The Future of Non-Profit News in Maine
First, the good news: The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting figures it has enough money on hand to pay for its in-depth coverage of selected state issues for the rest of the year.
Now, the less good news: According to MCPIR founder and Senior Editor John Christie, the tiny non-profit organization faces an uncertain future after 2011.
“We can sustain it for the rest of this year for sure,” Christie said, “ and we’ve got some things pending. The odds of surviving into next year are good, but I wouldn’t guarantee it.”
The center, like other non-profit news outlets around the country, is heavily dependent on foundation grants to cover its costs. But as Stateline.org pointed out in a story this week, foundation support isn’t a long-term solution, because those funding organizations usually want to see a plan for developing sustainable income from other sources. That’s lead to some unusual efforts, such as Minnesota-based MinnPost’s recent celebrity fundraiser that featured prominent politicians and others that the Web site routinely covers.
While MinnPost staffers brushed off ethical concerns raised about that event, claiming it’s no different than a newspaper selling advertising, Christie said not to expect a similar gala in Maine to support the center.
“We would not accept any contribution from a sitting political figure,” he said. As for private donations, potential contributors are warned that writing a check won’t have any effect on editorial policy.
Christie spoke to me by phone from Orlando, Fla., where he was attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference. He said finding funding for in-depth coverage was a prime topic of many of the workshops and presentations.
“We’re all having problems doing that,” he said.
The center is considering several alternatives to foundation grants, including selling ads on its Web site and increasing the number of classes it offers for student journalists. Christie said MCPIR isn’t planning to do what some similar organizations in other states have tried, which is charging the news outlets that run its stories.
“There’s a range of possibilities,” he said. “None of them seem to be perfect.”
Another problem the center faces is what happens when Christie and his partner Naomi Schalit eventually retire. While a few other journalists have contributed to the MCPIR’s efforts in return for what Christie calls “modest stipends,” he and Schalit have done the bulk of the work, both reporting and researching. Without them, can the center continue?
“You can go on the passion, on the commitment of the founders — you can last on that for a while,” he said, “but it won’t last forever. I’ve thought about that a lot in our first couple of years of operation. I’ve been trying to think though to see where we go from here.
“I don’t have a final answer. I have some beginning answers and some intermediate answers. But it’s all complicated by the economy and the facts of the news industry.”
The center isn’t Maine’s only not-for-profit news outlet. The online New Maine Times is still trying to stake out its territory, which so far hasn’t included taking on many investigative pieces. Small community radio stations like WERU in Blue Hill and WMPG in Portland offer some public affairs programming, but operate primarily with volunteer staff, rather than experienced journalists. And the Maine Public Broadcasting Network is facing serious financial problems of its own.
For all of them, Christie’s closing words to me could be non-profit news’ mantra for the future:
“We’ll find a way to keep it going.”
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.