Can Nonprofit Journalism Help Civil Society Find Its Voice?

“Democracy dies in darkness” goes the slogan for one of America’s best-known newspapers. In California, a journalism nonprofit is making sure democracy doesn’t die in silence.

First thing on a Wednesday morning, Dave Lesher is putting out journalistic fires – tweaking headlines, prioritizing stories, worrying about a newsletter. After a few rapid-fire decisions, the hallway meeting breaks up. “You’ll be glad to know I’m going to go brush my teeth now,” announces one of his reporters as she disappears around the corner.

Dave apologizes for the slight delay as he waves me into his office, looking exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Yesterday was Election Day in California, so much of the staff pulled an all-nighter as results came in. After tooth-brushing and lots of coffee, today will be all about analysis and context, trying to explain to readers across the state what their votes meant and how Sacramento will change as a result.

It seems like a typical newspaper office, except that CALmatters isn’t a newspaper at all – it’s a three-year-old nonprofit trying to fill the need for news as traditional papers wither and consolidate and sometimes die.

“California is the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Dave says, pointing to the capitol dome that looms just outside his office window, “but decisions get made over there with no transparency or accountability.” While lobbyists and consultants have helped to fuel a boom in Sacramento’s population growth, newspaper bureaus in the capital have been methodically shutting down. Without reporters who understand state politics, Dave worries that the public has little voice or visibility in spending decisions that approach $300 billion a year.

After 25 years in journalism – mostly with the Los Angeles Times – Dave joined with a few well-connected friends in Silicon Valley to launch his experiment in nonprofit journalism. Rather than compete with existing media outlets, CALmatters views itself as a content provider for distribution platforms statewide, from the largest newspapers to the most hyper-local websites.

Whither the future of journalism?

Early funding has come mostly from high net worth individuals, plus a few early bets from institutional philanthropy, such as the Irvine Foundation. Growth has been quick, with early successes that seem to validate the need. In the just-completed gubernatorial primary, for instance, every major candidate made a pilgrimage to the CALmatters office and submitted to a 90-minute grilling by veteran reporters, with full video posted online. CALmatters also produced a meticulously researched voter guide that was picked up and distributed by media partners to millions of voters around the state.

CALmatters may have started as a last-ditch effort to save political journalism in Sacramento, but Dave believes the future is moving in his direction. In the nonprofit space, where collaboration is valued over competition, he has found room to experiment with new journalistic models. For instance, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CALmatters has launched a two-year reporting project, “What Happened to the California Dream?”, in partnership with the state’s four largest public radio stations and DigitalFirst, a for-profit publisher that operates nearly three dozen papers across California.

Barely two months into the new “California Dream” project, Dave still marvels at the possibilities: “We’re telling an in-depth story, over two years, across multimedia channels that will reach the whole state. That’s something we haven’t seen before.

“I don’t know where the industry is going to end up, but it’s moving in our direction,” he says. “Collaboration is part of the future, and nonprofit status is part of the future. This trend is not going backwards. There’s an excitement that we’re seeing. We’re looking at different ways of doing things.”

With a new strategic plan just approved by the board, CALmatters is aiming to double in size over the next three years. Dave recognizes that kind of growth won’t be easy, but he sees it as essential to ensure that average citizens continue to have a voice in state government. Part of the growth will come from individual memberships – “a critical mass of community” willing to make Sacramento accountable and transparent through better journalism.

Keeping an eye on the big picture

Without good journalism to help educate and mobilize communities, Dave worries that civil society is easily manipulated, to the detriment of the public good. As an example, he cites California’s crumbling roadways – a $135 billion liability, according to the best estimates. Sacramento recently passed a tax increase designed to fund $5 billion in repairs each year, but the effort was done out of the public sight, with wheeling and dealing that eventually reached $1 billion in back room deals to secure votes.

During past administrations, with a more robust press corps, the case for tax increases would have been built over time, with media stories illustrating the extent of the infrastructure crisis. But this time, Dave says, “No one went out there and made the case to the public for why the increase was needed,” and now an angry populace is mobilizing behind a November ballot initiative that would repeal the tax increase.

“Now politicians feel vulnerable because there was never any effort to engage civil society,” Dave says, noting that one lawmaker who cast a swing vote was recalled by his constituents in a ballot that “wasn’t even close.”

Without a vibrant press to keep an eye on the bigger story, Dave says the quality of decision-making is bound to suffer. “When the process is invisible or opaque, politicians know that special interests are the only ones paying attention, and they can reward or punish you. That’s when you get bad decisions. So our goal is to build a media collaboration that’s robust enough to impact the policy-making process. When journalism is working well, the quality of decisions will be better.”

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Common Goods, Voice