Stephanie Rudig
Stephanie Rudig

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You all know the news: Washington City Paper is for sale. Our owner, SouthComm, Inc., is looking to sell the paper pretty quickly, too—by the end of the year, with preliminary offers due by Nov. 1.

In light of this news, we’re reporting on the possibilities for the future.

While it’s no secret that local newsrooms are hurting financially, and that an Uncle (or Aunt) Pennybags swooping in can save the day, some publications have found sustainability by becoming nonprofits. It’s a way for newsrooms to be directly supported by the community where they’re reporting.

That’s the vision Michael Kanin—a former City Paper staffer—had in 2013 when he started the Austin Monitor—a small but vital publication in Austin, Texas.

Kanin, who had been a freelance writer for the Monitor’s previous incarnation, In Fact Daily, says that “a group of friends and I had been talking about the need for better local journalism in Austin,” and “kicked around the idea to create something.”

At the time, there was a pretty hefty paywall to read the articles on In Fact Daily. “We wanted to make this thing accessible to more people,” Kanin says. “Nonprofit journalism is more accessible to communities than profit journalism.”

And so Kanin, along with staffers Elizabeth Pagano and Jo Clifton, came up with a plan to buy IFD and turn it into the nonprofit publication it is today. It wasn’t easy. First, they had to establish a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation, the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, that would officially take ownership.

Getting approval for 501(c)(3) status can take anywhere from two to 12 months, so while they were waiting for their status to get approved, they had a fiscal sponsor to accept funds. During this period they were also brokering a deal with their owner, which was the Austin-American Statesman.

Through this transition, the Monitor expanded its coverage. IFD had focused on city hall, but the Monitor covers local politics, transportation, development, and more.

Today, the Monitor’s funding comes from a combination of subscriptions (the Monitor has three subscription tiers that range from $5.41 to $97.43 a month), sponsorships, community partnerships, and donations from readers.

“I’m not going to say our model is unique,” Kanin says, “but I believe in that model.”

Kanin is right: The Monitor’s model isn’t unique. One comparable paper, an online daily out of Connecticut called the New Haven Independent, inspired and supported Kanin and his colleagues as they launched. The Monitor didn’t have a formal nonprofit status when it started, but needed a way to accept donations immediately. The New Haven Independent filled this gap with its 501(c)(3), the Online Journalism Project, by accepting donations for the Monitor while Kanin and his team awaited approval for their own nonprofit status.

A longtime local news reporter and editor in New Haven, Paul Bass founded the Independent in 2005. His was the second-ever nonprofit online newspaper—after the Voice of San Diego—he says. After years working at the alt weekly newspaper the New Haven Advocate, Bass founded the Online Journalism Project in order to launch the Independent.

“We have the DNA of an alt-weekly, but the model of a community daily,” Bass says.  

Initially, when the Independent launched, nearly 75 percent of its funding came from national foundations, like the Knight Foundation. “But that well dries up,” Bass says. Today, however, more than 75 percent of the Independent’s funding comes from local sources—philanthropists, local institutions, and the ilk.

There’s a kind of freedom that comes with being a public and not-for-profit news organization, Bass says. “You’re not looking to make rich people richer,” he says. His advice for City Paper: “You gotta find people that care about Washington, that care about good reporting that benefits the community.”  

The Independent, the Monitor, and their peers offer one vision for the future of City Paper: a nonprofit newspaper funded through a combination of sponsorships, journalism grants, and either subscriptions or voluntary reader donations.

“I don’t think you can do the journalism you want to do under the umbrella of people who don’t know the city,” says Kanin, who now sits on the Monitor‘s board of directors and is the publisher of Texas Observer. “People love to say print is dead and alt weeklies are dead, and I think that’s bullshit.”