Leader to Leader: Nic Dawes on nonprofit newsrooms

The executive director of The City talks about covering local news and accountability journalism.

 Nic Dawes, executive director of The City, a nonprofit news organization focused on local coverage of New York City.

Nic Dawes, executive director of The City, a nonprofit news organization focused on local coverage of New York City. (Ben Fractenberg | THE CITY)

The past couple of decades have not been kind to the newspaper business.  Across the country, hundreds of newspapers have either folded or shrunk in size as advertising dollars have dried up and the internet has challenged traditional business models. This phenomenon has had a particularly devastating impact on local news coverage.  Many cities are now effectively “news deserts” – the University of North Carolina estimates that half of all the counties in the United States have only one newspaper, usually a weekly.  

This is the context for the emergence of The City, a nonprofit, digital news platform that seeks to provide intensive coverage of New York City.  Instead of charging readers or relying on digital ads, The City depends upon philanthropic support from foundations and individual donors.

In 2021, Nic Dawes became the executive director of The City.  He brought to the job experience as both a journalist and a nonprofit manager.  This included work for newspapers in South Africa and India and a stint as the deputy executive director of Human Rights Watch.  

Recently, Dawes talked with Greg Berman about the growth of nonprofit newsrooms and The City’s brand of “accountability journalism.”  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Berman: How is a nonprofit newsroom different than a for-profit newsroom?

Dawes: I would say that a nonprofit newsroom differs principally in its business model.  That is, we are supported by philanthropy and by individuals who make small gifts because they believe in the mission. In a nonprofit newsroom, the mission of delivering journalism that drives accountability and serves readers is inextricably bound up in the business model. The way we do the journalism is built on the same principles as it would be in a for-profit newsroom in the sense that we are nonpartisan, we do rigorous fact finding, and we have robust editorial processes, but the relationship between the business model and the core mission of the journalism is different.

Berman: Are there things that you can do in a nonprofit newsroom that you can't do in a standard for-profit newsroom?   

Dawes: Right now, there are essentially two approaches to for-profit news. One is that you have open access and no paywall, and you are reliant on digital advertising.  In this model, you try to drive as much traffic as you can in order to serve as many ads as you can to the highest value audience that you can reach. The alternative model is that you sell subscriptions and you produce content that is very highly valued for an audience that is both willing and able to pay for it.

Both of those approaches are valid, but they both have implications for where you choose to spend your journalistic energy. And certainly if you need for business reasons to drive huge numbers of eyeballs onto your site, then you need to do the kinds of stories that are going to show up in search engines and in social media to drive those eyeballs. And that may not be the kind of stories that deliver the most civic value, the most accountability value, that are the most useful in the lives of your readers. 

If you are selling subscriptions, you clearly need to serve the needs of an audience that is willing and able to pay. What we know from the data is that this typically means a relatively small and pretty affluent audience. This also has implications. If you were looking, for example, at New York, you might have to do more stories that are centered on Manhattan south of the park than you would on the Bronx or on Southeast Queens or Sunset Park, because you need to serve your paying audience. 

When you have a not-for-profit model and you articulate to people who support your work, as we do, that we aim to serve all of the people of New York with robust accountability reporting, service and explanatory journalism that helps them to navigate their lives in the city and participate in its democracy, then that's the lodestar.  And while we care deeply about our audience, we don't have to be motivated by either driving clicks or driving loyalty from more affluent audiences. So that enables us to spend time on things that are going on in NYCHA housing, for example, where very few people are likely to be paying for a New York Times subscription, but who really need and want coverage of what's going on in the NYCHA system. We may not get a huge number of clicks for it, but we derive a huge amount of civic value by doing that. Being a nonprofit means that we're also able to keep our journalism free for everyone. Information inequity is just as serious a problem as other forms of inequity.

Berman: Does your 501(c)(3) status prevent you from issuing endorsements in local races?

Dawes: Yes, our 501(c)(3) status limits us in terms of involving ourselves in a campaign in any way. So endorsing a candidate is definitely not allowed. We can certainly assess someone's policy platform and take a view on it, but we can't endorse the candidate. 

Berman: You've used the word “accountability” a couple of times.  What's the difference between accountability journalism and just regular journalism?

Dawes: Accountability journalism is journalism that really says to those in power, "These are your responsibilities, how does your conduct align with your responsibilities?" Whether it's an elected official or some other kind of powerful entity like a business, the idea is to hold up a mirror and show whether their conduct meets the expectations of those whom they serve. To choose a somewhat silly example, you can easily report that the mayor today spent 10 minutes talking about vegan lunches, but it's more important in our view to investigate the nutritional standards of school lunches that kids are getting and ask whether that varies across the city and how the resources for school lunches are being spent.

Berman: In the olden days when newspapers were dependent upon local businesses, you would sometimes hear journalists complain that it was tough for them to go after advertisers. I'm wondering whether the nonprofit model exposes you to a different challenge in that regard, where it is difficult to stake out positions that conflict with the interests of the big foundations that support you.  

Dawes: In all funding models, you have potential tensions that arise between where the money comes from and what the journalism is about. You can never eliminate that tension from any journalistic enterprise, you just get different varieties of it and you can manage it well or badly. I think in nonprofit journalism that is thoughtfully constructed and well run, you are very clear with your funders that they have no input on editorial content and that investing in journalism is an investment in building civic infrastructure, not in getting the coverage that they expect to see. 

At The City, we have a code of ethics on our website and we're explicit with our staff and our readers about it. Our whole model would collapse if we violated those standards and allowed funders to dictate or interfere with our coverage. The other hedge, of course, is to really diversify your funding and make sure that you have enough funding so that if someone does in fact walk away because they're annoyed, it is not a problem.

Berman: Looking at some of the materials on your website, some of the language you use, about shifting dominant narratives and challenging injustice, is not that dissimilar from the language of advocacy organizations. I'm interested to hear how you think about the current debates about objectivity in journalism.  

Dawes: I think that we start from the position that we are about rigorously finding facts and not advancing advocacy points, and that we're going to do that robustly and fairly. But anyone who tells you that they allocate resources in a way that has nothing to do with any point of view or with any priorities is deluding themselves and you. So there are things that we believe in.  We believe in a more equitable New York City.  We believe in a New York City that is thriving.  We believe in a New York City where more people are both able to and inspired to participate in the local democracy.  And we believe in journalism that helps to advance those goals.

I think those are broad enough motivations that we can stand on pretty firmly, but we don't advocate for particular policies or particular kinds of interventions and we don't take a partisan view of issues. But we certainly appreciate that there are grave racial, economic and other injustices in this town that journalism can help address when it's rooted in facts. And of course there's a long and storied tradition of that kind of journalism in New York.

Berman: The City is a little more than three years old. How would you assess where it is in its development?

Dawes: When we first began, I think many people questioned whether New York City needed a new local outlet. There had been a pretty profound withering of local journalism capacity, but there wasn't yet a broad recognition of how serious that issue was. So the first thing we had to do was prove that what we were trying to do mattered. I think we've been able to do that very effectively. We've had a substantial impact on a wide range of issues, from criminal justice to vaccine rollout to labor conditions for delivery bike workers. We've established a kind of proof of concept of why we're needed and we've begun to reach more people and to be cited more widely by other media outlets.

We're substantially bigger now than we were even 18 months ago. By the middle of this year, we'll be a little over 40 people. We've grown both the scale of the organization and its reach. Now we need to deliver on the next phase, which is adding a richer palette of journalism formats, more ways to address what's going on in New York City, and more useful tools and explanatory work. 

The whole city is at kind of an inflection point and we are too, hopefully in a positive way. As New York confronts this very awkward and difficult moment, we want to be adequate to that.

Berman: A lot of the language you use in framing what you are doing is very heavy. I'm wondering whether you ever worry that reading The City will become like eating your vegetables. Is there a need to balance out the serious stuff with some lighter material?  

Dawes: We absolutely need to add more joy and more light to the gloom. We don't want to be a purely broccoli outlet. And we certainly don't want to just punch you in the face with miserable stuff every day. I think if you look carefully at The City you will see that we are adding a little more levity. We're here in New York because we love the place, not because it's a grim hellscape. So you can go and read Jose Martinez and Greg David on the fiscal crunch at the MTA, but you can also play our subway quiz, which is kind of an homage to New York City Transit.  

Some of our neighborhood coverage I think is also really starting to take on a little bit more texture and delight. Look at Haidee Chu's amazing story about the pool hall in Astoria that would've been lost to Innovation QNS. We were all really delighted when the pool hall as a result of her reporting was saved. 

Maybe this is a case of me trying to have my broccoli and eat it too, but I think that some of the ways in which we address things like elections, we try to do in a way that's a little bit fun. Our Meet Your Mayor tool was very serious -- it was a huge database that contained the policy positions of the 14 candidates running for mayor in the primary, but we did turn it into a game.  So we want to do a little bit more of that as well, combining usefulness, seriousness, and a bit of fun.

Berman: Talk to me a little about going from Human Rights Watch to The City. I'm particularly interested in what it felt like going from the global scale and profile of an organization like Human Rights Watch to the hyper-local focus of The City.

Dawes: It’s hard to match the global scope of Human Rights Watch, which has a budget of $100 million dollars, a very sophisticated fundraising machine, and, as you say, a very high profile. But when I was thinking about what to do next, the reason that I chose The City was precisely because it was local. One of the things that frustrated me at Human Rights Watch was, how do you have the locus standi to speak on an issue when you don't have skin in the game, when you're not locally invested?

I was part of a kind of international class in New York City that kind of floats above the surface of local politics and local life. I wanted to do something that was really rooted here and where the work would connect directly both with local communities and, frankly, with local power. It has been incredibly rewarding to make that move. For anyone who cares about building more democratically-engaged, more just, and more equitable societies, the action is at the local level and I wouldn't be anywhere other than this.

Berman: What's your sense of the future of nonprofit newsrooms? My sense is that the field is growing but still pretty small, and that the average person is probably not getting their news from a nonprofit newsroom. But maybe I'm wrong. 

Dawes: Nonprofit news is not in its infancy anymore, but it's only starting to learn to walk, I think. It's still very, very subscale.  It needs to respond to both the gap that exists from declining or collapsing legacy outlets and, frankly, to build new ways of doing journalism that are more relevant and more responsive. Nonprofit news has to get hugely bigger and hugely more sophisticated. And I think that's happening. You now have a growing movement of local outlets. You also have a growing movement of specialty outlets that focus on a single subject like climate change or gun violence or women's rights. That  network is growing, but it's still much too small and the business model is still immature. So I think we're still at the beginning.  There's a Cambrian explosion of new nonprofit life forms, some of them will thrive, some of them will disappear, and ultimately the equilibrium will stabilize a little more, but there's a very, very long way to go in that process.