Downie asks feds to grant 501(c)3 status to nonprofit news startups

The federal government needs to remove roadblocks to granting nonprofit status to startup news organizations that provide increasingly important accountability journalism in communities around the nation, the former top editor of The Washington Post, now an Arizona State University professor, said in a new report.

Leonard Downie Jr., the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, called for the move in a series of recommendations in his white paper, “Making a Difference: Philanthropy and the Future of Local Accountability Journalism.” Downie and Cronkite graduate student Whitney Phillips wrote the report following a February symposium at the school on the growing importance of philanthropy in accountability journalism.

The symposium, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, brought together representatives from a diverse array of community and national foundations and nonprofit news organizations to participate in discussions on how local accountability journalism affects the information health and civic engagement of communities as well as how funders can best support it.

“The future of local accountability journalism in communities across the country is at stake in the chaotic digital reconstruction of American journalism,” wrote Downie, who as executive editor of The Washington Post for 17 years led the newspaper to 25 Pulitzer Prizes. “As commercial news media struggle to reinvent themselves and survive, a growing number of emerging nonprofit news organizations are trying to fill gaps left in local accountability reporting.”

“It is clear from the deliberations at (the Cronkite symposium), as well as from numerous recent reports about the chaotic state of American news media, that the growth and sustainability of nonprofit local accountability journalism is a vital need for the nation,” he wrote.

But Downie said the future of these digital startups is at risk because the Internal Revenue Service has not acted expeditiously on a series of requests to grant them nonprofit status. He said that the now-defunct Chicago News Cooperative, which was one of the country’s larger nonprofit news organizations, cited its inability to secure 501(c)3 status from the IRS as a reason for its recent demise.

Downie presented the report Wednesday at a gathering at Harvard University of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. ASU and Harvard are two of the 12 universities that are part of the initiative.

In addition to the recommendation of 501(c)3 status for nonprofit news organizations, Downie called for:

• Expanding the roles of community and national foundations in local accountability journalism.

• Sharing business models and digital and journalistic innovations among digital news startups.

• Preserving editorial independence and integrity at nonprofit news organizations.

• Expanding the role of universities in the creation of nonprofit news.

• Increasing local accountability journalism produced by public TV and radio stations.

• Creating more collaborations between traditional commercial news outlets and nonprofit startups.

Downie’s report and videos of the symposium discussions are available at Both the report and the symposium are part of efforts by the Carnegie-Knight universities to take action on a 2011 Federal Communications Commission report, “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” The Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation have dedicated more than $800,000 to help implement the report’s recommendations.

In October, more than 350 people gathered at the Cronkite School to participate in an FCC hearing on the report, which was written by Steven Waldman.