March 23, 2009

Is it Finally Time for a Journalism Social Venture Fund?

This has been an idea that’s been percolating in my noggin for some time. Every time I hear about the latest journalism initiative or major donor, this idea returns:

It’s time to pool the resources and create a “Journalism Social Venture Fund” that can provide for the basic needs of the many new/emerging nonprofit journalism programs.

This entity would be non-elite and non-exclusive. It would not judge programs according to rarified criteria as to what’s a sustainable business model. No one has a freakin’ clue what a sustainable business model is right now. Sure there are plenty of ideas. But three-years of budget projections should not be the criteria. If a news site is up and running, and has a track record of publishing good material (see below for what “good material” means), it should be eligible for block grants to support its efforts.

The JSVF would distribute block grants for both Journalism Programming and Journalism Operations. That means, if you have a hot story you need to pursue, you go to the Journalism Social Venture Fund to help cover the costs. That means, if you are publishing great material but you need a grantwriter or a bookkeeper or an individual donor manager to help solidify your business model, you go to the Journalism Social Venture Fund to help cover the costs.

What kind of coverage is eligible? The Journalism Social Venture Fund would only support non-political/non-advocacy, public-interest reporting that can’t otherwise survive in a commercial context. No op-eds, no opinionating, no endoresements, no editorials, no signed columnists. The blogs have this covered already. Although funded news programming can support public discourse around the issues that may result in opinions being expressed or taking shape, please note that this is a meaningful outcome of the coverage, not the substance of it.

What kind of news outlets are eligible? This would be focused entirely on the emerging nonprofit sector. (While there are interesting for-profit variations out there, such as the L3C model, those are still nascent, and the opportunity is distinct.) Therefore: For news programming support, a solid track-record of continuous and high-quality news programming for no less than three to six months would be required. For operational support, a demonstrated track-record of one year of continuous news-programming operations would be required.

Who determines which news operations are eligible? Aha! That is indeed the most vital question of all, isn’t it? And worthy of extensive discourse as such. As a starting point, let me propose that the decisions must be made by, say, a nine-person Board of Advisers, elected annually by an open and inclusive process, with mandated and equal representation from: Local/regional journalism practitioners, members of the communities served, and social-venture advisers and practitioners. These individuals should, also, equally represent both the executive suite and the grassroots.

Obviously this is just an interesting idea right now … and only adjunct to Ted Glasser’s more ambitious notion of a National Endowment for Journalism. Consider it more of a local/regional take, funded by local philanthropists and community foundations who care about regional civic life.

Food for thought! I look forward to your feedback.