A New Business Model for Journalism: The CT News Project

October 13, 2011

This is the second in a series about how the Connecticut Health Foundation (CT Health) is supporting health journalism. In our previous story, Shelley Geballe discussed the impetus behind the Connecticut News Project. Today’s post takes a closer look at the Project, and discusses a new business model for journalism.

James “Jim” Cutie is Chief Executive Officer and Publisher of the Connecticut New Project. The CT Mirror, the News Project’s online news site, began reporting in late January 2010. The Mirror is unusual for a variety of reasons – its “niche” is public policy; it exists only online; it has a nonprofit business model; and its staff works almost completely virtually. In less than twenty months’ time, the Mirror has earned enough credibility to enjoy more than 2.5 million visits since its launch in January 2010.  The Mirror was received special recognition in the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for being “more transparent and generate(ing) a relatively high volume of content.”

In the face of dwindling support for traditional media more publishers are turning towards a nonprofit, rather than forprofit, model for business. It still costs money to run such an organization, however, and one of the key funding streams is philanthropic.

Jenn: How does support from the Connecticut Health Foundation help you do your job?

Jim: We’re proud to say that virtually all of the funding we receive from the foundation is invested in the reporting, journalists and the web technology. Our reporters spend most of their time working their beats at the capitol and elsewhere. They work off laptops and mobile phones. We do have a small business office at the Hispanic Health Council, but the funding really goes to the reporting and to the presentation of the reporting on the website. Our funders should take great pride in how we’ve optimized our use of funds. Specifically, thanks to the Connecticut Health Foundation, we have funded a robust health reporting initiative and the only full-time correspondent in Washington, DC.

Second, we have the ability to say that the Connecticut Health Foundation, a highly respected, recognized name in the community, funds the Mirror. It gives us another overlay of credibility.

Third, and this is not a small item either, getting to know you folks at the foundation has been beneficial as well. The relationship we have, and that the project has, with the foundation, really benefits us. We are not shy about using you and your colleagues as resources and sounding boards.

Jenn: What’s your vision of the future for the Mirror?

Jim: The Mirror is central to the vision, but the vision is bigger than the Mirror. The Mirror is the flagship of the CT News Project, and we use it as a way to inform people about public policy and state government. But we’re thinking beyond that – not just online but offline. We’d like to host forums, in brick-and-mortar venues, to really promote civic engagement around topics such as health care, education, the environment and so on. Getting people talking about these issues, getting communities involved, that’s our mission.

We organized one forum on the environment back in March that was very successful. Standing room only at a Yale’s Kroon Hall.  We choose New Haven to extend our reach geographically.  We want to get in front of people, literally. We want to reach a diverse audience on the site and around the state.  Our content is available in 50 languages.

One of our ambitious goals is to become ubiquitous and multi-platform with the help of partners. We partner with ten daily newspapers that represent 40 percent of all Connecticut circulation, as well as Spanish language weekly newspapers, college newspapers and legal and business publications plus WNPR and other media outlets all over the state.

Jenn: Going forward, what’s the role of philanthropy in supporting journalism?

Jim: The business model we’re trying to build is a three-legged stool – it might be a bit wobbly right now, but you can sit on it. I believe that some portion of funding will come from foundations who see our mission as consistent with theirs since reliable information is central to solving most problems. To solve disparities in health care, for example, you need to solve disparities in health care information.

The three legs of the stool are foundation support, corporate or business sponsorship, which we’re starting to pursue now, and private donors, large and small. We don’t envision putting a paywall up, our content will always be free and accessible across a variety of platforms, but we will invite people who have the wherewithal and  recognize the value of journalism to become members, even if it’s $25, $50 a year.

If we can do brick-and-mortar events, we think we can get sponsors who will want to be at those events. No matter what the forum or format, our reporting will be non-partisan. On the web and at events, we will bring people together to debate key policy issues but our own original work will be non-partisan reporting that helps to inform Connecticut residents. Connecticut is a small state. We can make real and lasting relationships with people across the state. We can take a series of forums on the road and logistically get this done with a relatively small staff. With the help of our partners, foundations, schools and colleges, businesses, community organizations and other media plus individuals, together we can make a measurable difference.

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