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.
While the scientific consensus is clear that human civilization is rapidly changing the climate through uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions, details matter. Which regions will be hit hardest? Which natural disasters can be attributed to climate change? Do positive effects outweigh negative ones in some regions?
To tell this story accurately requires grappling with the latest scientific findings. Science/environment beat writers must do their best to translate these findings to their audiences. Sometimes the truth gets lost in translation, and important findings may be missed. Moreover, traditional media prefer reporting on the human drama of the moment (crime, politics, etc.), and climate change rarely gets the attention it merits.
Is there a better way? Climate Central combines climate science and climate journalism in a single nonprofit organization. It is less focused on the politics of climate change than, say, InsideClimate News (review), but it does cover policy interventions, as well.
It’s been fully operational since 2009 and is based in Princeton, New Jersey, near the famous university. That’s no coincidence. One of the organization’s biggest seed funders is Princeton alum Eric Schmidt (of Google/Alphabet fame), and several staff and Board members are Princeton-affiliated.
Funding and Compensation
The organization’s latest tax return shows revenue of $9.3M, which places it among the better-funded nonprofit journalism outfits.
Most of this funding comes from foundations, but the organization also lists government agencies such as NASA and the US Department of Energy among its supporters. Funding is not further broken down (by year/gift size), and multiple requests for details through the site’s contact form received no reply.
The organization does not publish Annual Reports, and there is no other page that speaks to impact of specific programs, with one exception: The “What We Do” page features a loose list of links to articles by many international publications which have featured Climate Central’s news and research.
Program expenses are split between journalism ($2.7M) and research ($2.2M). Executive compensation is very high by nonprofit journalism standards: CEO Paul Hanle received total compensation (including benefits) of $379K in 2014, Chief Scientist Dr. Heidi Cullen received $395K, and two (S)VPs received more than $280K in total comp.
Granting that Climate Central is an unsual organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (based in Cambridge, MA – not much less expensive than Princeton) may serve as a useful additional benchmark. It is a much bigger organization, with $26.6M revenue in 2013-14 (tax return), yet its Executive Director received “only” $270K in total comp, and its Chief Climate Scientist (who was one of the Lead Writers of an IPCC report) received $186K.
Sampling the News Feed
“Trump and Automakers Target EPA Mileage Rules” is a typical Climate Central news story. It neutrally summarizes how the Trump administration is following through on a campaign commitment to roll back EPA rules implemented towards the end of Obama’s second term, and quotes both environmental experts, an auto industry lobby group, and an environmental advocacy group. (There’s nothing wrong with quoting industry lobby groups, as long as their interests are clearly identified. Problems arise when dealing with “think tanks” that act as corporate front groups, pretending nonpartisanship.)
“Polluters Could ‘More Easily’ Commit Crimes Under Cuts” examines the Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget. Importantly, it highlights some landmark EPA settlements and the complexity of cross-state pollution by large corporations, which refutes the idea that a state-level regulatory approach is sufficient. Again, the article is neutrally written and cites multiple voices, largely focusing on expert opinion.
“Carbon Dioxide Is Rising at Record Rates” cites recent measurements of the carbon dioxide concentration and is partially based on a press release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate Central includes its own simplified version of the NOAA chart (see below) and adds useful additional data and context.
The NOAA version of the chart vs. the Climate Central version. To simplify it, Climate Central removed tick marks, labels for in-between years, and 10-year average bars, and highlighted the most recent years. The most idiosyncratic of these changes is the removal of the year labels; most publications show at least some in-between year markers for time series data (NYT example, Vox example, Bloomberg example).
Beyond its news feed, Climate Central makes efforts to translate its own research into explanatory journalism. Sea Level Rise is one such example project. It is based on peer reviewed research such as the paper “Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level”, and translates these findings into interactive visualizations.
An example of these visualizations is the “Seeing Choices” map which displays the sea level rise in cities like New York under different temperature scenarios.
Some news feed stories also feature interactive content, such as “Meltdown: More Rain, Less Snow as the World Warms”. Many of these interactive widgets are embeddable, though they don’t offer the rich set of share/embed/download options a site like Our World in Data does.
I didn’t find a list of all papers published by Climate Central scientists, or an open access policy, though the papers that are referenced do appear to be freely available online.
Design and Licensing
The main website doesn’t have a mobile version (a pretty major fail in 2017), and it is a bit cluttered with many sections competing for attention (“featured content”, “climate services”, “special sections”, etc.), drowning out the news portion of the site. Perhaps to make up for that, a large story carousel features the latest headlines.
wxshift provides local weather information in combination with longer term climate data and other climate change context. While much more visually appealing than Climate Central, it does not appear to have much of an audience yet.
Climate Central has created much slicker story-centric designs for some of its feature reporting (example). It also operates wxshift, which combines weather reporting with context about how climate change is impacting the weather. Some of the main site’s news content is mirrored to wxshift, as well. Launched in 2015, it appears to have only a very small audience (as of this writing, it has 1,751 Twitter followers and barely registers on traffic ranking tools like Alexa).
Climate Central’s content licensing page is restrictive, requiring case-by-case permission requests rather than using a free license for some or all content. This is fairly typical; even among nonprofits, permissive licensing terms are the exception, not the norm. The organization goes through a lot of trouble to create graphics and maps, which would be entirely appropriate in reference works like Wikipedia, where they could be added to articles read by millions – but the restrictive copyright terms make that kind of re-use impossible.
Climate Central’s journalism+science approach usefully complements more politically focused sites like InsideClimate News. Its journalism is nonpartisan, understandable, and fair, while being based on the scientific consensus. If you care about climate change (and unless you are reading this from another planet than Earth, you should), it’s a source worth adding to your social media or RSS reader.
The main site could use an upgrade. While it’s certainly non-trivial to upgrade older sites, there are many open source projects specifically targeting nonprofit journalism, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News’ widely used Largo Wordpress theme and the Ghost publishing platform.
The organization would also benefit from greater transparency. Being open and accountable about how impact is measured and under what conditions projects are shut down can help donors appreciate that their support is put to good use, and that projects aren’t just left to spin even if they aren’t producing a lot of bang for the buck.
The rating is 4 out of 5 stars, with high marks for the overall quality of Climate Central’s journalism. 1 point off for lack of organizational transparency, for executive compensation well above other science and journalism nonprofits, and for a site design that is not consistently mobile-friendly.
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.