Washington Independent and the non-profit news model

We’ve all read ad nauseam about the panic-stricken newspaper corporation spinning its wheels to retrofit its properties for the Web. Some have found ways to do it effectively. Most haven’t. You’re sure to have caught examples of each on this site.

Non-profit news startups are similarly testing the waters, but without all that ink, paper and, er, personnel to worry about. The model evolves with each new project, but the formula for success looks to be a healthy balance of guerilla and traditional; loose and tight. Launched in January, D.C.-based The Washington Independent is the new kid on the block.

With a collective editorial resume that lists The New Republic, Talking Points Memo and Financial Times, The Independent reigns in the ground-up-meets-top-down model that Marc Cooper talked to us about a few months ago with HuffPo’s Off The Bus project.

A Center for Independent Media site, its siblings include non-profit news staples The Iowa Independent, The Minnesota Monitor and The Colorado Confidential. And what The Washington Independent lacks in alliteration it makes up for with a hearty balance of investigative features, well-researched commentary and bloggy news analysis. It’s a versatile news trough for those who take their in-depth clean coal reports with a side of quick-hit caucus commentary.

We swapped emails with Washington Independent Editor Allison Silver to learn more about the new endeavor and its meaning for non-profit journalism.

OJR: So, you just launched a few weeks ago. How is traffic looking so far? Where are the readers coming from and how are you getting your name out there?

Allison Silver: I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk with you about my brand-new site, The Washington Independent. And it is brand new. We had a semi-hard launch on Jan. 28, and we are still in Beta as we work out some of the kinks. For less than two weeks, I think we are doing quite well. We are currently listed on both The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. Josh Marshall had a nice post about us on TPM, and now MetaFilter has posted an item about us. We are planning some other things as we go about raising our profile, and the quality of our content should also draw some attention.

OJR: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with the Center for Independent Media?

AS: The Center for Independent is our umbrella organization, our parent. David Bennahum, our president and CEO, had four state sites up and running—in Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa. He hired Jefferson Morley from The Washington Post, as the center’s editorial director and they decided to launch a Washington site, covering national issues. Jeff contacted me, since he felt this was something I would be interested in. He was right.

OJR: If I get one thing from your mission statement, it’s “in-depth, accurate and, most importantly, fast.” What sort of staff does it take to pull that off, and to what extent do you accept freelance submissions?

AS: We have an extremely nimble and saavy young staff, including Spencer Ackerman, covering national security (who was at The New Republic and TPM), Holly Yeager, covering the presidential campaign (who was at Financial Times) and Mike Lillis, covering Congress (who was at Inside Washington).

I am also featuring a robust commentary element. The pieces are written by well-known scholars and experts. For example, we had Robert Dallek, the historian who has examined the lives of Johnson and Kennedy and FDR, write about the role of a former president, pegged to Bill Clinton’s travels on the campaign trail for his wife.

We would be interested in seeing freelance submissions. We are looking for smart reported pieces or strong commentary.

OJR: Your sister sites feel a little more bloggy than yours. How did the professional/citizen journalism balance you hope to achieve factor into your page design?

AS: We are still in the process of working out our page design. But one way of looking at your question is that the Net is about democracy and we want our users to be fully engaged in the writing we post. Already, one informed reader contacted Spencer after his waterboarding piece was posted, and now Spencer is working on a piece involving that comment.

OJR: We talked to The Huffington Post about an election spinoff project that strives for the same balance; ground-up content steeped in the values of traditional journalism. What other similar sites have you seen, and how do you think yours is different?

AS: There are many other strong sites out there like The Huffington Post—including TPM and Slate and Salon. But I think the Net is not about competition, or limitations. It’s indeed like democracy—because it’s about making the pie bigger.

I think our mix of reported longer pieces and reported blog, to tell a longer narrative, and our extremely informed commentary is the next step for the Net. Well, we should say, one next step. The Net is many, many things.

OJR: Can you talk a bit about working for a non-profit versus an advertising-based news publication? How do you compare and contrast the two from an editorial standpoint?

AS: As for working on a non-profit, I am sure you know that part of all informed discussion about the future of journalism involves the non-profit model. This is one reason why so many people are interested in what happens with Poynter and the St. Petersberg paper.

OJR: It must be tough to veer from politics these days, but what other types of reports can we expect to see at the Independent in the near future?

AS: Politics is so exciting right now. This campaign is all those hyphenated words—jaw-dropping, breath-taking.

But there is so much else going on. As I said earlier, Spencer Ackerman is reporting on national security issues, and we have already had commentary on this subject from James Bamford, who wrote two important books on the NSA, and Milt Bearden, the former director of clandestine services at the CIA. We have strong economic and financial coverage. Mary Kane, who was formerly with Newhouse papers, is doing great work about the brick-and-mortar reality of the subprime crisis.

And we have solid environmental coverage—look at our current piece that examines just how green an airline could be—and science reporting.

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.