Nonprofit News in the Age of New Media

As traditional media outlets have declined, a vibrant ecosystem of online hyperlocal news has stepped into the void in Greater New Haven.

Editor Eugene Driscoll (left) and former reporter Ethan Fry of the Valley Independent Sentinel record a podcast.

Seismic changes to the media landscape in the past two decades have transformed the way news is produced, delivered and consumed. The rise of the Internet and digital platforms has fragmented both audiences and sources of information. Advertising revenues at once dominant newspapers have dried up. And social media has made it easier for unverified claims and outright falsehoods to spread and gain acceptance.

In the past two decades, New Haven has lost all five of its radio newsrooms, one of two daily newspapers, and an alternative weekly newspaper. And the remaining daily newspaper has suffered continual budget cutbacks.

New nonprofit news organizations are stepping into the gaps left by traditional news media with high-quality journalism in new formats. As a funder of local and statewide nonprofit news organizations, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is part of a growing trend of philanthropy supporting independent journalism.

The Numbers

  • Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) of U.S. adults who are highly attached to their communities follow local news very closely – about twice the share of the unattached (27%)1.
  • 2 in 10 U.S. adults often get news from print newspapers, down from 27% in 20132.
  • The newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions, or 39%, in the last 20 years3.
  • About two-thirds (63%) of Americans say family and friends are an important way they get news, whether online or offline4.
  • 64% of U.S. adults say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events5.

The Rise of Online Journalism

Until the ascendancy of the web and digital communications, public interest news reporting — particularly at the local level — was primarily supported by advertisements in newspapers. But as news organizations moved their content online, the bulk of the advertising revenue has not followed, flowing instead to tech companies like Google and Facebook. Of the approximately $60 billion spent on digital ads in 2015, 65 percent went to just five tech companies; none of which were journalism organizations6.

In 2005, the nonprofit Online Journalism Project in New Haven recognized the need for a new financial model to support local news and launched one of the first nonprofit online news sites in the country — the New Haven Independent.

Paul Bass, Executive Director of Online Journalism Project and Editor of the New Haven Independent, hosts a weekly talk show on government, politics, and current events with local newsmakers on WNHH radio.

With support from The Community Foundation, the site has grown to produce more than 1,000 local news stories a year, attracting more than 250,000 unique visitors per month7. It has since bought a radio license and broadcasts a full schedule of daily shows with local guests on WNHH (103.5 FM and streaming online).

Online Journalism Project and the New Haven Independent were founded by Paul Bass, a New Haven journalist for more than 30 years. Bass says that he landed on the idea for the business model him after reading an article about how journalism should be thought of like a public utility.

"I had experience in the for-profit model and thought it wouldn't work," he says. " . . [A] light went off in my head -- try the NPR [National Public Radio] model."

Bass says that what drives the coverage -- and the funding -- is a public interest mission.

"The way you make your budget is by doing something valuable for society," says Bass.

The Role of Philanthropy

In financing his venture with a combination of Foundation grants and private donations, Bass is part of an explosive growth in the role of philanthropy in the media. From 2009 to 2011, Media-related grant making grew at a higher rate than overall domestic grant making (21 percent increase vs. 5.8 percent, respectively). During this period, more than 1,000 foundations made grants totaling $1.86 billion to more than 12,000 media organizations8.

Like many nonprofit news ventures, The New Haven Independent is striving to diversify its funding sources. While it used to be 75 percent foundation-funded, now it's closer to 50 percent, and the change has mostly come from major individual donors who provide general support.

From the beginning, The New Haven Independent has sparked robust civic debate, attracting readers holding a wide range of views. It's not unusual to have 50, 60 or even 100 comments on controversial stories -- this in contrast to four to six letters to the editor on all stories in a daily print paper.

"It's the most diverse, engaged moderated public discussion that I've seen anywhere," Bass says.

Spreading Statewide

Online news has spread throughout Greater New Haven and the state. In 2009, Bass received a $500,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, administered through The Community Foundation, to launch the Valley Independent Sentinel. And in 2010, former New York Times reporter and Branford resident Marcia Chambers turned her blog on local news into a full-fledged community news site, The Branford Eagle.

"Our primary goal is to provide our readers with the knowledge they need to make decisions about their town," Chambers says. "We dig in order to give our readers the information they need and want. Sometimes good journalism takes time to do. We don't let the demands of the internet get in the way of our goal. "

On the lighter side of things, The Daily Nutmeg arrives free in subscribers' email inboxes with profiles of interesting artists, performances, restaurants, and unique places.

On the state level, the CT Mirror launched in 2010 with a $300,000 Knight Challenge grant, with additional support from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. CT Mirror promotes civic engagement by covering public policy and state government. It also has a full-time reporter in Washington D.C and distributes its stories to local media outlets (online, print, radio, and TV) throughout the state.

"The great thing about a nonprofit with a focused mission is that besides the mission itself you basically have a goal of a finite amount of money you need to do the job -- you're not just growing for its own sake like a for-profit," says publisher and CEO Jim Cutie.

State coverage is also provided online by Connecticut News Junkie, which uses a for-profit model. Many stories are cross-posted to the Independent and vice versa.

Traditional print media have also developed their online presence. The New Haven Register, the daily newspaper that has covered Greater New Haven since the 1800s, has steadily expanded its online presence, providing live social media feeds and support for mobile devices.

What The Community Foundation is doing

The Community Foundation was an early supporter of the Online Journalism Project and has been it's largest sustaining funder, contributing more than $1.2 Million since 2005.

In 2009, it collaborated with its affiliate the Valley Community Foundation and the Online Journalism Project to win a $500,000 grant from the Knight Community Information Challenge program to launch the Valley Independent Sentinel.

In 2010, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, through a major gift from the donor advised Becky Fund, helped launch the CT Mirror with additional support from a $300,000 Knight Challenge grant.

Works Cited

1. Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits. November, 2016. Pew Research Center.
2. Pathways to News. July, 2016. Pew Research Center.
3. Newspaper companies lag behind their broadcast siblings after spinoffs. August, 2016. Pew Research Center.
4. Pathways to News.
5. Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion. December, 2016. Pew ResearchCenter.
6. State of the News Media 2016. Pew Research Center.
7. How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability, Knight Foundation, Oct. 2013.
8. "Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States", Foundation Center Nov. 2013,

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
May 2017