Nonprofitable ventures

When David Bennahum founded the American Independent News Network in May 2006, it was something of an experiment. More and more people, he says, were gravitating to the Internet for news, and blogs were an increasingly popular source of information for readers. Traditional newspapers were finding themselves scrambling to keep up with Internet news startups, which were relatively quick, easy and cheap to set up — with minimal or no investment, citizen journalists and wannabe pundits could post their musings, investigations and screeds online. And readers were responding.

"But what was missing from the blogosphere, with some exceptions," says David Bennahum, president and CEO of the American Independent News Network (formerly known as the Center for Independent Media), "was serious journalism."

Bennahum, a founding writer for Wired and former contributor to the Economist and New York magazines, started to wonder: What would happen if you married the economics of the web with the professional standards of traditional journalism? Could you produce a new kind of newsroom that could create a viable, credible and (most importantly) sustainable online publication with low overhead, high standards, and accountability to the communities it covered?

Four years later, the answer appears to be yes. The American Independent News Network now operates news websites in six states and one in Washington D.C. The self-proclaimed mission of the project, Bennahum says, is to produce "impact journalism" — which Bennahum defines as news that shapes public debate on topics that touch readers' lives — at the state level.

On Monday, May 21, the network launched the Florida Independent, its seventh news site, which will cover state politics, environmental news, immigration, energy and media in the state.

Like its sister publications, Florida Independent is a nonprofit endeavor: It was created with more than $350,000 in grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, located in Naples, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.

Florida Independent editor Cooper Levey-Baker says the goal is to "do the reporting we feel isn't being done by major dailies."

That's a mission shared by numerous alternative-to-the-mainstream websites and publications — including this one — and a lot of the staff at Independent sites have been lifted from those like-minded pubs. Levey-Baker, for instance, is the former editor of Sarasota's alt-weekly Creative Loafing. His three reporters also have backgrounds in alternative journalism and activism — one has written for Mother Jones, for instance; another has worked for Jobs with Justice.

Unlike more traditional media models, which rely on ad sales (and therefore readership demographics) to stay afloat, advertising is a minor portion of the organization's income. Per Bennahum, it costs about $210,000 per month to run the entire network and only $7,000 of that is paid for in ad sales — the remainder comes from grant funding.

"It's not about revenue or page views or things like that or about ad impressions," says Levey-Baker. "It's about doing stories that matter."

It's also about really knowing the business of foundations and grants. Most grants are not indefinite — after several years, they usually expire. To remain viable, Bennahum says, the business model for the American Independent News Network is to diversify so the organization doesn't rely on any one funding source to stay afloat. And per Bennahum, there is no plan to move to a profit-driven model.

"We believe that philanthropic support will remain the absolute core of what we do, for as long as we can see," he says, noting that the organization doesn't see any "functional" funding models that work for new journalism in the for-profit world.

Which doesn't bode well for newspapers. When asked what he thinks the future of the news industry looks like, Bennahum compares it to the evolution of entertainment when motion pictures evolved and replaced live theater as the most popular diversion for the masses.

"There was a huge industry of theatrical production in the United States that employed tens of thousands of people around the country," he says. When audiences gravitated to movies over live performances, it was a massive blow to theater. "People lost their jobs — it was a big deal. … There's no question with news now, you have to respond to the fact that the audience is increasingly on the web."

Which means that to remain relevant editors and publishers have to start thinking about newsrooms and their missions differently.

"We were just joking internally," says Bennahum. "What are we: a daily, weekly, a monthly? And I said, ‘No, we're a currently.'"

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