November 15, 2016

The few & the fearless: What’s different about nonprofit news

32 minutes

If you watched all of the nightly news on all three major television networks, that’s how much coverage of public policy issues you would have seen so far this presidential campaign year. All year, all three networks. Total.

That staggering tally came two weeks before the election from Andrew Tyndall, who has been studying the networks for a couple of decades. It’s the lowest ever in his count, by far.

4 years

That’s the amount of time one small, scrappy newsroom and the philanthropists who support it invested to have an investigative reporter look into a single policy issue — one that comes right home to what we eat.

One of my favorite quotes in the backwash of the election came from journalist Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University, cited by the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan.

“More than ever, we will need fearless and deep journalism,” Gillmor tweeted. “Do we have news media that even want to deliver it, apart from a few?”

We have quite a few. They are the nonprofit news organizations growing all over the country to cover the news that wasn’t covered in those lost minutes on TV or the shrinking pages of your local paper. There are close to 200 of them, and we hear from new ones almost every week. About 120 belong to the Institute for Nonprofit News, the organization I lead.

Lee van der Voo works for one of them. Lee is the reporter who spent four years untangling the impacts of that one single issue, one that probably affects you. In 2012 she started looking into how efforts to preserve one delicious fish, the grouper, shifted control of wild fish populations from public agencies to private companies. Lee followed one fish and then many, as she discovered drastic shifts in the whole system that affect the food supply and environment for millions of Americans.

“System” is one of those dry kind of words. Like “policy.” It’s not easy or cheap to explain systems and policies, but here’s the thing: They define a lot about how we get to live and how our kids will get to live. They deserve more than 32 minutes of air.

This week, Lee’s four years of reporting come out in a new book, The Fish Market: The Big Money Battle for the Ocean and Your Dinner. My point isn’t to plug the book.

I’m writing about it because it’s a beautiful illustration of how even the tiniest nonprofit news organizations are germinating deep, significant coverage of public issues.

Van der Voo is managing director of InvestigateWest, the nonprofit journalism studio for the Pacific Northwest. The research behind The Fish Market was funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism as well as the Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship. The founder of InvestigateWest, Robert McClure, helped Lee write the first grant to get the reporting started, and this tiny newsroom stuck with Lee and her reporting while she called into staff meetings from fishing docks and disappeared for stretches at sea. InvestigateWest reported her findings — along with a whole raft of other important stories about protecting foster children, state laws in Oregon and Washington and Native American rights.

There are hundreds of stories like this being reported across the United States. Nonprofit newsrooms are reporting from all 50 states. That’s increasingly important as major news media cluster in New York and DC and hollow out reporting ranks throughout the country. Some nonprofit newsrooms have dozens of reporters. Many have just a handful, but they include some of the nation’s best investigative reporters and editors.

They invest shoe leather reporting. It’s expensive. They are reporters who get off the Acela Express, go beyond phone calls, the usual sources or plugging in quick quotes. They are the ones who show up for the long boring meetings with important public business buried in the middle, who dig into databases to investigate the flow of money, who report on the people who shape the policies that can shape our lives.

Because of them we learn what laws affect what we can do, how we can make a living. We learn how our taxes are really being spent. We have someone at the city council meeting as our witness and watchdog while we get to stay home. Sometimes we just get to understand a really complex issue in human terms.

They are Dan Christiansen of the Florida Bulldog, whose years of dogged reporting to follow the money lets people in Florida know the financial ties between government officials and taxpayer-funded health care companies.

Or Jim Heaney at InvestigativePost, whose reporting uncovered that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billions initiative would spend millions on a project written so only one company qualified.

The few include New Mexico In Depth’s Openness Project and the Chicago Reporter. Realizing the public couldn’t actually get to the “public information” in government databases, they programmed sites so New Mexicans can look up who is paying for officials’ campaigns and Chicagoans can learn when the city settles cases of police wrongdoing in their neighborhoods.

And they are the editors like those of Wyofile and Carolina Public Press, who take their teams to small towns in the far flung corners of their states, far from the state capitols and miles from any metro area, to give rural citizens a chance to voice their issues and suggest stories.

There are hundreds more like them in nonprofit newsrooms.

They are fearless. They are committed to their communities. They risk their personal savings and their earnings power in order to keep sending reporters out in the most time-consuming reporting. They risk harassment and legal threats. They dig deep and go far to bring us the people behind policy issues, give voice to communities rarely given a microphone, put public information back in citizens’ hands.

They report on behalf of people on every side of the deep divisions we’ve seen in our country this last week.

Their work matters, now more than ever. So here’s a proposition. Take just a little time. Say … 32 minutes. Check them out yourself. Support them. You can find them here.