Nonprofit website launching with goal of filling ‘gaps’ in CNY news coverage
By Ken Sturtz
A startup nonprofit called the Central Current is fundraising and hiring staff to build an independent digital news organization aimed at providing free coverage of Central New York.
Eric Persons, a consultant with experience in public affairs and startup initiatives, is working with the Central Current’s board to develop a framework for launching the organization, including business and strategic plans. He said they’re working toward reaching a $1 million fundraising goal and hope to hire staff and launch the news operation by year’s end.
One of the forces driving the creation of the Central Current is the contraction of traditional broadcast and print news organizations, Persons explained.
Media companies in Central New York have hemorrhaged staff for years, following a national trend as changes in the news business fueled layoffs, restructuring and reduced coverage. At the same time, nonprofit journalism has grown significantly.
“A lot of these nonprofit news organizations are coming in to fill those gaps and that’s certainly the vision for the Central Current,” Persons said. “There are opportunities to cover stories at a local level that aren’t being covered right now.”
Although careful not to blame other media outlets for coverage gaps, and adamant that the Central Current’s objective won’t be to compete with anybody, Persons is certain the community can benefit from deeper coverage and different perspectives on some topics.
Priorities will include pivoting from breaking news to focus on more thorough and complete reporting on topics such as government accountability, the economy and community development.
Criminal justice is another example. Rather than approaching crime as breaking news and then tracking cases through the courts, reporters will likely seek out deeper stories involving the criminal justice system.
Persons said the Central Current also aspires to cover communities that have been underserved by local news outlets. Some neighborhoods in Syracuse rarely receive attention outside of crime coverage, he said. And the region has rural communities and a growing immigrant population that would benefit from additional coverage.
“When we launch we’re going to be relatively small and nimble, but as we grow we want to be responsive to the needs of those communities,” Persons said. “We want to reach out to those communities to understand what needs they have and how they see local news and put those ideas into our strategic plan.”
The number of nonprofit news startups has grown dramatically over the last decade, both nationally and in Upstate New York, according to Sharene Azimi, communications director for the Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, which supports the work of several hundred independent news organizations. A third of nonprofit news outlets operating today didn’t exist five years ago.
Nonprofit news organizations already exist in Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca and the Adirondacks. And the pandemic hasn’t slowed growth. More than 20 new nonprofit news outlets launched in 2020 alone, Azimi said.
While the number of startups has grown, there’s been a significant shift in who’s been founding them. A decade ago veteran journalists, displaced by industry cutbacks and wanting to do in-depth reporting, tended to be the ones starting nonprofit outlets. Over time that’s evolved, Azimi said. Some startups are still founded by journalists, but many are now created by people with little or no background in news.
“They may be business folks or entrepreneurs, really trying to meet the needs in their community or to cover an issue they see is going uncovered or to do statewide coverage,” she said. “So, we’re seeing the startups starting in response to needs.”
Such was the case with the Central Current. Tony Malavenda’s background included four decades in business and time spent serving on the boards of several local nonprofits. He and a childhood friend co-owned Duke’s Root Control, a company they grew into a national leader in removing tree roots from municipal sewers. Malavenda sold his stake and in 2019 launched an unsuccessful campaign for Onondaga County executive.
“Coming out of the campaign Tony really felt and understood firsthand the need to be able to discuss issues and explore issues in a way that’s not being covered now,” Persons said.
Malavenda and local attorney Larry Bousquet approached Persons about the idea of starting a nonpartisan, independent news organization in Central New York and the three men began exploring what it would take.
The board also includes Rick Wright, a Syracuse University professor emeritus and long-time local radio host, and Mary D’Ambrosio, a former foreign affairs correspondent and current journalism professor at Rutgers University.
Persons said he and the Central Current’s board are continuing to finalize plans for coverage and staffing. Their goal is for the employees to have a sense of ownership in the enterprise, he said.
Longtime journalist Sean Kirst has agreed to serve as a regular contributor to the Central Current. Kirst, who has received acclaim for his columns chronicling the lives of Central New Yorkers, wrote for The Post-Standard for decades before joining The Buffalo News several years ago. He’s accepted a teaching position as journalist-in-residence at Le Moyne College.
“He really embodies everything we hope to see in the staff we bring on board,” Persons said. “He’s very in tune with the community.”
Even with community support the Central Current will still have to contend with the Achilles’ heel of nonprofit journalism: funding.
“I never used to think about money before I was an editor,” Jolene Almendarez said. “But when you’re in a nonprofit startup space it was something that was on my mind every single day.”
Almendarez, who isn’t associated with the Central Current, spent several years as managing editor of The Ithaca Voice, a nonprofit outlet covering Tompkins County, and later co-founded a news startup in Texas.
After college, Almendarez had several corporate news jobs that left her unhappy and feeling as though she was only writing for “clicks.” She said she considered leaving journalism.
“My outlook on journalism got brighter when I got into nonprofits,” she said. “It gave me a chance to focus on people-centric journalism.”
Although she enjoyed reporting for The Voice and overseeing its small staff, Almendarez said she worried constantly about the organization’s finances even though she was responsible for newsgathering, not fundraising.
There were times she was forced to defer part of her paycheck until later in the month because there wasn’t enough money to pay the whole staff. She tended bar a couple nights a week to ensure she had extra money.
Almendarez also bumped into difficulty when writing a series of articles about a local organization that happened to be one of The Voice’s largest sponsors. Almendarez said her executive director informed her the sponsor had communicated that if the articles didn’t cease, they’d have to rethink their support. The loss could have forced the outlet to fold.
“I realized if we stopped reporting the stories to keep the sponsor, then The Ithaca Voice had already gone under and ceased to do the work we wanted to do,” Almendarez said.
They continued publishing the series; the organization that was the subject of their reporting backed down and continued their sponsorship.
Because of the challenges, the Institute for Nonprofit Journalism provides its members with extensive fundraising support, Azimi said. That includes everything from teaching them how to organize fundraising campaigns and optimize their websites for donations, to developing a sponsorship program and cultivating larger donors.
The institute also runs a national matching-gift campaign designed to help nonprofit newsrooms strengthen their fundraising capacity.
Persons said the Central Current’s board is taking the time to raise enough money now to sustain itself while the organization takes hold and grows. He said they’re exploring ways to diversify their revenue, such as hosting special events. They plan to launch a membership program once they’re closer to reaching their $1 million fundraising goal.
“One of the things we’ve learned from others is that you’ve got to have a pretty good business plan going in and enough funding to sustain yourself and grow those first few years,” he said.
Featured Image: View of the Central Current website, centralcurrent.org. “There are opportunities to cover stories at a local level that aren’t being covered right now,” says Persons.