NC-based journalists discuss the research possibilities of local news nonprofits

North Carolina has a very compelling story to tell about nonprofit journalism.

That’s what Binghamton University Associate Professor David Campbell said in his opening comments for the “Nonprofit Journalism, Democracy, and the Future of our Field” plenary session at the 50th ARNOVA Conference in Raleigh on Nov. 17, which featured three NC-based journalists.

Associate Professor Ashley Nickels of Kent State University moderated a discussion between Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media Director Erica Beshears Perel, NC Local News Fund Director Lizzy Hazeltine, Enlace Latino NC Co-Founder and Executive Director Paola Jaramillo and Texas Tribune Senior Managing Editor Ayan Mittra.

five people on the stage for the panel
The opening plenary session at the ARNOVA conference. Photo by Elizabeth Thompson.

ARNOVA is an interdisciplinary academic society of researchers who study nonprofits, philanthropy and volunteer action. As nonprofit newsrooms have emerged as a potential solution to the decline of local news across the U.S, researchers gathered at 9:00 a.m. to learn whether the growth of nonprofit news could help create more civically engaged communities and strengthen democracy.

It was a meeting of the minds in a way that’s often underutilized. Nonprofits are the third largest sector in the U.S., and news organizations — and the organizations who support and study news — may be able to utilize findings and best practices from researchers who specialize in studying philanthropy and nonprofits.

The panel and the following conversation to brainstorm a nonprofit news research agenda were opportunities to discuss, research priorities that might include: operational best practices for journalism-specific organizations; insight on the transition to funding journalism from nontraditional journalism funders; funding local news in rural communities; case studies on the impact of nonprofit media organizations that reach first-generation immigrants; a deeper dive into the IRS’s willingness to grant nonprofit status to news organizations or allow conversion from for-profit to nonprofit; and more.

The link between local journalism and democracy comes down to empowering people with the information to understand their communities and act to improve them, Hazeltine explained.

“At a granular level, the highest good of really good local reporting is helping people see their stake: What is my stake in this conversation that’s happening? What does it mean for my life?” Hazeltine said.

To be clear, nonprofit tax status does not inherently create better newsrooms, CISLM Director Erica Perel said. But organizing as a nonprofit can help news organizations clearly align their mission, vision and values to their journalism and revenue strategies in a way that organizations tied to shareholders or private equity cannot.

“Most local journalists for a long time have seen their work as a public service — however, sometimes the organizational structures and financial incentives of corporate ownership are in tension with that public service mission,” she said. “As the industry has changed, those two things have become more and more in tension.”

Nonprofits have often been able to corner the market on service-oriented journalism, prioritizing engagement to build a relationship by answering reader questions and directing them to civic resources.

Such is true for Enlace Latino NC (a grantee of NC Local News Fund and a former UNC Table Stakes participant). Jaramillo said the mission of Enlace is centered directly on the utility journalism it provides.

Jaramillo said she saw an opportunity for her newsroom to fill needs unmet by traditional Spanish language media outlets by focusing on meeting community needs, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency, answering reader questions via WhatsApp and social media such as: What are my workplace rights? Where can I access medical attention? How does my child vote?

A similar focus on filling the gaps was mentioned by Mittra, who described the Tribune’s founding to fill the statehouse coverage gaps in small communities across Texas and make all stories free to republish. The co-founders were thinking about editorial strategy and organizational sustainability as two equally important pillars, crafting multiple buckets of support prior to launch.

“There was a sense of connection in what we did,” he said. “There were ways to get involved in a way perhaps not involved in corporate media.”

That sense of involvement in both the funding and the feedback side leads to a two-way connection between the reader and the outlet.

News nonprofits are usually newer and without the baggage of legacy organizations, which means they are sometimes more flexible and willing to experiment. However, those organizations still must intentionally build organizations that are anti-racist and inclusive.

Hazeltine said her work as a funder includes considering who in North Carolina has been served worst by traditional media and making funding decisions that are reparative.

“Sustainability means thinking about philanthropic investment in repairing what’s been broken for a long time,” Hazeltine said.