry. In fact, 501c3 or privately funded news operations have become so numerous in the past year, that some of the people running them say they plan to form an association to fight collectively for future funding.
The question, then, is can this trend last long enough to grow to critical mass? Is this truly the future of journalism—a form of citizen-led advocacy, in its own right? The topic has been hotly contested for years, of course—but there seems no doubt, especially this week, that the trend toward nonprofit news is accelerating.
Spot.us, a new platform for community-funded journalism, officially launched this week. It will give the public a way to commission journalists “to do investigations on important and perhaps overlooked stories” and its open-source platform promises to build a template that can be used by others. Stanford’s own John S. Knight Fellowship program, meanwhile, also just announced this week that it is revamping its vaunted program for mid-career journalists, to focus more on creating innovation in the use of social media to help ease and insure the continued proliferation of good, independent journalism, on and off-line. (Also this past week, the Knight Foundation launched a new community site called Knight Pulse, a place for discussing the future of information.)
Buzz Woolley, a San Diego businessman quoted in the Times piece, says that “information should be thought of now in the same way as education and public health. It’s one of the things you need to operate a civil society and the [current] market isn’t doing it very well.”
Bottom line? More people than ever are bound to be competing for nonprofit dollars in the coming year. Filing for that grant based on that part of your mission that seeks to “educate the public” will be tougher, no doubt, to win. The good news? There’s never been more ways to get your own story covered, nor as many people looking for work who can help. And that’s not all: thanks to inexpensive video cameras, Webcams, digital video cameras, and still cameras, it’s never been easier (nor cheaper) to make your own video and get it distributed online.
Remember that old saying, a picture tells a thousand words? This giving season may have already gone bust, but it’s never to soon to start engaging your supporters in the story of their lives.
Marcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.