Nonprofit Media

Toward Creating a More Informed Public

What is nonprofit media?

Nonprofit media groups are organizations that seek 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status as public charities. These diverse organizations serve a valuable role in educating citizens through in-depth public interest reporting, including investigative journalism, news reports, explanatory journalism, solutions journalism, and specialty journalism, in order to elevate important social topics, particularly at the local level.

How is the Council involved?

Supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Council is working with the IRS in an effort to obtain clear guidance on the tax-exempt application process for nonprofit media groups that seek 501(c)(3) status. With the support of the Knight Foundation, in 2012 the Council convened a group of leaders from the foundation and tax-exempt media sector to meet over the course of a year and engage on the challenges and opportunities presented by nonprofit media. On March 4, 2013, this group released a report entitled The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public. The report had five key findings about IRS treatment of these emerging organizations:

  • Applications for tax-exempt status are processed inconsistently and take too long;
  • The IRS approach appears to undervalue journalism;
  • The IRS approach appears to inhibit the long-term sustainability of tax-exempt media organizations;
  • Confusion may be inhibiting nonprofit entrepreneurs trying to address the information needs of communities; and
  • The IRS approach does not sufficiently recognize the change nature of digital media.

To address some of these concerns, the report recommended the following:

  • The IRS methodology for analyzing whether a media organization qualifies for exemption should not take into account irrelevant operational similarities to for-profits;
  • The IRS should focus on whether the media organization is engaged primarily in educational activities that provide a community benefit, as opposed to advancing private interests, and whether it is organized and managed as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization;
  • News and journalism do count as “educational” under the tax-exempt rules;
  • The IRS should maintain the key structural requirements for being a tax-exempt media organization that properly distinguish it from a commercial enterprise, such as: it cannot have shareholders or investors, it must have a governing board that is independent of private interests, and it cannot endorse candidates or lobby lawmakers.

The Council continues to engage all types of stakeholders on this topic to ensure that nonprofit media organizations are treated consistently and fairly under the law.

Nonprofit Media in the News

Nonprofit media organizations are receiving a lot of media attention these days for stepping up to fill a void in critical public interest reporting. We’ve developed a running list of this coverage as a resource for nonprofit news organizations, the nonprofit and philanthropic community, and anyone who is interested in nonprofit media or who wishes to research this emerging topic.

  • DMLP Announcement: A New Report on Media Credentialing in the United States—Digital Media Law Project
  • This press release by the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society details a new report released by Media Credentialing Working Group. The report suggests that there could be systemic issues in the way credentials are awarded, and that this may negatively affect less-established organizations and journalists.
  • Philanthropy and NewsHuffington Post blog post from Jeff Jarvis
  • This opinion blog post by Jeff Jarvis raises some of the questions to be asked about philanthropy and news media, and whether philanthropists are encouraging sustainability in how they give.
  • Beyond the Tea Party: How the IRS Is Killing Nonprofit MediaHuffington Post blog post by Dan Kennedy
  • This opinion blog post by Dan Kennedy, Assistant Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, sheds light on some of the IRS practices that have been hindering the growth of nonprofit media, primarily the classification of journalism as non-educational.
  • INNovation Fund Winners Announced—Investigative News Network
  • This announcement from the Investigative News Network names the eight Round 1 winners of their INNovation Fund grants for the cultivation of “experimentation and new ideas newsrooms.” The grants will be used for purposes ranging from the creation of database tools and apps to new programming and audience expansion efforts.
  • Knight Study: Syndication, Diverse Revenue Streams Make Non-Profit News Sustainable—PBS
  • This article from PBS details a Knight Foundation study on nonprofit media revenue streams. The study examined the role of diversification of revenue, syndication and partnerships, and social media referrals in creating sustainable—and expanding—business models.
  • Collaboration Is a Key Pillar to Keeping Investigative Journalism AlivePBS opinion piece by Denise Malan
  • This piece from PBS proposes that bold, large-scale investigative reporting projects require more resources than any one small news organization can reasonably marshal—and thus advocates for greater collaboration among nonprofit media outlets in undertaking ambitious exposés.
  • IRS should allow news to evolve: ColumnUSA Today opinion piece by Steven Waldman
  • Steven Waldman, the Chair of the Council on Foundations’ Nonprofit Media Working Group, contributed this opinion piece to USA Today, centering on the issue of the IRS’s nonprofit media-stifling practices.
  • InsideClimate News wins PulitzerWashington Post
  • This article from the Washington Post discusses the small, nonprofit media group InsideClimate News, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its story “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.”
  • Another Nonprofit News Website Gets Its Wings – Nonprofit Quarterly
    This article announces that the Carolina Public Press has been granted 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS. Carolina Public Press became incorporated in 2012 and applied for tax-exempt status last year.
  • Support crucial for non-profit journalism - USA Today
    This article affirms the critical role nonprofit journalism is playing today, but argues that unless these organizations diversify their revenue streams, their continued existence is in danger. Quotes Steve Waldman, principle author of the FCC’s major 2011 study on American news media, saying that “if the winners of the new economy put a tiny bit of their wealth into this [area], this whole space would be transformed.”
  • Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System - PewResearch Journalism Project
    This piece outlines a new study by the Pew Research Center on nonprofit journalism, and explains that “the growing nonprofit news sector is showing some signs of economic health, and most leaders of those outlets express optimism about the future… But many of these organizations also face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being.”
  • Big questions face news nonprofits on the road ahead - Knight Blog post by Elise Hu
    This blog piece on the Knight Foundation’s website details a roundtable discussion sponsored by Knight and the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation on the stability of the nonprofit news model. In the piece, Hu lists five key takeaways from the discussion.
  • No “New Normal” Yet! Pew/Knight Session Finds Nonprofit News Enterprise Models Still in Formation - Nonprofit Quarterly
    This article details the nonprofit media roundtable discussion hosted by the Knight Foundation and the Pew Research Center. It gives a wide-reaching overview of the discussion and states, “There were no hard and fast conclusions, but it was evident that this was a dynamic field of organizations trying to discern a way forward, not just for their sites but for journalism more generally.”
  • New Report Sheds a Clarifying Light on Patterns of “Enterprise” in Nonprofit-Based News Sites - Nonprofit Quarterly
    This Nonprofit Quarterly article gives an overview of an October 2013 report by the Knight Foundation on state of nonprofit media. The article includes an interview with two key Knight employees, Mayur Patel, Vice President of Strategy and Assessment, and Michael Maness, Vice President of Journalism and Media Innovation.
  • Nonprofit Journalism Struggles to Keep its PromiseMiami Herald op-ed by Edward Wasserman
    This op-ed piece by Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, questions the sustainability of nonprofit media because of the ongoing challenge of finding durable sources of funding. Yet, Wasserman notes that despite this challenge, nonprofit media have the ability to foster “indispensable public conversation about common concerns.”
  • The “Brutish” but Exciting Lives of Nonprofit News Sites Nonprofit Quarterly op-ed by Larry Kaplan
    In response to Edward Wasserman’s Miami Herald op-ed, Larry Kaplan agrees with Wasserman that “life in independent media has from time to time been somewhat ‘brutish,’” but that we should “keep our eyes open for the many experiments [in nonprofit media] that are working.”
  • New Report Shows Growing Role of Philanthropy in Shaping the Media Landscape - Knight press release
    This is a press release from the Knight Foundation on their new October 2013 report, Growth in Foundation Support for Media in the United States. The report “is a collaboration among the Foundation Center, Media Impact Funders and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and provides the most comprehensive view to date of philanthropy’s role in the media funding landscape.”
  • Experiments in Community Media - Huffington Post blog post by Kevin Murphy
    This blog post from Council on Foundations Board Chair and Berks County Community Foundation President, Kevin Murphy, talks about the central role foundations have played in funding “new models of keeping our communities informed.” He also highlights the work of the Knight Foundation and the Council on Foundations in elevating the issue of nonprofit media.

Nonprofit Media Working Group

The Federal Communications Commission issued a report in 2011 concluding that accountability reporting, especially at the local level, has contracted dramatically, with potentially grave consequences for communities, government responsiveness, and democracy. Moreover, it determined that nonprofit media needs to play an increasingly significant role to help meet the educational needs of citizens. Finally, it found that there was con­fusion about the IRS approach to nonprofit media. This approach, which has not been updated for the digital age, risks discouraging nonprofit media innovation and undermining the odds of its success.

The report recommended that a group of tax and journalism experts gather to study these issues more carefully and make recommendations for further action. Supported by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Council on Foundations convened such a group from leaders of the foundation and tax-exempt media world. This group, listed below, has been meeting for the past year.

On Monday, March 4, 2013, the Council on Foundations and the Knight Foundation released the report in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with a panel discussion that featured journalism, legal, and nonprofit leaders.

Watch the Recording of the Release of the Report presented at The Newseum by Knight Foundation and The Council on Foundations

Nonprofit Media Working Group Members

Steven Waldman, Chair
Journalist and former Senior Advisor to the FCC Chairman

Clark Bell
Program Director
Robert R. McCormick Foundation

Jim Bettinger
John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists
Stanford University

Kevin Davis
Chief Executive Officer
Investigative News Network

Cecilia Garcia
Executive Director
Benton Foundation

John Hood
President and Chairman
John Locke Foundation

James T. Hamilton
Director, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy
Duke University

Joel Kramer
Editor and Chief Executive Officer

Juan Martinez
Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jeanne Pearlman
Senior Vice President of Programs
Pittsburgh Foundation

Calvin Sims
Program Officer – Journalism
Ford Foundation

Vince Stehle
Executive Director
Media Impact Funders

Knight Foundation Representative: Eric Newton, Senior Adviser to the President
Legal Counsel: Marc Owens and Sharon Nokes, Caplin & Drysdale
Project Directors: Janne Gallagher and Shelton Roulhac, Council on Foundations

Other Resources

Digital Media Law Project, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

Since 2007, the Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) has worked to ensure that individuals and organizations involved in online journalism and digital media have access to the legal resources, education, tools, and representation that they need to thrive.

New Resources for Nonprofit Journalism

Applying for 501(c)(3) status can be lengthy and complicated process. To help nonprofit journalism organizations prepare for IRS scrutiny, the DMLP now offers a collection of resources that includes: a checklist for whether tax-exempt status may be right for your venture; a breakdown of the IRS application process; a detailed guide to the standards used by the IRS to evaluate news organizations; and an archive of application materials filed by journalism non-profits that successfully obtained 501(c)(3) status.

At 1:00 P.M. Eastern on April 10, 2014, the DMLP will be holding a one-hour online session open to the public where you can ask questions about the DMLP's new resources for tax-exempt journalism and the IRS application process; log-in details will be posted on the DMLP homepage on April 10, so be sure to visit the site then.

Video: Busting the Myths about Journalism and the IRS

As part of DMLP’s new resources for journalism organizations seeking 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supported the development of this new video that debunks some of the common myths and misconceptions about nonprofit media organizations.