Journalism on Complex Problems: The Single-Subject Newsroom Solution
Issues like mass incarceration, environmental racism, and gun violence have huge implications for the justice and safety of our society, yet corporate media outlets are unable to give them sustained, in-depth coverage. Nonprofit journalism is offering an antidote, through the rise of newsrooms devoted to a single topic. In this panel discussion, editors, leaders, and a funder of single subject news organizations will talk about what’s next for a model of reporting that’s still growing into its unique impact potential.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
How single-subject news orgs find stories — and readers.
The gap they fill between national and local reporting.
Steps they’re taking to better serve affected communities
Hey, everybody. It’s Sean Gibbons from the communications network. Welcome to thanksgiving week, and you are here for a conversation that we’re delighted to put together for you with our friends from Grist, Kendeda Fund, The Trace and the Marshall Project. I will get to that in just a quick minute. And we will take your questions along the way.
But before we do that, just a little bit of housekeeping. First thing we like to do is what we have made our practice over the last too many months together is that is an idea we borrowed from professor ray brown at the University of Houston, and that is a two word check in. So go to the chat, you will see that at the bottom of your screen and use your finger or cursor or whatever you use, go into the chat and I will try to join you here and hop in and say hello to one another.
If you open up the chat, make sure it’s set up. It will either say to everyone or might say all panelists and attendees, and type in your name, where you’re coming in from and the two words to describe how you’re doing today. So I will have a go with this.
Bear with me. I tend to be a lousy I’m a hunt and pecker never learned how to type. I see you’re in there beating me to it. I’m going to get it.
Hi, it’s Sean. I feel excited for this conversation and grateful we made it to the holidays and we have a couple of days to give ourselves a little time reflect.
Hello Arianna. Dena, how are you.
Kareem, how are you? Sabrina, how is it going? Who else is in there? David, how are you, my friend? David, how are you doing, Mr. Marcus, lower than, how are you, Linda, Piper.
Diane how are you? Susana, grateful to have you with us. Grateful for the sun. I don’t know where you are. It’s been poking out here and there in the Washington, D.C. area.
Amy, how are you?
Let’s continue to be in conversation with one another and also be putting links into the chat or if you find something that is valuable and can be useful to others feel free and have permission to toss those in yourself over the next hour that we’re going to be today. With that, my partner in crime, Mr. T is running the slide desk we have been doing quite a lot.
I think we had like 36 hours of programming. With v+ you can at another 12 or more hours. All of that is available on Comnetworkvirtual.org and you can see the URL right there. We have transcripts and other things if that’s useful to you have so please avail yourself of that. Mr. T, if you would take us forward. Coming up in just a little bit of time, early first week of December we will have a conversation about something that is relevant to a lot of you. A lot of you are either funding research or you’re doing research. How do we get that out in front of people that resonates and is useful for folks, the folks in journalism like the folks we have assembled today and others that need to understand recent data and add to collaboration for all of us. Those names down there will occur on December 3. Allison is here in the chat if I’m not mistaken. So lovely to have you all with us and come back and join us four that, December 3 at 2:00 eastern time. Mr. T, take us forward. We have another v+ keynote before we close things out. This is with Kevin Huynh. Kevin is one of the founders Creative Mornings, and he has been a tremendous mentor to us in the network. And that’s December 9, so just a couple of weeks out and Kevin will be with us talking about how build community. And we believe community moves at the speed of trust and that means the work that we to in the communications field is increasingly community work. I don’t know how you thought about your work but that is way we need to begin to do that work and Kevin will talk about that. Mr. T approximate if you would take us forward. The best part of this part for me which is where I can shut up, sit back and listen. One last piece of housekeeping. You my notice our friend Kenya is with us and he is offering asl services or Alan is providing closed captioning. Hopefully I didn’t talk too fast for him here but you can click on the closed captioning and get a live transcript of the proceedings. You can see the lovely folks with us. I’m going to get out of the way and James burn set going to take it from here. I will see you on the other side. James thank you for being with us and everybody else talk to you soon and looking for to seeing your questions in the Q&A box. I will come back for that. If you have questions that’s the place to put them. James, take it away?
Thank you Sean and thank you for making time here thanksgiving eve eve. For those make stuffing and dressing, there’s a dividing line on what we call that based on family history of the or like pie, like me you may already be sweating your cooking schedule. That’s what I was trying to share in two words in the chat and couldn’t figure out how to do it. So we have, I think, a really exciting conversation lined up today. We’re just going to dive right in. Briefly a little bit about my background. So I’m the founding editor and managing director of The Trace. We are a nonprofit news organization in this single subject model that you’re going to learn more about for us. That single subject is gun violence. And so we use journalism to help light the way to safer and more just communities for all. We will go around the horn here and I’m going to ask our three panelists to introduce themselves but also talk a little bit about their particular work in this space. So we will start with Carroll. Carroll, you have been a reporter for for profit media and a foreign correspondent back in the glory days of “Newsweek” and you have worked in the advocacy space at human rights watch. Tell us a little bit about your role at the Marshall Project and how it fits in with all of that.
Thanks for having me, James and you look so intellectual with your book background
My wife’s books.
I’m in my aunt’s house. She has a nice view of the woods. I have worked at a journalist and the advocacy space. You called “Ne wsweek”we like to refer to ourselves we’re in the intentionally nonprofit media. “Newsweek” has had a hard road to hoe in recent years, as have virtual all commercial media. How do we make it work? How do we inform the American citizenry, how do you keep democracy afloat without media to shine a light on things going wrong, shine a light as you put it James a possible light forward? Personally I find the intersection of advocacy and communication is are where a lot of social change happens. It’s a very interesting space. I have sort of danced on either side of the advocacy/advocacy divide my whole life and I think it’s a really interesting place to be. So when I was at Human Rights Watch I ran a kind of internal media organization. We were within human rights watch but I had a group of journalists and we were creating taking the research of human rights wasp and they were conducting in other countries around the world and turning it into a journalistic product. And I like to say that I was on the advocacy side of the river but I was crowd out as far to journalism as I could get. Now, I work for the Marshall Project. We carefully respect the journalism advocacy divide, the criminal justice space we cover exclusively at criminal justice and immigration. It’s crowded with advocates. We have to remember we’re journalists and that’s difference but want to do this to make change in the criminal justice system to raise public awareness of the problems in the system and as you do, James, to point the way to a solution. So I always like to say I was I was as close to the advocacy shore of the river as Bill Keller would let me g Bill Keller was our founding editor and chief and former editor of “the New York Times.” it was joke me and I had. But I think honestly understanding what journalism and advocacy is crucial to our business but understanding how information propels socialize change is also critical to our business. And we are in that business too.
Thank you Carroll. Carroll’s experience and talents as a writer were on display in a piece that he is published last week on the evolution and the history of the pernicious term super predator. If you didn’t check that out, I think that would still be there close to the top of the home page of the Marshall Project, an excellent and enlightening story. Next we will turn to you, David. You have been and are a communication strategist but also a grant maker in the media space. Talk a little bit about how the former informs the latter and if you can also just bring us into how can dead ahas thought Kendeda has thought about its nonprofit media versus what might be described as more direct giving and social programs.
Sure. Thanks James. And welcome everybody. It’s an honor to be here with three such respected publications. I’m I guess the guy wearing the funder hat in the group but huge fans of all three of you and your respective publications too. And thanks to Comnet for putting this together. You’re right, James. I myself going way back am a former journalist, short lived in that career but I had enough did a few years in it to understand the waters that you guys are all wading a little bit. That was before the media industry as we know it imploded as it has and new models have emerged and grown up like the three l run, but I wear a couple of hats with Kendeda. I ribbon program for them as James referenced, the gun violence prevention work that the Kendeda fund has been in about six year now. I am a general communications strategist who consults to all of the programs in that fund and I have been working in philanthropy communications for 20 plus years now. For those who don’t know Kendeda is a family grant making foundation based in Atlanta. It’s been around about 25 years. Though it was anonymous or largely quiet for its first 18 or 20 years, in the last six or so, it has kind of raised its own head and profile above the water and and throughout even going back before its post anonymous days but certainly since has invested fairly significantly for our size in a number of different media outlets, many of them single subject newsrooms like the three that are here today. We see Kendeda sees the changing face of news like everyone but we also see it as a lever and a key strategy for advancing and elevating the issues that fund is more interesting in. Like every program we have our programmatic focuses which includes girls’ rights and conservation out west and the gun project, the program that I run. In all of those examples, we have found it very useful to identify journal is and newsrooms that care deeply about those issues as well. We don’t invest in places like The Trace and Grist, which, full disclosure we’re funders of both, because we think we are going to have some influence over their editorial product. But because we recognize that they fill a lane that mainstream newsrooms have abandoned, out of financial necessity, there aren’t the number of environmental reporters in this was world that there once were in daily numbers. There aren’t crime reporters covering guns, you know, and crime exclusively. They’re also the courtroom reporters and the city hall reporters and sometimes the sports reporters and everyone is spread so thin that we just see value in lifting up voices and objective journalism that covers the spaces that we care about. And we recognize, like all good media funders should there’s an investment and an agreement at the front end and then our job is to disappear and stay out of the way of the focus doing the reporting. We might like what The Trace reports on any given day, we might disagree with a piece here or there and that’s the way it works. And I think some foundations that are new to the space might see it as something it shouldn’t be or frankly isn’t, which is pay for play or an inducement to write stories that we want to see written. That’s not the game. But we realize that without foundations lifting up nonprofit single subject and in some cases multi subject newsrooms, the fourth estate is going to vanish, and we want to make sure it is preserved not only for media sake but for the issues that we care about. And I think there’s time and room and available space for all funders interested in this and a recognition that a good investment is not just propping up a business that can’t make it without foundation dollars but recognizing that these are growing business concerns, foundations are a part of that puddle and we can that you can a little bit later about how that funding formula mix is it shifting for each of you I think. So that’s the Kendeda overview in a nutshell and I’m happy to talk more later.
Thank you, David. Nikhil, Grist was founded in 1999 which makes Grist there’s no such thing as a legacy organization in this single subject space, but certainly y’all have had some staying power and have been doing this work as our little field has evolved. Can you share a little bit of course about your work there at Grist and about some of the changes you have seen in this single subject model.
First off, thanks James for inviting me and I’m happy to be talking with both David and Carroll. Kendeda was an early supporter of Grist and they continue to support us now which we’re very grateful for. So my name is Nikhil Swaminathan and I am the executive editor of Grist and I have been for about the last, I want to say, close to three years. But as James said, we have been around since 1999. So initially Grist was lodged as a newsletter and it sort of turned into a blog and there was a point when we might have shared space with the gawkers in the world and other spaces in our history where we shared space with the mother jones’ of the world just as a nonprofit media site and sort of now we’re a blog turning more into a digital magazine, and I think can I say personally that I have taken a lot of guidance by the work that trace and the Marshall Project have done and sort of setting the bar that Grist wants to get to as we go through this process that I like to call “the same but different” so, it sort of we still have some blog tendency or approachability i.ability points and a little bit of humor that have always ban part of the cyst recipe but we’re trying to take on more enterprise projects and investigations and partnerships. Really because in the last three or four years we’ve undertaken a big shift in our focus for the first 15 or so years that Grist was around, the job was just to say, hey, climate change is happening and humans are responsible for it, and I guess, you know, we Americans can pat ourselves on the back because we got over 50 or 60 percent in the last seven or eight years of people responding to polls believing that, so Grist realized its mission needed to shift. And the shift was people were accepting the scientific reality of climate change and the culpability of humans in what was going on and warming and the extreme weather that we’re seeing. But what came with that was, you know a dark cloud and the sense that, like, we were screwed. So now Grist has pivoted more towards, you know, as we have traditionally called ourselves, a beacon in the smog, mounting toward solutions and, you know, progress being made however incremental, on the city level, corporations taking more responsibility for their carbon footprints, obviously Tylenol advancements and during the trump era, we have sort of been what I would call maybe relatively happy warriors adjacent to the resistance where we knew about the roll backs and we were surfacing those for our audience but we were also saying hey, look over here where there is actually progress being made. And the other half to our recipe is really diving deep on environmental justice sorts of issues to ensure that as these solutions are implemented, they lift all boats and don’t leave communities behind. So that’s where Grist is, as it, you know, straddles that same line but stays on the journalism side that Carroll was remarking about earlier.
Thank you so much. You know it strikes me, you can’t have a conversation about journalism and impact today without considering the big structural challenges, existential challenges in some indications, that the media face, from the distrust of journalism in part among those identifying as conservative politically and also in communities of color that have been underserved from the media. David alluded to the hallowing out the local newsrooms and how that has led to real gaps in coverage at the local level. The shears crush of information that I think we all feel sometimes. So in that context, the question for all of you see is why do this, why focus on just one thing and take that approach when there are all of the different challenges swirling about?
James I’m happy to start that from a funder’s advantage. I think one of the benefits we have seen, Kendeda has seen, and I’m not sure we could have claimed to predict it when we first got into the funding of this type of media, but one of the benefits has been the power of partnerships that publics on my newsmagazines like the three of you will run, have made with traditional media. And I think to your question, one reason to invest in a newsroom that is focused exclusively on guns and the business of fireplace as you guys do for instance, James, is because that bubbles up to five, 8 0 00 word features in the new yorker that a reporter of yours and a partnership of yours with them made possible, and suddenly an investment in you is seeing eyeballs that you never would have reached on your own. Similarly each of you have made partnerships with local daily whose will either rerun stuff you have written or co create new pieces with y’all. I think there is a void that you are filling in those hallowed out dailies that otherwise may not get filled. So for us, there is sort of a mush rooming, rippling benefit. Yes, you do good things unto yourself and for your online readers, but those have connection points to people who might never visit The Trace website.
If I can pick up right there, David. You know, these this is something that we have been figuring out or landed on about a couple of years ago at Grist is that, if we do our jobs right, if we scale in the right way, we can actually serve as a sort of climate and environment desk for, you know our mission will be for, like, the whole nation and beyond, but, you know, we can tell these location specific stories that have national themes and find partners on the ground who will deliver it to the ideal audience for that story. And like you said we have done it both through sort of deliberate partnerships up front and collaborations, and we had local newspapers reach back out to us after we published something and we say, hey, can we carry that?
And we are one of those steal our content news rooms association we’re very you know we try to get the rights to all of the images that we use for syndication and, you know, we’re very, very happy to have our stories run elsewhere and I just want somebody from the “Miami Herald” reached out to me a few months ago to read a story we had written that took place in south Florida, and I’m going to you his (speaking too quickly) which said it was the environmental, hurricane, courts and crime editor. So I think he is also on the team that picks the best cubanas in town.
When I read that, I said to myself, this is the proof that if we expand our ability and find pre lancers in the right place, you can tell stories around them that are applicable the themes which are applicable to other places. Like it’s a really powerful model. And I would trust I do trust because I go to the sites myself, criminal gun violence reporting from The Trace above anyone else, and we would hope that meme feel that way about cyst or can be made to feel that way about Grist but I think there’s a lot of power going to local media, and I think when you hear all of this fist shape shaking at the media people are talking about national outlets like the disciples CNN and Fox news, and less so their local paper which they just sort of get automatically and maybe don’t realize it’s been hallowed out in some cases.
I love that guy’s signature page. That’s hilarious and also said. I wanted to say something that I heard James say the other day because he’s the moderator and he can’t say it himself but it was such a smart point and I want to repeat it. One of the problems media has, when reporting on a complicated subject like the criminal justice system which is or you know, guns or climate; right?
All of them have sort of complicated parts and specificity that a general reporter who is covering the hurricanes and cubanas and having the expertise there’s a lot of great criminal justice reporters in the country but there aren’t many like those at the Marshall Project who have the luxury, I guess you would say, to cover this every single day and really, really know their subject. And I hope it means we get stuff wrong less because we know what we’re talking about. That I think helps with the experts in subjects out there who read the morning paper and think they clap their hands in Florida and say well, that’s the newspaper version of this subject I know so well. So knowing the subject helps you with other people who know that subject well. Part of the issue that we face though, you know, you mentioned audience, look, our mission and yours too, James, and nick hill, people care about those issues like gun violence and climate change and so you want to be speaking not only to the experts if you haven’t captured the experts you haven’t done a good job but if you stop the experts you’re also not doing a good job. We co publish with more than 150 different media outlets in five or six years since the Marshall Project has been around, and that’s really how we’re able to reach a more general audience and hopefully expand the community of people that care about the criminal justice system. And I also think that one thing as journalists we all have to contend with, we were doing a feasibility study on a major American city where like all of you we’re concerned about local newspapers and local media ecosystems and how they’re dying. Tense of thousands of journalism jobs lost since the beginning of Covid not to mention the decimation that was occurring before the pandemic. And as we were conducting a lot of interviews in this city, I happened to be speaking with someone that ran a literacy program and said 95 percent of the adults in my neighborhood can’t read. And I actually thought I had misheard her because I could not concede that there could be a neighborhood a black neighborhood that I could not concede there was a major neighborhood in America where 95 percent couldn’t read at the 6th grade level. And I checked and it’s true.
So what are we as journalists doing to contend with what years of begging the public education system and other forms of, you know, privilege, racism and other socially problems, what that has wrought among our quote/unquote readership who maybe can’t read and what are we doing to reach a more diverse audience? I think we want to reach policymakers too. We want to write that really smart story about gun violence that causes the city council in x city to say oh, my god we need new regulation. We want to change policy with our journalism and we’re aiming our journalism at policymakers and the advocates who have to move policy. But what about marginalized people. We cover the criminal justice is them. What about people who have been in the criminal justice system. How do we reach them. We have a new print publication that we created specifically because we wanted to reach people who are in aren’t prison right now. There are more than 2 million in prison right now. So there’s no internet there. They can’t read a digital newsletter like the Marshall Project so we’re reaching now people in more than 500 persons in yale with a print edition. But I just think that we have to we talk a lot about diversity in the media world. We talk a lot about diversity in the fill flop ick world and we’re all appropriately concerned about diversity of our staff, our board I think we have to be concerned about diversity of our audience. And think that’s an important conversation that a lot of newsrooms need to be having right now.
The papers South Carolina mentioning is a real inspiration for a lot of us in this field and thinking very deliberately and creatively about how to do just what she describes. Nikhil Swaminathan can you talk about how Grist defines its audience or audiences and how those decisions shape the types of stories you report and what you choose to pursue for your reporting?
Sure. I mean I think obviously our audience the audience that comes to Grist is one that is really passionate about doing something about climate change. I think, you know, one of the ways that I think about the single subject sites is it’s another part of sort of identity today is, you know, people who care about a lot, about climate and climate action and they’re going to know about Grist. In some respect, we have to have our act together, like Carroll said, so that when we publish stories, they know that it’s from an authoritative source. Then we have this sort of second concentric circle of audiences we’re trying to reach, and that’s what we do through partnerships, whether they be with local newspapers or whether they be with other nonpropertis or, you know, for profit media organizations just to put ourselves in front of some other audiences. Oftentimes we’re looking for more diverse audiences than you would see in the traditional sort of environmental movement and environmental space. It’s one of the reasons why we have doubled down on doing more environmental justice work, and we are trying to report more about individual communities around the country and what they’re facing and what they’re what hopefully in each of those stories what we’re trying to show is a community that is trying to better it’s situation. And there are lessons to be learned for that for communities all over the country. That’s sort of more of an aspirational audience that we’re trying to reach. I think one of the biggest things that comes up with us, and I live just down the road from David in Atlanta, Georgia. And you know, one of the things that we think about is where we especially coming out of an elect. Where we sit on the political spectrum with regard to our content. And there are ways that we can write stories that are only for young climate activists on the left who are, you know, itching for a green new deal. It’s a green new deal or it’s nothing else. But in order for climate action has been taken seriously this hats to be a majority concerned. So 50, 60, 0 percent of the country needs to be super worried about wildfires and hurricanes and extreme heat and that means that we have to be careful with how we cal operate our language and how we tell our stories. And from story selection to the words that we use in the story to be a general interest publication that just happens ton about the climate, so we spend a lot of time thinking about things like that because I want people who live around my parents and the Atlanta suburbs and to find something for them and be edified by stuff on the Grist website and not just come there and say this isn’t for me. So that’s big thing that we spend a lot of time thinking about.
And we’re going through a rebrand now, and it’s a part of that, too.
This is just a real quick follow up about audience work for Marshall Project and Grist. You detailed the partnership especially that you all have done with other publications. But in terms of direct readership and traffic to use that word, in terms of the community you’re building up around your work, how much of that comes through social, how much through search, and how do you think about that, that piece of it as you’re building the direct audience.
I think for I don’t want to speak for others but for the Marshall Project it’s actually a huge more than half of our traffic is coming from google. People are searching and they don’t understand something about the criminal justice system and they’re severalling and they find us. I think it has to do with how you want to put your content and put it in other work and expand their knowledge about the criminal justice system. And I should say our traffic we’re getting over a million page view’s month now. It really shot up after the murder of George Floyd I have to say. That is dwarfed byproduct what we get from our partner. Like the piece you mentioned was with NBC News and has a much bigger audience. And as much as we like to have an air of superiority about the nonprofit media and how good we are it is still the case that we try to hook ourselves on to. And I think we need to think strategically about our partners. I was speaking with a reporter and spent a year into an article on cops who were vets. And 23 percent had served in the military and there was a conversation of are they more violent or less violent if they were in the military?
Are they more disciplined because they have had better and more training?
The answer turns out to be they are marginal by more vile plenty and also more fragile, they fall apart more. So we talked about who could we partner this with. And somebody said mother jones would love this. And we to love mother jones. Left me get that straight. But the reporter was like, I don’t want this in mother jones. We have to reach cops. And that was the first story, I think, we partnered with “USA today,” which of course is on every military that I have ever been in anywhere in the world. As we all know in low market mow tells and on airplanes and all of the rest but it has to high readership in the military. So we try to be strategic in choosing the partners to reach the audience that we need for a particular story. I think all of us really have we have the audience who are intense justice rights in other words and there are people who have been incarcerated 5 years and are so glad to see somebody cares about the system. They’re radically different people coming at us and thinking about different products, different kinds of subjects and formats. It’s complicated.
It’s a small thing but that split between social media readers readers who come in through social media, which because of the way the platforms are approaching their businesses, they’re they basically don’t want you to leave the platform. So there’s been a change but we want to see more from search than from social and the assumption that we can make from them, they’re coming and see seeking answers and information. They’re seeking a better understanding which is a core part of what we do. That is not to knock the leader, but we like the search reader because of the assumptions we can make about that we can make about them.
And I think you have to when you’re optimizing your site, thinking about site design, it really is for web sites like ours about search because search is also big at Grist. And you will see and you realize that you’re both a journalistic outlet and in a way a reference material and how do you kind of be both and keep somebody who wonders in through golgi on your program to read a host of other articles while the people that come in through social, you know, you kind of want to leave them your three most interesting headlines of the month versus the people coming in through search. It’s like more of an edification process, it’s like an entertainment process in a way. But this is one of the few places I have worked where search has been this dominant.
I will pose this question first to David and put you on the spot a little bit and ask you to speak as a representative of the funder community. Carroll talked about the imperative that we have as nonprofit of these organizations to reach audiences that haven’t been served by the media. And I think we all feel that. And that’s plain we don’t have a business imperative, a business reason to monetize our audience. That’s not what we’re doing; right?
And yet, the funders and maybe not Kendeda because y’all are a very enlightened bunch, but funders I have spoken with, they do care about those eyeballs and page views and all of that. And also rightly so, push for impacting. They want to see people change happening because the story was published; right?
We’re all relatively small organizations so there is a question of resources and how we balance that. And do we all need those of us in this work, whether as publishers, ed to read, funders, need to wrestle more with the tradeoffs but feel free to furnish pack if you don’t see tradeoffs but the tradeoffs between how we have typically defined success impact and reach and service to communities that have not been served bill the media historically.
Absolutely not I do want to speak for all funders but I think you have put your finger on an issue that is being confronted in the philanthropy community both on the narrow sort of frame you put on it and on impact at large and who do we attempt to serve?
What are going to be our measures of success and packet those lobes brought into particular focus by the last nine to 12 months both by a pandemic and a racial reckoning. There are foundations and board meetings and staff meetings everywhere where people prosecute scrambling to figure out how do we reach that?
How do we recalibrate what defiance and do the metrics that we so often use are they fraught and are they broken and do we need to throw them out and start over? So I want to begin by saying there’s a big systemic reckoning occurring right now. On those kinds of questions. And I can speak personally for Kendeda, you know, we are a spend out foundation I should say. We have three years that are left and we’re in the mindful awareness of the business line, but also the crashing urgency of raisin equity in this country and trying to figure out how do you quite a bit up those two get actives and when. But I think the Carroll part that we’re putting money in organizations whose job toys write complicated stories with lots of words and the audience that may be best served may not be able to read at sufficient level to make sense of the products. I don’t have an answer for that. That is a quarter foe you guys at the news producers and generators and for us as funders. Like we all needle to get our minds around underserved, underrepresented, underreached audiences.
So I don’t mean all of this to sound like dodge, James. I just don’t think there is a good clear answer. And if there are funders out there that have figured it out I haven’t talked to them yet and I would love to. But I think I can say we recognize that one small nod I guess in a useful direction is we recognize that news sites are not the only mediums to move a message and to move public opinion. For instance, we dust heavily in Sundance and the documentary film there because storytelling in that form is a whole new way to move the dial. We’re in the midst right now, and it’s not out yet but will be soon of sort of help working with Sundance on short documentaries about gun violence because not enough filmmakers are telling those stories and the right filmmakers aren’t empowered or funded to tell those stories so we’re trying to figure out other ways and other media to address some of this challenge. I’m glad to hear your thoughts on this. Of I was going to ask you will, a lot of folks watching are coms folks that work for foundations. This is an open mic for you guys. What guidance would you give us as funders of the kind of work you do?
What do we need to be thinking about differently?
Because I think wide some perked up ears paying attention right now.
I think this question of impact is an important one. And I have bulls been pretty ferocious on how we define it. I think a lot people in defined it’s as reach and what was your traffic open that street. And I always say that is not our metric. We look at the in effect we have on throw audiences, policymakers, did we get a law change or policy or did something happen because of a story we wrote; the experts and academics that know our subject well, did we inform them, inspire them. Media coverage is the oxygen of advocacy so was it used to propel the issue; and the third thing did we inspire other media to cover criminal justice better?
And we do report guides, here is how you can take this issue and report it in your town. It’s impact on pools, advocacy and on other immediate. And I have been fierce about reaching to be a part of that. I’m actually considering resizing that notion in part because I would feel that it would be a really good sign if, instead of being in 5 00 prisons we were in a thousand prisons. That would be a metric of just being in more prisoners and reaching more incarcerated people would itself be a huge win. So in that instance I think audience side, if they were specifically, you know, underserved audience, I would consider that kind of numerical to be a fair definition of impact. In general I would say funders take their cue from you, not to say that you funders aren’t smart and don’t have your own ideas. Don’t get me wrong. If you define impact as ab and c and here is what I’m going to tell you when I come back for renewal, did I do a, b, and c and you set your own universe so I would say it’s a little bit on us to define impact clearly enough that our funders understand it. And hold us to account for it. And we should be held to account.
We use a couple of those same sorts of metrics to judge how well Grist is doing. I think one of the things that is important to me and this is that is when we have the opportunity to tell stories about certain places that aren’t on the coasts and aren’t traditional, you know, media havens, if we’re looking for stories, we like to do follow up and people are able to follow up in communities and see if there is if a story of ours has taken off and if there’s real world impact. I was blessed enough actually to work on a story earlier with a writer here in Atlanta we were working on a story about massive coal plant outside of Macon, Georgia. And it was all about how Georgia had asked to have its own legislate its own way coal ash is disposed and get away from the EPA’s rules. And we timed the story so when the Georgia legislative session was starting off and when it came out, the story was picked up by so many newspapers around here because it just sort of shot it shot the coal ash disposal question to near the top of the legislative ledge. And that was really amazing to see. I mean it fell further down the list of priorities as Covid took over. But you know, coming into the year, it was a real it was a real example of how effective these stories can be. And we have to think about things like that. Like I just happened to be working with a savvy enough writer who wanted it timed a certain way, and his arguments were really, really smart for it. And we need to be thinking that way to be able to make all of these stories kind of sing and have a second, third and fourth life. But we also we also need to follow up on these pieces because, you know, traditionally any kind of media outlet would go into a community and, like, report a story, you know, it’s on the website, it’s in the paper, especially if they’re national in scope and just move on to the next one but you kind of have to keep up with them and build a little bit of a beat around those communities, and we’re trying to do more and more of that by finding the right freelancers who are contract writers who are out in places where most of Grist’s staff isn’t. And our funding model allows that happen. It allows us to cover environmental justice stories that can have had a deep effect on a meaningful community of people but are not likely to be bid time travel at any site. Ultimately. Work that I care most deeply about at Grist is fully enabled by our model.
I want to be mindful of the time. We have about five minutes late. I saw Sean pop in. We had one question in the chat from Piper Hendricks who asked just for a sense of the world, the size of this space or sector how many in the U.S. and is it a growing trend beyond the U.S. I will take a first stab at this and see if any of the other three panelists can bail me out. The institute for nonprofit news is the trade group for nonprofit news organizations including single subject news organizations but also local and national investigative news organizations like replica down to one and two person very small but mighty local nonprofits. The nonprofit space is growing. I think the single subject model certainly has tracks and is growing. I’m at pains to put any hard numbers on that. It’s not something we’ve tracked too closely. But David or Carroll do you have a better answer?
I’m on the advisory board for the membership for inn so I should know how many members it has. I’m super embarrassed. It might be 200 but I might be off by 50 percent there. But I don’t I think the question from Piper was also about worldwide and if I could address that. You know the nonprofit sector in most parts of the world lasagne behind that of the U.S., no less in nonprofit media. I wouldn’t say there are no nonprofit media. I know of one and know of one that focuses on the criminal justice system in Johannesburg, South Africa. But there are not a lot of those because there’s a lot of private philanthropy to support it. Also we know we need it because we don’t have other forms of funding would be the way to put that. We don’t have the BBC in this country. We have NPR but it’s also very dependent on private philanthropy, and we don’t have state funding for noncommercial media, which is a conversation that I never thought we would have in this country, and we’re starting to because I think the crises in local journalism is so extreme that a lot of people have surfaced the conversation about whether or not the government should in some way subsidize our sector.
You mentioned in, one unrelated but interesting statistic I saw from the latest inn diversity and equity report they did is that nonprofit and that includes single subject newsrooms are slightly ahead of the curve of mainstream newsrooms in terms of diversity and equity inclusion. It’s an encouraging sign that perhaps you’re pulling the pack instead of chases it. I thought that was worth mentioning. It’s a whole different topic we should get into on a future zoom call but not now.
Yeah, the news industry as a whole has done such a pathetic job of diversity, equity and inclusion historically that we are out pacing a pretty pitiful baseline but because of the priority, the real imperative that I think all of us in the nonprofit news organization inn members at large really priority advertise diversity equity and inclusion. We have made strides. We have a long way to go but we ahead of the commercial sector or the commercial side of it, yeah.
Trying to jump in real quickly. Diane asks: I’m curious how your newsrooms Grist, The Trace, and Marshall Project think about the audiences that they prioritize. Carroll, you really dug in on this and maybe I could add an addendum to the question. How do you prioritize audiences?
And then how do you think about your role are you advocates are you in the advocacy business or is something distinct and different about the role that you play. Whoever wants to take a swing at that?
I don’t think that we are advocates. I mean, Grist, we journalists. And that’s the the distinction is important. And we talked about that long history of Grist and there was had a period of time where I think especially those in the environmental movement assumed that Grist was a part of that movement. And it’s a big multifaceted group of people who are all, you know, they were happy to sort of have us in their number I think, and in recent years, we have, you know, stepped away from that role because we wanted to ensure that our number one goal was to inform the public, and that means speaking far beyond that group of people. And you want to make sure that you’re not peddling stuff that doesn’t seem they think to them, you know, in some respects, they provide very helpful fact checking. But you’re also we don’t want to be a mouthpiece for that movement, because especially I think it’s so clear in all three of our single subject areas, the dynamics on the ground are so complex and we the politics around it are so complex, and it’s more our responsibility to chronicle what is happening and what is possible than it is to sort of back a particular horse and make that our mission. And it makes our by having that broad of a scope, it actually makes our jobs more interesting and more feasible because we can take in everything. We can evaluate the value of a green new deal. We evaluate the future of nuclear. We can say sequestration and vapor wear or are we at a point where we absolutely v. Have to have it? Grist has to be able to have the freedom say and evaluate and clearly look at all of those different elements instead of just beating one particular drum.
And I would underscore that’s part of the really value of nonprofit journalism distinct from the advocacy space. Advocacy work creates so much value and does so much good in propelling issues forward and expanding the community of concern. But on the journalism side we’re able to be independent arbiters and say is that the most effective solution?
Is that reflective of the needs and preferences and perspectives of the most affected communities once implemented?
Those are really key questions that we’re able to bring to the bigger process.
One other teeny thing we bring, the beauty of our craft, our love of beautifully told narratives and our ability to do that. It’s not nothing. And I also spend near 20 years in the advocacy space. I have huge admiration for that but there’s something they’re not writing for beauty. They’re writing for clarity, for persuasiveness and argumentation and for legal accuracy. But we also write for beauty. And when we try to create something that you actually want to consume and that there’s so much like what do we need journalists for and so much negativity at this around journalism and why don’t we just have Wikipedia where people can add to a big cesspool of information and the best ideas will rise to the top. No. Journalism is a craft. And we have labored long to master it. And it’s because a beautiful piece of journalism that explains something in a splendid way and opens your eyes is itself it’s a little work of art. It should be a little jewel. We try to make things little jewels. We don’t always succeed but that’s part of it.
James did you did I cut you short?
I was just cosigning and saying that was well said and an important point to hit. Thank you, Carroll.
I think we all over the course of the year have a since of systems and how they affect our lives and the work you do is identifying systems and then telling the stories about how these things come together and u matily systems are things that people built. We know that and it’s a big challenge to thinking about these things as amorphous, you know, impersonal automatons that function around us without any agency on all of our parts. The fact that you’re telling these stories and there’s oxygen that animates these spaces and we can actually understand them a little bit better and see the humanity within them is incredible. I’m grateful to each and every one of you and wish you all a happy thanksgiving, especially thanks to Kenya and Alan for making this an accessible session. David, James, Carroll and Nikhil Swaminathan thank you. Happy thanksgiving to all that joined us and we will see you in about 10 days’ time if I have my math; right. With that I will let you go. Be safe and well. Wash your hands.