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Definition of nonprofit journalism enters gray area in Encinitas

Camille Lozano

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The not-for-profit news model has recently emerged as an increasingly viable form for sustaining media organizations in a time when the future of traditional media is questioned and for-profit institutions report weakened readership.

But as nonprofit news organizations rise in number, concerns have grown regarding the claim of just how these organizations identify themselves. It’s an issue that has cropped in this year’s election season in Encinitas.

Nonprofits explained

The Internal Revenue Service website states that an organization, typically characterized as charitable, can qualify as a tax-exempt nonprofit if it serves to advance education under the Internal Revenue Code Section 501c(3).

Nonprofit news organizations fall under this category, and as Pew Research’s Journalism Project clarifies, the nonprofit label refers to these organizations’ financial design and tax-exempt status, rather than the neutrality of the content covered. Nonprofit refers to an organization’s ability to provide a service, rather than to make money.

According to a June 2013 study by the Journalism Project, almost all states in the U.S. have at least one nonprofit news organization. The study found 172 active nonprofit news organizations in the U.S. last year.

“As newspapers evolve and need to get more money from the people who value it, (nonprofits are) a good model for setting up systems where people can donate and support a service like this that they value,” Scott Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit news organization Voice of San Diego, said.

He said Voice of San Diego has more than 2,000 members as well as foundations, corporate sponsors and partners that fund the organization. He also said that because of this funding diversification, Voice of San Diego is held accountable by these entities “to deliver a service that they’re proud of.”

“The mission is to provide investigative reporting and to help residents get the information they need to make good decisions for good government and social progress,” Lewis said.

But being a nonprofit, education-driven news organization does not ensure fairness or nonpartisan reporting in all cases.

Bias and accountability

“Nonprofits are typically viewed as being able to take more risks with their news coverage because it’s not as tied to the influence, perceived or real, of the advertisers,” Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University, said. “Just because you’re nonprofit, doesn’t mean you’re neutral. A lot of nonprofits are extremely biased, so viewers just have to be kind of aware of what the perspective is that the news is coming from.”

Watchdog.org is an example of this, as the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization “promotes a vibrant, well-informed electorate and a more transparent government” by employing independent journalists to provide state and local government reporting.

Yet Watchdog delivers news through a conservative lens. Watchdog.org and its affiliate sites have come under fire by organizations such as Pew over concerns of lack of transparency.

“Among the least transparent sites was the Alaska Watchdog of the Watchdog.org family,” Pew stated in its 2011 Pew Research Journalism Project report. “The site had no ‘about us’ section; nor was there any description of the site’s funding sources.”

Whether a site is objective or politically charged, what exactly constitutes nonprofit journalism by definition if a website is not tied to a nonprofit organization?

The Encinitas Beacon, an online newsletter run by Andrew Audet, former political commentator for The Coast News, is a site that stakes a claim to “nonprofit journalism,” displayed directly below the site’s masthead.

The words are written beside a lighthouse icon, an illustrative preface of the website’s aim to “shine the light on the management of our city.”

Yet, according to Audet, while the website’s goal is to provide information that would benefit the public and hold government accountable, the Beacon is not clear on its claim of “nonprofit journalism.”

Although the site is not a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, Audet defends the use of the “nonprofit” term.

“Nonprofit journalism means it’s actually nonprofit, we aren’t looking to raise money from any sources,”Audet said of the website’s label. “We don’t have any advertisers, there’s no money changing hands. We’re not a nonprofit organization.”

But such an interpretation of the “nonprofit journalism” label could run counter to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The code states that journalists must “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences” and “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

The Encinitas Beacon website does not provide a commentary section for readers to engage with the site to ask questions and share opinions. There is also no contact information listed for the Beacon, and there is no clear explanation of what “nonprofit” refers to.

Audet explained that because the newsletters he receives from City Council members have no reader commentary sections, he doesn’t need to have one, either.

He added that readers have the opportunity to comment on other similar sites, such as the blog Encinitas Undercover, so a commentary section is unnecessary for the Beacon.

Voice of San Diego’s Scott Lewis, however, said that the Beacon’s claims reflect poorly on the journalism profession as a whole.

“Any person that starts a blog or starts a site and says that they’re whatever, I don’t think is reflective of the industry as a whole, that’s for sure,” Lewis said.

Camille Lozano is a San Diego freelance writer

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1 Comment

One Response to “Definition of nonprofit journalism enters gray area in Encinitas”

  1. Karl on October 18th, 2014 1:01 pm

    Great article and a timely one too! It seems that terms such as, nonprofit, organic, and sustainable, are sometimes over used or used as a selling point. In that case, the meaning of these terms becomes convoluted. This investigation and clarification of “nonprofit” in regards to journalism, brings an important topic to light.

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Definition of nonprofit journalism enters gray area in Encinitas