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Arkansas Nonprofit News Network Aiming for Impact

7 min read

It was 2013, oil from a burst pipeline was flooding the town of Mayflower, and journalist Lindsey Millar was “banging my head against the desk.”

The editor of the weekly Arkansas Times was racking his brain for a way to properly cover the greatest environmental disaster in Arkansas in years. He hit upon crowdfunding, and the seeds of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network were planted.

In an era when “fake news” is a rallying cry and the Trump administration is attacking the press as a “failing” opposition party, Millar has launched ANNN as a “nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.”

Financing his vision with grants and donations, Millar hopes to hire writers, editors, photographers and others to deliver important stories and distribute them at no charge to a statewide network of partners — newspapers, TV and radio stations and websites.

Since its roll-out in January, ANNN has covered the legislature. Reporter Ibby Caputo’s stories have been published on ANNN’s website, ArkNews.org, and in partner papers like the Jonesboro Sun and The Leader in Jacksonville. (One item appeared on ArkansasBusiness.com.) Millar is still gathering media partners, hoping to expand more into broadcasting.

The legislative coverage has been largely incremental, but Millar eventually hopes to produce deep examinations of key topics and major investigative series. His model is the Arkansas Times’ donor-funded work on the state child welfare system in 2015 and on Mayflower, where ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured in 2013.

“That was something that nobody was covering as it deserved to be, and I was trying to figure out a way to do it.”

The answer was crowdfunding, financing a venture by raising money from many donors and grants, typically through the internet. “I was reluctant initially because that was around the time we [Arkansas Times] were about to do a digital membership and ask people to pay, and it seemed like having your hand out a little too much.”

Soon he relented and partnered with InsideClimate News, an environmental nonprofit site, and their fundraising effort brought in $27,000, Millar said. That money, plus an $8,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, led to the hiring of two reporters, including former Arkansas Business reporter Sam Eifling and Elizabeth McGowan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of a 2010 oil spill.

“We did some really consequential reporting,” Millar said. The Times traced the pipeline’s path and highlighted deficiencies in its maintenance. “We wrote about people who were near the spill who had problems with fumes and potential health hazards. The day after our report came out, Congressman [Tim] Griffin [now lieutenant governor] called the person who had been on the cover and to ask what he could do. Eventually Gov. Mike Beebe offered free health screenings.

“That exposed me to the idea that great freelancers were out there who would come here and work with us. We confirmed that again on the child welfare project when we were able to hire Kathryn Joyce,” a reporter who was runner-up for a National Magazine Award.

In 2015, the Times raised $23,000 to investigate the state’s child welfare system after Times Associate Editor Benjamin Hardy broke the news that two young girls adopted by then-state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, were unofficially placed into a new home under the care of a man who later abused one of the children. This practice of giving away children, known as “rehoming” in the adoption world, has since been outlawed.

Building on Hardy’s work, Joyce produced several widely praised cover articles on child welfare. And in November, the Department of Human Services presented an outline for improving its Division of Children & Family Services, focusing on several issues like caseworker staffing, better placement of children with relatives and inefficiencies in foster care. All had been covered in Joyce’s reports.

“In the nonprofit world, everybody talks about impact, and we should do that more in journalism,” Millar said.

Troubled Business Models
To produce journalism that makes a difference, Millar realized he couldn’t rely on a publishing model in clear retreat.

“It’s always been hard to do really big projects. There’s just few resources, and it’s now evident that traditional revenue models are troubled,” he said.

Millar noted the internet’s role in upending traditional publishing by siphoning off paid subscribers and advertising revenue, the traditional revenue streams that paid for reporting and editing staffs. “In the last 20 years,” he said, “the newspaper workforce has shrunk by about 20,000 positions,” about 40 percent.

And while the free-circulation Times has been adaptive and resilient, most newsrooms “cannot devote sufficient resources to do sustained reporting on complicated issues,” he wrote. That’s where ANNN fits in as a “side project” to his work editing the Times.

How is it fitting into his workday? “Not very well, so far,” Millar said with a smile. He is donating his time until he has the money to hire editors.

The nonprofit model has succeeded nationally at outlets like New York-based ProPublica and the Marshall Project, which focuses on the justice system. But the idea is novel in Arkansas and most local news markets.

Donor financing can sustain great journalism, says Eric Umansky, an editor at ProPublica, an independent nonprofit devoted to journalism in the public interest. But he cautions against project-by-project funding and sees foundations and wealthy patrons as better prospects for donations.

“It’s harder to get money from readers on the retail level,” he said. “Foundations and the wealthy are the people who can move the needle quickly.”

Arkansas Times Publisher Alan Leveritt likes the nonprofit idea, largely because the Times will use “nearly everything ANN produces,” Millar said.

After conceiving of ANNN, Millar made an early call to Arkansas Public Media, a journalism project based at KUAR-FM in Little Rock founded in 2016 with a grant of $287,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Millar sees parallels between his project and APM, headed by Bobby Ampezzan, the managing editor, and Vanessa McKuin, who focuses on fundraising and administration.

“I admire what they’re doing, and our efforts are somewhat similar in spirit, but I also think there are significant differences,” Millar said, contrasting APM’s regular coverage of energy, health care and education with his own project-based vision. “A lot of times, that will mean raising money for special projects and hiring a small team to work on that one thing.”

ANNN is registered with the state as a nonprofit and is operating for now under the fiscal sponsorship of the Fred Darragh Foundation. Darragh, a Little Rock businessman and aviator who died in 2003, was a longtime benefactor of the American Civil Liberties Union and a public library patron.

Millar said Bobby Roberts, retired executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, and Joel Anderson, who retired as chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, have agreed to be on his nonprofit’s board. He hopes to have it fully seated by summer.

‘Trump Bump’
The nonprofit news network, which hopes to be an incubator for a diverse array of emerging writers, says in its statement of principles that it will make a priority of reporting on issues that affect “groups that are often ignored in Arkansas media, including rural, immigrant, LGBTQ, Latino and African-American Communities.”

It also pledges transparency, saying it will disclose donors giving $500 or more, and cases when donors’ work or businesses figure into reporting.

Millar thinks the current national political turmoil, along with what he called an “assault on the truth,” might help his project. Umansky said ProPublica and other nonprofit outlets definitely benefited from “the Trump bump,” with more money flowing in.

Millar put it this way: “In this era where the role of journalists has been questioned, and where people on the coasts feel they don’t have a handle on red-state America, this could be an opportunity. We’re finding that there are great journalists excited to work with a group that has local bearings and institutional knowledge, so that they won’t be just parachuting in.”

Millar doubts that ANNN’s ties to Arkansas Times, known for its liberal viewpoint, will fuel a perception that ANNN is a mouthpiece for the left. “I’m not worried about the perception you mentioned at all. I think our work will speak for itself.”

Millar sees opportunities for fundraising in today’s cultural climate. “It has inspired a lot of people to sit up and think, and ask what kind of direct actions can I take? What kind of contributions can I make?”

One early step, he says, could be helping ANNN meet a fundraising goal for environmental reporting. If the network can raise $10,000 by April 15, that amount will be matched by a charitable fund at the Arkansas Community Foundation.

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