Politics

Nonprofit journalism groups get a flood of donations after the election

WASHINGTON — It did not take long after election night for the donations to start pouring in to America’s nonprofit journalism organizations.

Almost a month later, the money keeps coming, in $10 and $20 and sometimes hundreds of dollars or more from small donors all over the country.

At the Center for Public Integrity in Washington and its international investigative arm, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, individual donations are up about 70 percent compared to the same period last year.

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The donor pool for the Marshall Project, a two-year-old outfit that examines the U.S. criminal justice system, is up 20 percent since the election.

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And at ProPublica, the investigative news organization that pledges to hold the powerful accountable, the postelection haul — $750,000 — has easily eclipsed the total raised from small-dollar donors in all of 2015, about $500,000.

The list goes on. From local public radio affiliates to established watchdog groups to startups that focus on a single issue, nonprofit, nonpartisan media is having a moment.

Just what is motivating these donors — whether it is a partisan response to the election of Donald Trump or a broader concern over the viability of a troubled industry — is a matter of speculation, executives say. But one thing seems increasingly clear: Independent accountability journalism is gaining new support among many Americans mulling the election’s outcome and the country’s political divide.

“Of course, people’s reasons differ, but I think in general a lot of people have felt the need since the election to take some civic action,” said Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica, which was founded nearly a decade ago. “One of the forms that can take is contributing money to places you think can make a difference in our civic life.”

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The postelection uptick in support for journalism has not been limited to nonprofit media; newspaper conglomerate Tronc Inc. (formerly Tribune Publishing) and The New York Times, among others, have reported thousands of new subscribers since the election. (From Election Day through Nov. 26, The Times had a net increase of approximately 132,000 paid subscriptions to its print and digital news products.)

But for the growing number of nonprofit journalism organizations, the moment may provide the kind of opening they have needed to take on a much larger role for a field that continues to face significant financial challenges and sinking public trust.

Nonprofit newsrooms have long sought to position themselves as civic resources, relying on the same skills as newspapers and television stations, but without profit motives or a dependence on advertisers. As traditional news organizations with dwindling resources have curtailed their ambitions in recent years, nonprofit news groups have sought to pick up the expensive work of investigative and accountability journalism — though often with a fraction of the audience.

With a president-elect who has shown a willingness to attack the press, and a proliferation of fake news that has shaken the public’s confidence in the news media, news executives said the watchdog role would be more important than ever.

They also caution that the rush of small gifts is not necessarily a panacea for their own financial concerns. It remains to be seen if the higher level of individual giving will continue, or if it will extend to big donations through grants and wealthy individuals, who provide the bulk of the funding for groups like ProPublica and others.

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Still, the signs are encouraging, especially when coupled with widely reported increases in engagement from readers and listeners, Tofel and several of his colleagues said.

At one point, after comedian John Oliver promoted the organization on his HBO show, ProPublica was receiving as many as four donations a minute.

With the influx of cash, ProPublica has already begun beat coverage of hate crimes and the growing influence of white supremacy, two issues that the election brought to the forefront. Tofel said the group hoped to increase its coverage of other issues, like trade and immigration.

For the 27-year-old Center for Public Integrity, the increase in donations could be critical in shrinking the deficits that have plagued it in recent years, especially if it extends to large donors. The group’s international arm, which coordinated the award-winning Panama Papers project this year, is expected to spin off soon, requiring additional resources.

John Dunbar, a veteran investigative journalist who was recently named the center’s chief executive, said he saw the donations as a recognition that watchdog journalism would be more important given Trump’s deregulatory agenda and lack of transparency.

“Deregulation sounds boring, but if that means we are going to have fewer cops on the beat when it comes to, for example, financial protection, those are areas we are going to look at very closely,” he said.

“People are expecting us to step up,” Dunbar added. The surge in support has not been limited to investigative groups.

Laura R. Walker, the president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, which includes WNYC, said demand for its content began to increase significantly even before the election, as did fundraising — a development reported by several other large public radio affiliates across the country.

WNYC’s October fundraising campaign was the largest in public radio history, bringing in $3.25 million — including pledges by almost 8,000 new donors. Since Election Day, donations to WNYC, the group’s flagship station, have come at two to three times the normal rate.

Walker said those gifts would allow for increased coverage of issues New Yorkers care about, along with more special programming that will explore the country’s political divide.

Walker and others said it was not their role to be partisan — no matter the political persuasion of their donors or audience, who tend to lean to the left.

In the case of the Marshall Project, that means redoubling efforts to investigate and explain the country’s criminal justice system, not advocating a particular political viewpoint.

“Our mission is not to overthrow Donald Trump,” Carroll Bogert, the president of the Marshall Project, said. “Our mission is to make more people care about criminal justice, and we do that through journalism.”

“And that’s a very important function of media in a democracy,” she added.