Skip to Content

Membership Standards

Best practices for strengthening public service journalism & encouraging public trust

INN is a network of more than 350 nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to providing independent, nonpartisan news coverage as a public service.  Newsrooms in the INN network uphold standards that represent a promise of editorial excellence, ethical behavior and transparency about their funding and practices, a promise to the communities they serve. These standards guide their journalism, business operations, hiring practices and community outreach.

The public can be assured that INN member news organizations have met three primary standards:

Editorial excellence in news coverage. INN members have a primary mission of producing original reporting for their communities based on facts and seeking the truth, as opposed to publications focused on opinion, or that largely curate or aggregate news produced by others. They are the direct source of the news they provide with and for the communities they serve. Editorial excellence is inclusive and representative. By that we mean that both journalists and their reporting reflect the diversity of the communities they serve; their journalism is built on a high level of community engagement and rooted in community needs. 

Editorial independence. Each INN member publicly states its commitment to independence,  from advocacy, financial or other influence, meaning its coverage serves no cause beyond informing the public and the communities it serves. INN members do not lobby for any policies or legislation beyond freedom of the press and First Amendment rights that ensure the public has open access to the public’s information. 

Transparency. Any person relying on a nonprofit news site’s reporting should be able to easily learn the major financial supporters of the news outlet, and about its values and leadership. INN member newsrooms commit to financial transparency, letting the public know the institutions and individuals that provide significant levels of funding to support the journalism. INN members do not rely on anonymous donations or “dark money” to fund their journalism. INN members make it easy for the public to identify board members and key leaders of a news outlet, publish board and staff conflict of interest policies, share information on staff diversity, news values, and generally are as transparent as possible about their operational and ethical policies.

Why do these standards matter to news consumers? Because the public can use these practices, usually described on every member’s web site, to understand the values behind their journalism. Many philanthropic foundations also use INN standards to qualify news outlets for grants or programs. And because news nonprofits share their reporting with many other media, these guidelines give distribution and news partners clarity about the news they carry from INN members, and how their standards align.

INN’s standards developed over a dozen years and will continue to evolve along best practices for journalism. They do not stand alone. INN members generally follow the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. INN contributed to and endorses the American Press Institute’s guidance on philanthropic funding of news and those of The Trust Project.

A closer look at the standards

INN guidelines are based on our members’ commitment to high-quality journalism, to earning public trust and to encouraging a level of transparency appropriate for a nonprofit accepting donations and operating to serve a public mission. They reflect the hallmarks of nonprofit news: transparency, deep community engagement, service to communities not covered by commercial media, a nonpartisan and independent approach to news and diverse revenue sources including philanthropy to support news as a public service.  

Below is added background on how INN sets membership standards and what factors it considers when assessing news sites. These guidelines are intended to help news publications of many different types determine how to apply standards and best practices in their own communities and newsrooms. The stories produced by a weekly newsletter in a small community differ from those produced by a global investigative newsroom, but these best practices are relevant to all.

Editorial quality & reporting focus

INN member news sites focus primarily on reporting the news — generating new stories and publishing new information about their communities or topics of interest. They have a permanent news staff. The mix of news they bring to the public may include perspective or opinion pieces as secondary content, but original reporting is the main focus. This is not an issue of quality, but rather reflects INN’s mission to expand public access to original reporting, the aspect of journalism most threatened by economic pressures and most central to ensuring a healthy democracy.

INN considers a number of editorial quality measures. They include that the outlet:

Independence

INN members are required to post an editorial independence policy on their web sites or primary distribution platforms, affirming to the public that news coverage decisions are made independent of any outside influence or cause other than providing information to the public and serving their communities.

Among other factors, INN considers that a news outlet:

Transparency

INN members generally name any donors contributing $5,000 or more in a year. They ensure anonymous funding doesn’t make up a material part of their revenue. By that, we mean anonymous donations generally total no more than 15 percent of total revenue. 

Traditionally, many news outlets aimed to ensure editorial independence by declaring an information “firewall” between newsroom and business staff, so that journalists would not know and could not be influenced by a funder, advertiser or any financial backer. However, there is no way for the public to know if a firewall truly blocks influence, or how porous it may be. And the idea that journalists can only be ethical if they are ignorant of the financial support of their news outlet is not valid or effective.

INN believes transparency about funding does more than establish firewalls to prevent conflicts of interest. Transparency allows the public to make its own decisions about whether it trusts a news outlet and whether journalists might be swayed by the funding that supports their reporting. It’s out in the open, in the light. Accordingly, INN members commit to making their major funders public and are encouraged to publicly state how much of their total funding comes from anonymous donations. This isn’t a perfect barrier to problems, but the sunshine of transparency does minimize the chance of unseen influences. It also demonstrates journalists’ trust in the people they serve to make their own decisions about a news source. It encourages journalists to think about and affirm their own ethical practices as a regular part of their jobs.

In addition, INN recommends that news outlets:

Who sets INN standards, and why?

More than a hundred news organizations a year consult with INN staff on ethical issues and best practices.

The core INN membership standards date to the founding of INN in 2009 as a consortium of investigative news outlets. They agreed on shared values so that they could exchange news coverage and work together knowing their reporting was based on shared principles. This still is a central role of INN, as member newsrooms share coverage with each other and thousands of other news media as part of their nonprofit mission.

These guidelines are updated at least once a year by INN staff, in consultation with the INN board. They also are informed and advanced through the work of the INN Standards Task Force, a group of exceptional journalists with deep experience in nonprofit news leadership, journalism ethics, inclusive news and the evolution of new types of media practice.

While originally developed as membership standards, INN’s guidelines increasingly are used by funders and other organizations to identify high-quality, independent news sites that are transparent about their practices. Have questions about INN standards or best practices for nonprofit news? Email info@inn.org. INN members also can find sample policies and recommended language [link TK].

In recent years, a few trends have increased the need for such standards beyond the INN membership.

As more people receive news through social media, aggregators or other digital platforms rather than directly from news sources that did the reporting, it can be challenging to know whether news items, photos or video are falsified, produced as political or other propaganda, or credible. As consumers are encouraged to click through from social media or search to the original source of a news item, INN members want to make it easy for people who click through to their sites to find who and how a story is produced, the people and organizations behind it and their standards.

There are many publications founded by interest groups, advocacy organizations and think tanks that want to close gaps in information left by the loss of commercial news media jobs and also have a mission to persuade, advance a cause or a political position. Cause communications have a valuable role in information systems, but they differ in purpose and mission from independent news that serves only to inform and educate, leaving it to the news consumer to determine their own position or course of action. INN members are independent and do not have advocacy goals or produce content intended to advance a cause, though they can broadly be seen as advocates for their communities, human rights and the fundamentals of democracy, including freedom of the press. 

High standards for editorial independence, ethics and financial transparency serve to strengthen the quality of the journalism and the integrity of INN’s members. But more than anything, these standards are intended to serve the public, to make it easier for any person to gauge the quality of the information and the trust they put in a news organization’s reporting.

Back to top