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As Nonprofit Newsrooms Produce Transformative Journalism, Legislators Take Notice

Across the country, nonprofit news organizations big and small are making a difference and impacting laws.

Taun Hall holds an image of her son, Miles Hall, who was killed by Walnut Creek police in 2019 during a mental health crisis. Federal legislation passed in October 2020 that ensured funding for a 9-8-8 mental health hotline was prompted by reporting in CalMatters. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

The reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, signed into law by President Biden in March, contained an important provision that might have been left out if not for the journalistic efforts of a small nonprofit news outlet in North Carolina.

After Carolina Public Press shed a light on a severe shortage of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners — also known as SANE nurses — in North Carolina’s rural and tribal areas, local lawmakers sprang into action to secure more funding nationwide for these specialized nurses, who are trained to help sexual assault victims in the aftermath of an attack.

Using interviews and a survey of 130 hospitals, Carolina Public Press showed how victims of sexual assault often must travel to hospitals hours away from their community to find a nurse who is trained to help them. U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross of North Carolina, who was integral to the effort to add $30 million of federal funding per year to boost training and access for SANE nurses, gave credit to the outlet for raising attention about the critical need.

Had Carolina Public Press not done that reporting, we would not have become as aware of the problem,” Ross said.

The Asheville, North Carolina-based newsroom, which launched in 2011 and is supported by Arnold Ventures’ journalism portfolio, counts just six full-time reporters and a number of other freelance contributors, but its impact is being felt far beyond state borders. Angie Newsome, CPP’s founder and executive director, credits the nonpartisan, in-depth, and investigative reporting built on the facts” with gaining it credibility and trust with readers across the political spectrum. 

As a reporter and a leader of a news organization, you really hope the work you’re doing is going to matter to people, that it’s going to have some specific impact, so the fact that our reporting impacted legislation on the federal level is just incredible,” Newsome said. I feel a little speechless about it, really.” 

A Promising Sign

After a generation of disruption in the news media, a growing number of nonprofit news outlets across the country are filling critical gaps. With a focus on local civic reporting, independent investigative reporting, and beat reporting, these outlets — big and small, urban and rural — are holding the powerful to account and publishing work that results in legislative and policy change from the local to the federal level. 

It’s an encouraging sign for the future not only of news, but of democracy itself, said Jennifer Preston, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy. 

At a time when we are swamped in misinformation and disinformation spread on social media and promoted on national television cable networks, people need trusted, reliable reporting and information produced in the public interest more than ever,” she said. 

In a recent report, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), a consortium of independent, nonprofit newsrooms, called 2021 a tipping point” in terms of nonprofit news growth and impact. Experts often point to the 2008 financial crisis as the beginning of a period of dramatic and sustained growth for these organizations; foundation funding for nonprofit news in the U.S. has grown significantly: from $84 million in 2009 to $533.5 million in 2020, according to Media Impact Funders. The INN network now encompasses 360 member outlets, all which share a public mission of serving as monitors of power. Arnold Ventures has invested more than $46 million in the space, with grants exclusively supporting nonprofit journalism models.

ProPublica, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit news outlets, which focuses on investigative reporting about abuses of power, cited dozens of new or proposed laws as a direct result of its reporting in 2021, from reforms of a program in Florida that failed to provide benefits for parents of brain-damaged newborns to legislation that mandated that independent insurance brokers disclose to employers how much they make in cash and gifts from insurance carriers and vendors.

The Hechinger Report, a pioneer in nonprofit journalism that covers inequality and innovation in education, partnered with the Boston-based public broadcasting service GBH News and National Public Radio for a recent series on colleges that withhold transcripts and degrees from students with unpaid bills.

The stories, which brought a human voice to a staggering 6.6 million students who can’t obtain their transcripts from public and private colleges and universities for having unpaid bills as low as $25 or less, led to a number of legislative efforts to stop or limit the practice, including in Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. In announcing that it would temporarily stop withholding transcripts, the City University of New York (CUNY) cited and linked to the coverage. And in December, the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote on Twitter: It’s time to end this bad policy.” 

Lawrie Mifflin, The Hechinger Report managing editor, said the outlet’s singular focus on education allows it to prioritize in-depth, original, explanatory reporting, and journalists to become subject matter experts. 

We’re not cycling people through to other beats or other jobs in the news organization — we’re all focused on education in our case,” she said. And we have the time to publish something impactful, even if it takes longer than we thought because we realize along the way there’s more to uncover. We can really go to the place where things are happening; we can really dig in.” 

Pulitzer-Worthy Reporting

The Marshall Project, another single-subject organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting last year for a year-long, far-reaching investigation into the life-altering injuries caused by police dog bites, published in partnership with AL​.com, IndyStar and Invisible Institute. 

Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons” led to policy changes in Indianapolis and Baton Rouge. States, including Massachusetts and Washington, have reviewed their use of police dogs, and the stories also prompted a national police think tank to begin work on national guidelines for K‑9 units. 

Jonathan Kealing, the chief network officer of the Institute for Nonprofit News, said new laws and policies are just one of the ways nonprofit outlets are making positive and demonstrable change in communities.” For instance, a new report by two researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that U.S. judicial districts where an INN member outlet is present have a higher rate of prosecutions for public corruption than districts where an INN member news outlet is not present.

Preston, of the Shorenstein Center, said the trend will only continue as nonprofits become an established pillar of the news ecosystem. Nonprofit news leaders are increasingly focused on building sustainable operations and the revenue required to support this journalism well into the future. 

Leaders are embracing this part of the job,” she said. They are using data and proven strategies to build a loyal audience and membership. We are seeing new approaches to delivering crucial news and information in and for the communities they serve.” 

At Carolina Public Press, Newsome said she wakes up every day seeking to ensure the outlet remains a strong, sustainable newsroom” so it can fulfill its mission to serve the public.

Our goal was always to be the biggest, most impactful nonprofit investigative news team in the state, and I think we’re practically there,” Newsome said. Even though we’re 11 years in, I fully expect this is just the beginning for us.”