One week hence is Crosscut's fifth anniversary of publishing. I admit to feeling pleased! Since we have just started our Spring Membership drive, I hope you will send a birthday present by becoming an annual Member or renewing your Membership. Just click on our Donate button and you can join on-line or learn about other ways to send in your tax-deductible donation.
Crosscut is a not-for-profit, non-commercial medium, whose mission is to produce and amplify the best in interpretive regional journalism each day. Being Membership-supported means that we can practice "journalism in the public interest." Public support, especially through your Membership donations, enables us to set aside commercial imperatives, whether for mass market appeal or for a narrow-market focus for advertisers. We think this is a crucial advance in funding journalism in this new era. So we count on you to support this effort, keeping Crosscut free and high-quality for tens of thousands of our readers.
Crosscut Members enjoy numerous benefits, such as Member parties where you can "meet the writers" for Crosscut, discounted and free tickets, and other invitations to meet newsmakers and opinion-shapers. See the Membership page for more details. We have a new category, called Evergreen Membership, where your monthly automatic donation lasts until you wish to modify or cancel it. I hope you'll consider becoming an Evergreen Member, the most helpful category for us. After all, it's a big birthday!
Those who join or renew today will be eligible for a drawing for two free tickets to Pacific Northwest Ballet's upcoming production of "Carmina Burana and Apollo" at McCaw Hall (dates available are April 13, 14, and 19). The grand prize for this Membership drive is a Microsoft Xbox Kinect. Renewing Members double their chances in the grand-prize drawings. Our winner from Monday's drawing is Bill Thorness of Seattle, who scored two tickets to Seattle Opera's Young Artists performance of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale."
And did I mention that your Membership, which starts at $35 a year, is tax-deductible?
I'll be writing some short essays during this Member drive about Crosscut and trends in media today. Farther down in this post is the first essay, about the launching of Crosscut. Today I want to talk about our decision, in 2009, to shift to a nonprofit model. I first began to get this idea by watching the rise of a nonprofit news site in Minnesota, MinnPost.com, and talked with its founder, Joel Kramer, the former publisher/editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
The main advantage of this model, somewhat like public broadcast (but without any government money), is that it has more revenue streams than advertising alone — notably Membership donations, grants, underwriting sponsorships, fundraising galas, and major gifts. It also locks in a mission-driven commitment to public-interest journalism, made possible by adding the "public" to media. We would be free from commercial pressures, though taking on lots of challenges in developing these new lines while still having a small staff.
Can public support of this kind replace the declining fortunes of commercial local journalism? According to the Poynter Institute, commercial media's investment in newsrooms declined by $1.6 billion per year, 2006-09. Foundation support, previously very meager for journalism, was growing, but it has amounted to about $200 million over the past five years.
One leading national journalism foundation, the Knight Foundation, has sought to stimulate local community foundations to take up this new need for public education and civic engagement. In many cities, Knight has matched dollar-for-dollar community foundations that have found a good local nonprofit media site, and that happened here with Knight and The Seattle Foundation, with a total of $385,000 over these past two years for a "citizen activation project" we are doing with The Seattle Foundation, spurring more engagement with local nonprofits as well as supporting our reporting. Managing editor Joe Copeland, in charge of this project, gives a good explanation of this initiative in this essay.
The other critical granthas come from the local Gates Foundation, for general support in our initial years in this new model, amounting to $500,000 over two and a half years. Gates has a strong interest in a more educated democracy and provides some support to local and national media, often to encourage independent reporting in areas such as education and poverty issues that are its main focus in this country. Our Gates grant had no programmatic focus; nor has the foundation ever exerted any influence on our coverage.
Foundations generally limit their support to a few years, requiring recipients to develop sustainable other streams of income. The next likely area for us will be grants (from foundations, individuals, and sponsors) in program areas where we would like to hire an experienced beat reporter. Some examples of these areas, where we are now soliciting support, are: the new environmentalism; education reform (including higher ed); "Seattle and the world" (exploring local diversity and the many ways Seattle plays on a global stage); politics and policy around this critical election year; and arts/ideas/books. We are also seeking what's called "capacity-building" grants, so we have more staff and technical support for pursuing these multiple streams of revenue.
I genuinely love the nonprofit sector, having learned the ropes in running Town Hall Seattle. It draws idealistic employees. It helps restore public trust in the media, now at record lows. It takes away the temptation to sell a media property to the highest bidder, who often strips the company afterward. And it builds into the DNA of the organization a focus on public benefit. There is a tricky area: taking donations from people you may write about, sometimes critically. But we explain the ground rules beforehand, and offer to refund money if a donor grows unhappy at coverage. I was publisher of Seattle Weekly for 21 years, and believe me, I know the pressures that advertisers can bring, which I consider far more insidious.
Finally, being engaged with the community and its values in this deep way really does seem like a necessary correction for journalism. One outcome is what I and some fellow publishers of these nonprofit local websites call "thoughtful journalism." By that is meant several things latent in that slightly stuffy word. Take time to think and talk to more people before publishing. Think beyond conventional grooves of coverage. A thoughtful tone, in the sense of "considerate," to encourage a more civil discussion of debates and hot issues. And finally, keeping an eye out for solutions, and paying more attention to the solution-seekers in the story, who often get drowned out by the polarizers.
At least that's the goal. You tell me how well we are living up to this more idealistic code for this new medium. And, please, if you value this kind of journalism and think we are making a contribution, I hope you will support us with your Annual Membership. Public media can't survive without public support.
Now, here's the earlier essay, about when Crosscut was being formulated and launched in 2006-7. Our main impulse for starting Crosscut.com was to provide some "replacement media" at the local level, as mainstream media was going into its tailspin. Our founders sensed a civic emergency as nearly half of local professional journalists lost their jobs over these past ten years. We also knew that the new media were going to be online, and thought it best to start afresh, rather than with legacy-media baggage.
At the time, I was winding down my involvement with Town Hall Seattle, the performance and civic venue I had founded in 1999. The first push came from my friend Tom Alberg, a very civic minded lawyer and venture capitalist in Seattle, who asked me to get a brainstorming group together to see what might be done to address the decline in quality local media, but with one proviso: the new venture had to be online-only. Our group met for nearly a year in cooking up what became Crosscut.com. With a too-modest start-up fund of $150,000, we jumped off the diving board.
Some things worked out better than expected. One was discovering the large number of thoughtful writers out there willing to work for the modest freelance rates we paid ($25-300 per story). These writers, some of them former journalists, proved prolific and well-informed in their areas of expertise. A second surprise was that we could run longer articles (in the 800-1,500 word range), defying the conventional wisdom of websites that nothing should exceed 700 words. A third good sign was that our readers embraced the wide range of topics, and a broad geographic scope. Also, we found that publishing writers with varying political and interpretive perspectives appealed to and created an open-minded readership — once again defying conventional Web wisdom that sites should have a narrow ideological focus.
However, there were also aspects that didn't meet projections. Advertising was slow to grow and, thanks to Google, it was hard to get advertising rates to rise. (That's working a lot better now, by the way, with special thanks to Alicia Flint, who handles ad sales and sponsorships.) Readership for arts and sports stories was less than we thought, which was surprising given the shortage of arts criticism in other media and the sports-mad nature of our region. While the Web appeals to younger readers, Crosscut's readership skewed older, at least at first. Finally, though Crosscut was the first online news site into the local field, the market was soon crowded with others, particularly after the Post-Intelligencer laid off so many of its staff in 2009.
Given these factors, and that we were badly undercapitalized, the venture was taking on water about 18 months in. More about that, and how we forged a new business plan, in my next installment (above)
Not to give away the next chapter, but it was you the readers and Members who came to our rescue and put us on a new trajectory. Thanks for that, and I hope you join up or stay with us as Annual Members. Please consider donating today. Can't do it without your support.