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Parsing The Press: The Rise Of Nonprofit News

Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio, hosts of Parsing The Press

As traditional news organizations shrink, nontraditional news sites are popping up, including new non-profit news organizations. In this episode, our guest is Darrell Ehrlick, the editor of the non-profit Daily Montanan, talking about the goals and challenges of this new and growing journalism model.

Listen now on Parsing the Press, a weekly look at how the news is reported, with Sally Mauk and Gwen Florio.

Sally Mauk The number of full time newspaper reporters covering state capitals has declined by over a third in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center. But other outlets, including new nonprofit news organizations, are stepping in to fill the void, including here in Montana. Darrell Ehrlick is the editor in chief of the Daily Montanan, a new nonprofit news organization that is part of a national network called States Newsroom, and it's dedicated to covering state governments. Darrell is the former longtime editor of the Billings Gazette, and he's our guest today.

And Darrell, how did you decide, first of all, to take the job of heading up this new nonprofit news site? And what do you hope it achieves?

Darrell Ehrlick Thanks for having me on. It's an honor to be with you both.

Originally, when they approached me, I had moved on, I think, a lot like a lot of journalists who leave the industry, and somewhat crusty. And after cuts and managing that, and I had found a different job, a different line of work, very good, a very great organization. And so when States Newsroom approached, I said 'thank you, but not interested in jumping back in.' And they said, well will you just talk to us about, you know, we're interested in coming to Montana, but we want to know what some of the issues are, and and someone who knows the lay of the land. And, you know, I was pretty fresh out of just having been the editor of the Gazette in Billings. The more they talked, the more I was interested. And, you know, one of the great breakthrough moments was, I really miss the news. And they said, we want you to be producing news and curating commentary. And I said, well, what issues do you want me to cover? And they said, how would we know you're the person in Montana? It would be up to you to to call the issues that you think are the most important. And that really speaks to me; the chance to to write and get back to the first love, which is why we all get in here for reporting, telling stories. And then also because I could tailor it to what I felt Montana needed.

Sally Mauk What does Montana need, Darrell?

Darrell Ehrlick More reporters. We need more media, not fewer. I always said the solution to journalism can't be fewer journalists. I know Gwen could probably speak to this, too. When you're in daily newspapers and and staff shrinks, the news doesn't shrink. We're increasingly trying to do the old cliche, 'more with less.' And it was frustrating because it didn't allow — I can speak for me — it didn't allow me to do some of the things that I wanted to do. I certainly understood the economic pressures that were brought to bear on newspapers.

What I liked about States Newsroom is they said we're not trying to replace The Billings Gazette or The Missoulian or The Great Falls Tribune. We believe that a lot of good issues happen at the state level. There's been a very huge decrease in the number of people covering state government. And this is the niche we can fill at at that level, at the state level. So we can't be all things local to all Montanans, but we can be a statewide support because what happens in Helena, and really all around the state, affects us. I think we do need more scrutiny on state lawmakers. And I do think that we have the ability to cover some statewide topics; whether it's housing growth, whether it's energy or whether it's even things like white supremacist.

Sally Mauk Gwen, as Daryl just mentioned, for profit newspaper chains like Lee had until recently been cutting back on their coverage of Montana state government, then along comes the daily Montanans and others to fill the void. And suddenly Lee hires three more state government reporters.

Gwen Florio Right. Lee has beefed up its state bureau to match the firepower of States Newsroom. I think they each have four reporters now. The Montana Free Press, another nonprofit, just hire two more reporters. Kaiser Health News is in the mix now. So there is a lot of stuff happening with nonprofits and a lot of focus on the capital. And Darrell, I'm wondering how you all fit into that mix, which is suddenly a really lively mix — which I personally find heartening.

Darrell Ehrlick No, it's been great. And there's such a, I think — and Sally could probably speak to this, too — there's a collegiality among people who are, you know, we're competitive, we want want to get the news, we want to do it the best way we can. But there's also a esprit de corps among the people who are covering state government. And it's great to be in that mix.

I think one of the things that will unfold is, right now we're all busy chasing the Legislature and trying to see which bills — we're coming up on transmittal, which means we're really busy trying to see what's going to make it — and of course, the Republicans in Montana having such a strong majority are really busy too, taking full advantage of that. And so right now a lot of our coverage is state Legislature. After, you know, we all know that after day 90, then it changes. And part of our job will be to spread out and to look at some of these topics more in depth. We are a daily news source. There are other sources out there that are little longer format, a little more investigative. Not that we don't have those elements, but our mission is is really to just be a statewide support and cover issues and provide daily content and commentary too.

Sally Mauk Gwen and Darrell, nonprofits like the Daily Montanan depend on donors to survive. And that raises the question of who are the major donors, and do they have an agenda? And Gwen, that's an issue that's coming up in any discussion of nonprofit journalism.

Gwen Florio Yes. And I think that issue was raised early on when States Newsroom first came on the scene nationally. Now I notice that their website lists their funders. Darrell, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Darrell Ehrlick You know, there was a question, and there's a couple of things that I really like about States Newsroom. One is it's using the nonprofit model. And as you know, when you go to nonprofits, sometimes they have large donors that don't want to be disclosed. For journalism we like as much transparency, and I think that we've really tried to counter that.

The other thing that I would say is, I think people are really hungry as they see their local media sources change. They want to do something. They don't want money to go back to corporate coffers, but they want to support local journalism. And we've certainly seen that happen. We have great supporters. And I, you know, I subscribe to, still, four different newspapers. And what we see is that people are willing to pay for media in more than just one way. So that means if you have a subscription to the Gazette or you're a Montana Public Radio listener, it doesn't preclude you from supporting other things like the Daily Montanan or Montana Free Press. We like that. That allows us to present news without commercials. It allows us to not have to charge subscriptions. And we really support that. And it allows us to give the content to distribute it far and wide. It's just a new model. And it what's really neat about it is we've really seen it come of age during this time of COVID, and we're really grateful for the support that we have.

And I don't look at those lists of donors like I did the advertisers in newspapers. You know, there was always that tension in newspapers about who's advertising with us and what kind of coverage. It's not something that was mandated from corporate, but it was something that we were always aware of. And having a donors model really allows us just to do the work we do without kind of worried about interference. And I've got to tell you, working for this new model, I don't know who all the donors are. And that's just not a discussion that's even something that, that we deal with. Our directors and our leaders are supportive and they say your job is to go and do good journalism and to do the stories that you think need telling. And it's been liberating. And it's been the busiest time of my professional life, I think, but also maybe the most enjoyable.

Sally Mauk Well, I think all we can say for sure is that the landscape of journalism is changing and the new nonprofit sites and organizations are part of that change.

Darrell and Glenn, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

Darrell Ehrlick Thank you.

Gwen Florio Thanks Sally.

Do you have a comment or suggestion for a future show? Contact Sally Mauk at sally.mauk@mtpr.org.

Parsing the Press is a weekly look at how the news is reported, featuring journalist and novelist Gwen Florio and Montana Public Radio's Sally Mauk. Listen on MTPR Fridays at 7:50 a.m., or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

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