The election of Donald Trump was certainly good news to, say, executives at Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil. But it's also generated a surge in donations to nonprofit news outlets.
That's what we've been hearing through the grapevine, and recently, the New York Times ran a piece reporting that "from local public radio affiliates to established watchdog groups to start-ups that focus on a single issue, nonprofit, nonpartisan media is having a moment."
It turns out some Americans care about the facts after all.
The data supporting a Trump bump for nonprofit media is compelling. For example, ProPublica—a frequent subject of analysis here at IP—netted $750,000 post-election, easily eclipsing the total raised from small-dollar donors in all of 2015. New donations have also flowed to the Center for Public Integrity, the Marshall Project, and NPR affiliates like WNYC.
This is good news for nonprofit news outlets because it suggests that the general public has become more attuned to the role that these organizations play in advancing the public interest. After years of patient work to scale up a set of new journalistic players in U.S. society, the cake seems finally to be rising for a sector that needs all the support it can get, especially from smaller donors. After all, relying on a few big funders like Herb Sandler or the Arnold Foundation is not a sustainable model long term, since such funders may come and go. What every nonprofit wants is a diversified funding base that combines top sugar daddies with a good supply of smaller major donors and then, below that, recurring revenue from contributors giving at a lower level.
What's important about the post-election donor surge is that it's bringing in new donors that will hopefully stick around and be upsold to higher levels of giving for years to come.
You can understand why the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have been swamped with new contributions. The boost for nonprofit news outlets is a bit more surprising, but makes total sense. In an era when basic facts are increasingly disputed, these outlets have an air of integrity, and all the more so thanks to a lack of profit motive and reliance on advertisers. The public rightly senses we're in a moment that desperately requires stronger watchdogs that can pursue the truth—and defend the now-contested concept that the truth exists in the first place.
Alas, it seems only a matter of time before the aura of detached impartiality that surrounds nonprofit media is diminished. This emerging news space is home to plenty of real or potential conflicts of interest, and a growing number of outlets approach their work with an agenda, like The 74, the education media site created by Campbell Brown that is unabashed its pro-reform positioning and nearly totally dependent on funders that embrace this same point of view. It's hard to think of an outfit like this as independent in the way that media ideally should be. More broadly, it turns out that donors, just as much as advertisers, can directly or indirectly influence a recipient news organization's journalistic approach.
And so, moving forward, three big questions loom. One, can the money keep flowing? If there's a correlation between contributions and the fear induced by Trump's actions, cabinet nominations and tweets, then the spigot won't be turned off anytime soon. Throw in some juicy scandals over the next few years from an administration drenched in conflicts, and we're talking good times for nonprofit news, indeed.
Second, how can organizations best use these funds to create a sustainable model moving forward? ProPublica, for example, has already begun beat coverage of hate crimes and the growing influence of white supremacists. Such coverage could mobilize even more support for scrutiny of dark corners of American life. Meanwhile, the CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, John Dunbar, told us: “We’re spending a lot of time right now deciding exactly how we’re going to cover President-elect Trump. Without a doubt, these funds will help us in our investigations of the administration."
New investments in fundraising and development capacity would also seem to be a priority for nonprofit media outlets with more spare cash on their hands. If these groups want to make the best of their new donors, they need to properly steward them and cultivate those with the potential to give at a higher level.
And third, more money—at least that which comes in very large chunks—can mean more potential conflicts of interest. Can organizations avoid these landmines and maintain the public's trust?
Carroll Bogert, the president of the Marshall Project, believes it can. "Our mission is not to overthrow Donald Trump," she said. "Our mission is to make more people care about criminal justice, and we do that through journalism. And that’s a very important function of media in a democracy."
On the other hand, to the degree that Breitbart.com and its ilk take notice of the overlap that exists in some cases between top progressive donors and supporters of nonprofit media, it's possible that these groups will find themselves in the firing line of conservative outlets tightly linked to the new Trump administration.