In case you missed it, the following reviews have been updated with lots more detail:
Team: Nonprofit MediaWe look for quality sources of news and analysis in the public interest
We believe the profit motive harms the integrity of information in news media. It incentivizes sensationalism and introduces coverage biases toward owners and advertisers.
We’re on the look-out for media sources that follow a different funding model or are entirely volunteer-driven.
Highly reviewed national or international English language media are added to this Twitter list, which lets you easily subscribe to the whole batch or follow individual ones you care about.
Our current top 5 to review:
Number of members: 3 (view list)
Any source tagged with this team must not be primarily advertising funded. We don’t currently aim to review primarily state-funded media.
See our detailed checklist for tips on what to look for and how to rate.
Natural selection has equipped our species with brains that pay special attention to negative events. We monitor the world for threats to our well-being, and we enforce in-group social norms by ostracizing those who violate them.
Our modern media ecosystem kicks these reasonable sensitivities into overdrive and produces pathological feedback loops. A celebrity’s stupid off-hand remark in an interview may trigger a multi-day cycle of outrage; a terrorist’s violent act may dominate collective attention for weeks.
This is not without consequences. We become vulnerable to manipulation and demagogy. We become polarized. We become depressed. Negativity spreads on its own. It is positive, constructive engagement with the world that takes effort.
Positive News wants to help. A public benefit co-operative based in London, owned by authors and readers, it’s both a print magazine and a website dedicated to what it terms “constructive journalism”. This isn’t about images of puppies (not that there’s anything wrong with those) or about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Instead, Positive News focuses on stories that show how difficult problems can be solved or at least chipped away at.
The magazine is beautifully designed, with appealing typography and layout, and large format photographs and illustrations
Positive News has been around for a while. It was started as a quarterly newspaper in 1993, but was relaunched as a magazine by editor-in-chief Seán Dagan Wood in 2015. The crowdfunding campaign for the co-op raised £263K (about $340K). The co-ownership model is becoming increasingly popular in the UK — nonprofit magazine New Internationalist launched a similar campaign earlier this year and raised £704K.
As part of its crowdfunding campaign, Positive News published a business plan, which includes long-term revenue goals. I was not able to find public information about revenue and spending beyond the plan, and have not received a response to an email inquiry. That said, the numbers here are still too small to worry about excessive compensation or bloat.
With a small budget, the site has managed to build a sizable social media presence, especially on Facebook, where it has more than 250K followers. Several multi-million dollar nonprofit journalism organizations we’ve reviewed do not come close to those numbers.
Positive News is largely funded by print subscriptions. Subscribers get access to a digital version, but it’s impossible to directly buy individual issues of the magazine in digital form. The “Own the Media” campaign website is still up, but no community shares are currently up for sale.
There are no ads on the site, but there is a page dedicated to “brands of inspiration” — essentially a selective approach to sponsorship. Occasionally, staff writers write longer articles about these brands (which disclose the sponsorship).
That approach isn’t without risks — would Positive News report fairly about a competitor that doesn’t want to be a sponsor? Would it include legitimate criticisms? Do readers fully understand the sponsorship relationship? While all the featured businesses tend to be in the green/organic/pro-social category, the criteria for becoming a partner are not public.
I don’t want to overstate the issue. Positive News is not in the business of writing exposés about corporate abuses, so it is unlikely the sponsorship will clash with investigative work. And in any case, only two such sponsored “advertorials” can be found on the website so far. Still, a more transparent process for selecting partner brands would be welcome.
Like the magazine, the website design puts photographs and illustrations front and center — perhaps a bit at the detriment of readability for shorter articles
Design and Content
The website publishes feature-length articles and short newswire pieces, categorized into sections such as “lifestyle” or “economics”. Just like the printed magazine, the site is very visual, placing significant emphasis on design, typography and large lead images.
The site uses Disqus for comments. Activity is low (most conversations happen on the site’s Facebook feed) but there is little trolling or negativity in the comment section.
Although the organization is based in the UK, much of its reporting is international in nature (some is syndicated from other sources, including NGOs). The articles tackle tough subjects: climate change, terrorism, racism, and so on. But they focus on people working on solutions (“on patrol with an all-women anti-poaching unit”; “5 grassroots responses to terror attacks”) rather than on simply pointing out the gravity of problems.
For the most part, this isn’t about replacing bad news with good news — it’s about restoring a sense of agency. I found the reporting reasonably dispassionate, but it typically only scratches the surface and is not evaluative in nature (“does this work?”).
Site content is under conventional copyright.
I recommend adding Positive News to your media diet: 4 out of 5 stars. I am swayed by the argument that constructive journalism is psychologically valuable, and it undeniably brings attention to important causes. It also may inspire readers to replicate good ideas.
The organization behind the site would benefit from greater transparency about its revenue model and its plans for the future, especially if it intends to further pursue sponsorships and advertorials which may compromise real or perceived impartiality.
The site’s large social media reach demonstrates that there is a growing hunger for this type of journalism. Other media ventures would do well to consider how they can provide similar value to their audiences, e.g., by doing more feature reporting on solutions as opposed to problems.
A checklist for reviewing nonprofit media
We have now published a few reviews of non-profit media. Let’s take a closer look at the criteria we can use to assess a non-profit publication (many of which also apply to for-profit media) and how they should influence a source’s rating.
How a source is funded may influence what it reports on. We currently do not review publications that are primarily funded through advertising or by taxpayers. The types of media we are interested in receive funding primarily (>50%) in one or more of the following ways:
- from individual major donors
- from individual small donations
- from foundations that award grants, fellowships, etc. (more on this below)
- from subscriptions
Each of these revenue sources has its own challenges, with subscriptions or small donations providing the broadest base of support and therefore the least leverage for any individual supporter; the effect of such a model does then depend largely on what most the supporters expect from the thing they’re supporting (even neo-nazi websites like Stormfront use funding from individual donors to survive).
The Intercept is an interesting example for how support from a single large donor can grant a significant measure of editorial freedom. The non-profit behind it, First Look Media, was funded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, receiving $30M funding in its first year. But of course this presents major vulnerabilities as well. There is the possibility of behind-the-scenes meddling, or the organization might simply run out of money.
When major donors become philanthropists, they often set up foundations. These organizations give in accordance with their funders’ wishes. Many of them operate large endowment funds, which generate investment income indefintely (see Wikipedia’s list of the wealthiest foundations).
Non-profit media can apply for grants from foundations, and some rely primarily in such support – see the ProPublica list of supporters, for example. Heavy reliance on foundations may introduce a status quo bias: typically the creation of millionaires or billionaires, they are usually founded with the intent to advocate for an incremental change agenda within the existing political and economic order. They are also reputation-sensitive, and do not themselves want to be targeted by political groups. Their internal decision-making processes may reflect these biases, and penalize grant applicants who propose overly radical projects.
Such concerns are not unwarranted, as the intense targeting of one of the most progressive funders, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, by right-wing groups demonstrates. Progressives – who are notoriously skeptical of billionaires’ intentions – don’t necessarily jump to their defense, either. As a result, many other philanthropists avoid politics entirely, and focus on diseases, poverty, or other social ills.
There are, of course, also countless reactionary foundations. Organizations like the “Center for Organizational Research and Education” are funded by corporations to advance their agenda, by discrediting scientific research or activist efforts. And progressive organizations like the Center for American Progress have received funding from corporate donors and foreign countries.
To uncover funding networks, the following resources are helpful:
- The ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer, GuideStar and Charity Navigator mine the tax returns (form 990) of US-based non-profit organizations, which include high-level revenue data and top executive compensation.
- Many established charities publish Annual Reports, though they can be difficult to find. Use a Google search with
site:<domain name>. These reports usually include a funding breakdown by source (foundations, individual donations, etc.).
- Separately, charities may have pages with names like “Benefactors” or “Our supporters” that list key major donors by name.
- A news search for the charity’s name, the Wikipedia article, and other external sources may provide additional information.
Relation to rating: The funding model should not influence a source’s rating.
As noted above, US non-profit tax returns do include top salaries. Needless to say, appropriate compensation is highly dependent on geography, and also correlates with organizational size (running a large, complex organization requires a different skillset that warrants higher compensation). With that said, it’s useful to compare executive compensation with non-profits of similar size in the same region. Is it extraordinarily high?
If the organization is currently dependent on a few large revenue sources like major donors and foundations, excessive compensation may make it more difficult to achieve a broader base of support as soon as these numbers receive greater scrutiny. And of course there’s the practical question of how much the charity can achieve for a given dollar if it pays more for certain roles than it needs to.
Relation to rating: This should only influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
Overhead vs. Waste
You may have heard of “overhead ratios” and similar efficiency assessments: how much of a charity’s work goes towards programmatic work (such as journalism) and how much goes towards administrative support (such as fundraising, office equipment, etc.).
These ratios are now widely regarded as counterproductive by nonprofit experts, because they can be easily gamed (the functional allocation of expenses is done by the nonprofit itself and contains a lot of loopholes), because honest organizations may get penalized, and because they may disincentivize necessary investments that increase the organization’s effectiveness.
As such, I never look at an overhead ratio by itself, but I do scrutinize Annual Reports, financial statements and other records to look for evidence of wasteful spending. An example would be excessive spending on executive offsite meetings, consultants engaging in runaway planning projects, and so on.
Relation to rating: Wastefulness should influence a source’s rating to the extent that it appeals for public support.
This brings us to the broader question of what we can learn about an organization and its inner workings. The information I expect to find on a well-run non-profit’s website includes:
- information about the tax deductibility of donations
- the latest Annual Report or at least a list of benefactors
- the latest tax returns and financials
- information about the Board and Staff (at least leadership)
- contact information
If such information is nowhere to be found, that doesn’t mean anyone is trying to hide something. Organizations go through stages of development, and developing an understanding of good governance is part of that process. What’s disappointing is when a well-funded organization does a poorer job with this than a scrappy one.
Relation to rating: A well-established, well-funded organization can be penalized for lack of transparency.
A source may position itself in different ways, e.g., as center-left, or religious right, or far left, and this may be expressed in the form of editorials, analysis, and most importantly, coverage. Which stories receive attention and why, and which ones don’t? Which views are dismissed as “unrealistic” or “extreme”? Does the source obsesesively target the same person over and over again, resulting in an unbalanced perception of reality?
I don’t believe that there is “neutral” positioning for a news source. Selection of topics, scope of coverage, placement of stories, etc. are all “opinionated” decisions, made by humans with a perspective on how the world works, or by human-created algorithms optimizing towards a specific outcome like ad revenue. Nobody would want to read an actually neutral news source: positioning and curation are crucial functions of all news media.
In order to identify positioning:
- We can look at the way a source describes itself, or the founder has described it.
- We can look at the aforementioned funding questions to give us some clues. Funders with specific leanings tend to fund consistently with those leanings.
- We can spot check topical coverage:
- How are climate movements like “Keep it in the Ground” treated?
- How are different political candidates treated?
- How are revelations by major whistleblowers like Edward Snowden presented?
- We can look at the editorial pages. Do they restrict themselves to a narrow band of opinions, and if so, which band is it?
- What “experts” are consulted by the source? (See SourceWatch’s list of industry-friendly experts, for example.)
- Does the publication engage in false balance?
Relation to rating: Positioning itself should not influence the rating, but answers to the above question may, especially insofar as they relate to manipulative intent (see below).
Manipulative intent, gross negligence, sensationalizing
Beyond their positioning (which shapes our views through what is included and excluded), media can manipulate our views is subtle and notoso-subtle ways:
Deliberate distortion. The typical example would be an out of context quote. This has been noted in the example of UK politican Jeremy Corbyn, for example: How to speak Corbyn: A Headline Writer’s Guide But there are many other ways to misrepresent a story, omit crucial context, or sensationalize. Clickbait sites on the left are not immune to this charge.
Gross negligence. Imagine building a whole story on the basis of an unverified tweet by a random person on the Internet. Pipelines of media can normalize gross negligence: from Twitter to Infowars or Zerohedge to Breitbart or Daily Caller to National Review or Fox News.
Sensationalizing. The classic example here is the tabloid screaming of a scandal in letters taking up much of the page. The more modern example would be a clickbait headline. A source may report something real, but may do it using hyperbolic language, moral condemnation, exaggerated interpretations, calls to action, and so on.
In all these cases, it’s worth looking not just for evidence that such things occur (which is fairly easy, and supported by fact-checking sites like Politifact, Snopes, and so on), but also whether they follow a pattern consistent with the source’s positioning.
Relation to rating: A source may be penalized consistent with the extent to which it engages in these practices.
Mechanism for corrections
Is there a way to report an error? If so, does it actually result in any acknowledgment or follow-up? I highly recommend testing this with any source whenever you spot an error. The results can be enlightening.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
What does the news source actually cover? Is it a global, national, locally focused source? Is it restricted to certain topics? Does it include editorials, news, original interviews, cartoons, etc.? The answers shouldn’t reflect well or poorly on the source, but do help readers decide what other sources they might want to add to their mix to even things out.
Relation to rating: Scope should not affect the rating.
Does the source have a discussion forum? If so, does it have any moderation mechanism, protection against forum spam, etc.? Are there other ways for readers to get involved, e.g., through citizen journalism projects?
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.
Most content is uner conventional copyright: you can’t use it without the author’s permission (fair use exemptions notwithstanding). For organizations dedicated to advancing the public interest in some way, this can be dissonant. There is an alternative: Creative Commons licensing. It lets an author say: “I want anyone to be able to use it, but only if they credit me by name”. Or “I want anyone to be able to use it, but not commercially.”
Wikipedia, for example, uses the Creative Commons Attribution Share/Alike-License. It requires attribution, and if you share a modified version, your changes have to be made under the same terms. This license is also used by some non-profit media, such as Common Dreams. Many, however, likely have never heard of this option.
Relation to rating: This is a minor consideration.