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Nonprofit journalism on the rise

At a time of layoffs and budget cuts at traditional newspapers, foundations and donors are funding new journalism ventures.

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Voice of San Diego has influenced newspaper projects in towns such as St. Louis; New Haven, Conn.; and Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, the nonprofit MinnPost launched print and online editions last November. It's staffed by longtime journalists and has a large stable of freelancers who used to work for major local dailies.

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There's freedom in not having to worry about making every possible reader happy, says managing editor Roger Buoen, formerly with the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. In his previous job, his bosses were preoccupied with attracting "readers who don't read the paper," he says. "If you had complicated stories, there were a few strikes against them off the bat."

At MinnPost, he says, "the focus is on things that a segment of the readership is interested in," such as government and high-brow culture.

Meanwhile, in New York, a new nonprofit investigative-journalism organization is hiring about 25 full-time journalists to look at "people and institutions in our society that have power and have abused it, or have been entrusted with the public trust and have not lived up to it," says its general manager Richard Tofel.

Supported by philanthropic groups, ProPublica plans to hire veteran journalists – it is led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger – and offer its stories free to media outlets.

The project will help stave off the newspaper decline that threatens "a real loss to the health of our democracy," said Rebecca Rimel, president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts and a member of ProPublica's board of directors in a statement reflecting the motives of many philanthropists who are funding such ventures.

While free of commercial pressures, nonprofit newspapers still face challenges.

They are not immune to the conflicts of interest that plague all news operations. Some, like Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, accept advertising, an all-too-frequent source of pressure. And unless they get permanent funding – some donors promise multiple year grants – they will struggle to keep the cash coming in.

"Whether it's a sustainable business model or not is a good question," acknowledges Mr. Buoen.

Mr. Lewis is optimistic. Philanthropists, he says, "are realizing that one way to make the community better is to support media."

Nonprofit news

Recent nonprofit online, newspaper, and journalism ventures include:

Voice of San Diego, an online daily

MinnPost, an online and print daily in Minneapolis

ProPublica, investigative journalism group in New York

Minnesota Monitor, one of four statewide online papers funded by the Center for Independent Media

New Haven Independent, Conn., an online daily