Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Non-Profit News


In the traditional commercial news model, the source of revenue is self-evident. Advertising and circulation pay the bills. If one wants to know who is providing financial backing for the operation, one can simply examine the ads. In a non-profit model, however, even when there is advertising revenue, the source of the lion’s share of the money may or may not be so obvious. That brings in the question of how transparent a site is about who is providing funding. In the more familiar non-profit media model, public broadcasting, there are rules about disclosure.

How transparent were the sites and their benefactors about where their money comes from? How explicit were they about the overall mission of those charitable organizations that might shed light on why they had financed the site? How simple is it to contact one of these sites?

The study examined each of the sites for all three of these elements-transparency about funding sources and mission and also the accessibility of the staff. In addition, the study examined how transparent any parent organizations or major funders were about their finances and mission. Researchers then combined these three indicators into a scale.

Researchers found that the level of transparency varied from site to site and from group to group. In general, however, the more transparent sites tended to be more balanced in their content. Sites that disclosed less about their mission and funding tended to be more ideological in their content. Liberal-leaning sites, however, were somewhat more transparent than conservative ones.

Among the most transparent sites was Texas Tribune. A visit to the site’s “about us” section provides an overview, in more than 500 words, about its mission, biographical information on its founders, and a summary of its makeup and revenue streams (elsewhere on the site, one can access a recent Texas Tribune 990 form). The site’s “Support us” section introduces visitors to another set of pages-the donors & members page, listing every donor who have given at least $10, and the corporate sponsors page, listing more than 60 founding sponsors. And a contact page at the Texas Tribune website provides phone numbers and e-mail addresses for its entire staff.


All sites had at least some information about one of the elements. Thus, no site scored zero-only one scored below 40. The majority of sites scored above 60.

The sites that make up the Statehouse News consortium were, by a narrow margin, the least transparent group in the study scoring 58 on the overall transparency scale (a score of 100 would indicate the highest level of transparency). Individual Statehouse sites themselves, however, ranged some in their transparency. Maryland Reporter, for instance, scored 80; the Tennessee Report scored 20.

The lack of transparency related mostly to what the Statehouse sites or their parent organizations said about their funding. Two of the Statehouse group, Missouri News Horizon and Tennessee Report, did not indicate anywhere on their websites who funds their work. And only three of the 11 sites-Maryland Reporter, Texas Watchdog and Pennsylvania Independent-provide comprehensive information about their funders.

When it came to the funders themselves of the Statehouse sites, not a single one provided any information about where their money came from. Instead, with phrases such as being funded by “individuals, foundations and corporations” (Idaho Freedom Foundation) or “donors like you” (Tennessee Report), in every case, the foundations and non-profits that fund the Statehouse News sites included a variation on the following statement: We protect the anonymity of our supporters.

The family of sites was the second-least transparent in the sample, scoring 61 on the 100-point transparency scale.

Generally the sites described themselves as being interested in investigative reporting and cited their parent organization, usually the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, as their funder. The Franklin Center itself doesn’t offer much sense of an ideological orientation to its mission, saying it was designed to “promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud or taxpayer abuse by elected officials.” The Franklin Center and the other groups backing these sites offered nothing about the sources of their own funding, scoring a 0 on the funding transparency scale of 0-100. The Franklin Center, according to its website, “protects the identification of its generous donors and ensures anonymity of all contributions.”


The sites making up the American Independent News Network overall were more transparent than the Watchdog group but only somewhat. On average, the group scored 72 out of 100, placing them somewhere between the least and most transparent sites in the study.

The individual news sites generally do not offer much about their own objectives. Instead they refer visitors to their parent publisher, who is also their funder, the American Independent News Network (formerly the Center for Independent Media). The parent organization does offer some information about funders, listing major donors by name, though not linking or describing them.

One would have to conduct a web search of the funders themselves to learn, for instance, that the Open Society Foundations, a supporter of the American Independent News Network, works “to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens” (Open Society Foundations is not currently funding the American Independent News Network. Soros’ foundation also supports other non-profit news efforts, including The Texas Tribune and ProPublica). A separate search is also required to learn that the Tides Foundation is a “values based, social change platform” that works with people to “confront issues like global warming, AIDS treatment and prevention, and economic disparity.”

The most transparent sites studied were generally the individual multi-funder sites. While all operated separately of one another, the sites in this category shared a common approach to providing information about themselves and their funding sources. None of the five sites scored below 90 on the overall transparency scale.

When it came to describing mission, each scored a full 100 on this element of the transparency scale.



The commercial sites tended to vary widely in terms of transparency. There were those like New West that were scored as highly transparent (80), but also those like Sunshine State News that were not (score of 40).

On the whole, though, the commercial sites tended to be open about their mission. Six out of the seven sites provided detailed descriptions of their purpose. The exception was The Daily Caller, whose relatively sparse “about us” section mentions the two founders of the site and provides a brief several-line description of itself as a 24-hour news site providing original reporting.

There was somewhat less information about the investors and institutions behind these commercial sites. One site, Progress Illinois, was launched by the SEIU, a service workers union, which provides a detailed description of its mission online. Other sites, launched with the financial backing of one or two individuals, provided less information about those persons. The Alaska Dispatch’s description of its patrons was more detailed than the typical commercial sites studied. It mentions its founders “Alaska journalists (and husband and wife) Tony Hopfinger and Amanda Coyne” and then “Alice Rogoff, a longtime supporter of journalism and a former chief financial officer of U.S. News and World Report” who became the majority owner in 2009.







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