Watchdogs themselves are moving into the sunshine

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Nonprofit newsrooms, often critical of lobbies and political players that hide their funding sources, increasingly are open about their own fiscal support. Of 60 nonprofit news orgs, surveyed last year and again this year, the number disclosing their major donors grew from 47 to 53 (from 78 percent to 88 percent), American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop said this week. The IRW survey doesn’t include public broadcasters.

Its authors speculated that the gain may be related to the adoption in January of formal membership standards, including donor transparency, by the Investigative News Network, a consortium of news orgs. INN requires member news orgs to disclose donations above $1,000. The INN Board adopted its disclosure policy weeks after IRW raised the issue in its first News Ecosystem survey last fall.

The new survey, published Nov. 30, found these news watchdogs keeping mum about their own funding: Chicago Innocence Project, Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, Michigan News Center, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Mother Jones, The Alicia Patterson Foundation, and The Texas Observer.

Of the 75 local and national groups surveyed by IRW, the slice that have ethics/editorial policies has grown from half to two-thirds.

IRW’s updated News Ecosystem survey this fall expanded its sample of news orgs to 75 and found 85 perecent of them disclosing donors.

Though nonprofit newsrooms such as ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity may break more significant stories than their staff size would suggest, they have just 1,300 employees altogether. The one in the survey with a large audience through legacy media, Consumer Reports magazine, employs almost half of them — 600. The magazine’s budget is equal to almost a third of the total, $43 million out of $135 million.

The report on the study was written by Charles Lewis and graduate assistants Brittney Butts and Kate Musselwhite. Lewis is director of AU/IRW. He is also connected with a number of the groups surveyed and was founder of the Center for Public Integrity. IRW produced three pieces for Frontline in the past two years, including the regional-airline expose “Flying Cheap” and the immigration doc “Lost in Detention.” Disclosure: Current and IRW are both units of AU’s School of Communication.

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