News from the Field

Notes from NTC 2015

Our friends at the Nonprofit Technology Network had the great idea of convening their annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) in Austin, Texas, a week before the massive horde arrived for South By Southwest. In addition to popular sessions from NTC stalwarts like Beth Kanter, Steve MacLaughlin and Heather Holdridge, NTEN conference participants had all the barbecue and breakfast tacos they could hope for, without the endless lines and crushing crowds associated with the annual media/tech extravaganza that SXSW has become.

And they had a chance to hear about some of the city’s most dynamic media outlets.

Media Impact Funders organized a special panel for this year’s NTC, featuring two of Austin’s leading media innovators, Evan Smith, founding CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Texas Tribune, and Stewart Vanderwilt, General Manager of public radio powerhouse, KUT/KUTX, the local NPR affiliate. Also presenting, David Rousseau, Vice President of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, where he oversees the foundation’s Kaiser Health News program. Rousseau’s remarks were of special interest to foundation grantmakers who were, coincidentally, in Austin for the annual conference of Grantmakers in Health.

The Texas Tribune has just celebrated its 5th anniversary, but already the online news organization has established itself as an authoritative and award-winning source for news about politics and policy, focused heavily on Austin, but also covering government across the vast State of Texas. The Trib, as it is affectionately called, distinguished itself early for the successful way it collected and present government data like state budget figures and salary information, giving its readers direct and unfiltered access to data in a way that challenged journalistic orthodoxy. And there are many other ways this path-breaking news organization has become a beacon for digital news organizations across the nation.

But Smith focused his remarks primarily on a thoroughly analog activity that has contributed mightily to the organization’s success – public events. Over the past five years, The Texas Tribune has conducted over 230 public events, with more than 550 speakers, including more than 260 elected officials like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis and former Governor Rick Perry. To date, attendance is nearly 40,000.

Increasingly, these events are being held outside of Austin in counties all over the state. But each year, the organization’s big event is The Texas Tribune Festival – TribuneFest – which will occur October 16 – 18 this year. These events help to strengthen the organization’s brand, they often create news, but perhaps most appealing, they have also have generated over $4-million.

Innovation can also happen in traditional media organizations. Located in the middle of campus at the University of Texas, public radio stations KUT and KUTX broadcast to an impressive audience, reaching roughly one in four residents of Austin with its mix of news and information on one channel and featuring the incredibly vibrant Austin music scene on the other. The successful public radio stations can be heard over the airwaves, of course, but the organization’s online audience is nearly as large as the radio listenership.

Station manager Stewart Vanderwilt described the way KUT pursues digital strategies like the Austin Music Map, an experimental exercise that reveals the rich fabric of live music across the city, constructed with partners at AIR, as part of its Localore project. Although the Austin Music Map had limited utility and impact, it led to a much more successful and richly realized project, On My Block: Voices from District One, which enable Austin residents to share what’s happening in their neighborhoods.

In addition to the broadcast and online reach, KUT and KUTX also reaches tens of  thousands of visitors in their studios, at the Cactus Café, a live music venue it runs, and at venues all around town.

But of course Austin does not have a monopoly on media innovation. There are interesting things happening all over the country. And one of the most ambitious and dynamic media organizations in the field of philanthropy is at the Kaiser Family Foundation, headquartered in Menlo Park, California.

Kaiser Health News is a unique journalism enterprise, operated as a division of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, which is focused on major health policy nationwide. Kaiser Family Foundation produces policy analysis and public opinion and survey research, presenting information through a variety of outlets, including handy data tools like the Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator, and clever communications initiatives like the animated series Health Insurance Explained:The YouToons Have it Covered.

But the greatest reach of all these initiatives is probably Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent nonprofit news service committed to in-depth coverage of health care policy and the health care system. Kaiser Health News reports are delivered in partnership with commercial news outlets like The Washington Post and public media organizations like National Public Radio. Kaiser Health News also works with local and regional news outlets, including The Texas Tribune and KUT in Austin.

Indeed, on the day that we presented our panel in Austin, the top story on The Texas Tribune was a story produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News that revealed how the conservative Texas Senate intended to redirect state medical dollars away from non-governmental health organizations like Planned Parenthood, resulting in cuts to cancer screening for poor, uninsured women.

Taken together, these new media entrepreneurs have created new ways of carrying out journalism, generating resources and collaborating with each other to enhance reach and impact. And they offer lessons for all types of nonprofits who want to inform and engage their communities

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