September 21, 2017
How a nonprofit news hub is supporting alternative media in Boston
By Katie Donnelly, Dot Connector Studio Associate Director
Before there were “alternative facts,” alternative media had a different connotation, epitomized by alt-weekly newspapers in corner boxes on city streets. This form of alternative media can offer deeper looks at stories and cultural scenes that are not typically covered in mainstream news sources—as well as different takes on stories that are covered in the mainstream.
As the journalism field continues to experience major disruptions, many for-profit print alt-weeklies are folding. At the same time some nonprofit journalism outlets are seeing record support, and local news outlets are experimenting with new revenue streams, community engagement, and other different ways to connect with audiences and support their journalism.
The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) is one organization that is helping alternative media stave off economic challenges by taking advantage of these various experiments. BINJ is a nonprofit news hub that supports local journalists and produces and distributes work across many outlets and platforms.
Co-founded by Chris Faraone—the news and features editor for alt-weekly DigBoston and longtime journalist for the now shuttered Boston Phoenix—BINJ supports freelancers and publications in Greater Boston in various ways, including paying freelancers to produce stories, training journalists, collaborating to produce shows for radio and TV, and experimenting with different revenue models for alternative media. In a profile of the organization on CJR, Faraone shared some of his inspirations.
“Basically, I wanted to create a miniature ProPublica, a collaborative, free-floating incubator that would be a Make-A-Wish Foundation for all of these news outlets to help them do what they couldn’t afford to do.”
Harvard University anthropology student Cole Edick studied BINJ’s internal workings and immersed himself with the BINJ team—attending workshops, meetings, classes and pop-up newsroom events and conducting in depth interviews with BINJ staff. He wrote about his studies in an unpublished thesis, BINJworthy: Rethinking Truth Through Authenticity at a Boston Alternative News Organization. The thesis is full of interesting takeaways. While it is still unpublished, Edick and Faraone shared it with us and allowed us to share some of its insights.
The journalists and publications supported by BINJ innovate by cultivating authenticity in news production in four key ways:
- allowing room for creative experimentation and community engagement;
- fostering a deeper connection to the communities they serve;
- choosing which stories to cover and not cover; and
- showcasing many, different unfiltered voices.
Allowing room for creative experimentation and community engagement
BINJ is not constrained by typical newsroom expectations, which allows greater room for experimentation. Working with freelancers can also offer a level of autonomy that employees of news organizations do not experience. For example, BINJ constructs “pop-up newsrooms” on street corners and locations around the community where community members can interact with reporters directly. Edick describes one such scene:
…When I arrive at Tavern Square in Boston’s windy Fort Point neighborhood, Chris Faraone and his BINJ colleagues are struggling against a gust from the harbor to set up one of their signature “pop-up newsrooms” in front of the restaurant. The owner, a friend, has let them borrow a stainless steel food prep table from the kitchen to serve as the basis for their impromptu office. Out of two hardleather suitcases emerge mid-twentieth-century mechanical desktop typewriters, which get carefully loaded with paper. They set out some clipboards, pens, notepads, and buttons denoting “BINJ” or “Create Boston,” a food and art festival that they’re featuring at today’s newsroom…
Another way BINJ helps writers to develop a connection to the larger community and to the city itself is by giving writers who are new to the city “Throwback” assignments that allow them to dive deep into the city’s rich journalism history. Writers get an old headline, topic, or news outlet and report back on where that subject is today. Not only does this bring new layers of context to the news, but it is also used intentionally by BINJ as a training tool for emerging journalists.
Connecting communities through shared experience
Contingent labor through freelance work—which is becoming more and more common across mainstream journalism—was always a fact of life for most people working in alternative media,, Edick asserts. While contingent labor is troubling since essential benefits such as access to health insurance are linked to more traditional types of employment, those shared struggles have the benefit of positioning reporters closer to their subjects, Edick writes.
Edick writes that alternative media as a whole is more comfortable with the rapidly growing precarity of the journalism field, with organizations like BINJ seizing on opportunities for disruption and innovation. Economic instability is in some ways an asset for journalists, and Faraone asserts that it is one needed in the field of journalism to reduce the disconnect between journalists and working-class subjects. However, Faraone also believes we need to talk openly about these issues and address how we ensure journalists themselves can have sustainable work.
Choosing what to cover—and what not to cover
Organizations such as BINJ are able to choose to “chase unicorns”—finding “rare stories with a magical quality”—that are not covered in mainstream press. These unicorns often provide a chance to report on marginalized communities that rarely, if ever, see themselves reflected in the press.
BINJ reporter Haley Hamilton described it to Edick:
I think that the stories that we give more space and voice to are more often connected to marginalized groups. And it’s not like we specifically seek to speak to those people, but we do tell stories that are often overlooked or underreported by major publications … the only time the Globe ever goes to Dorchester is if somebody got shot there, you know?
These editorial choices are not just about what to cover, but also what not to cover. Edick writes in his thesis that BINJ has the freedom to avoid coverage of overreported topics. He notes that BINJ’s ethos “emphasize[s] inclusivity and individuality but also intolerance for the overrepresented.”
Showcasing many different unfiltered voices
Unrestrained by the norms and boundaries of mainstream journalism organizations, alternative outlets like BINJ are free to share the raw, unfiltered voices of their writers and subjects.
As Edick writes, “alternative news critiques formality and homogeneity by eschewing expectations, restrictions and standards of journalistic writing.” This involves several facets, including how the stories are structured, using creative illustrations instead of photos, and unrestricted use of profanity—that serves to, as Faraone puts it, “get a little stank on” the final product.
This “realness” is much more relatable to people than the sanitized mainstream news Faraone says. As one BINJ writer told Edick, the alternative is “actually mainstream,” as it is more relatable to more people.
BINJ is one example of how an organization that provides shared services, opportunities for collaboration, and new ways to think about revenue can support journalists on the ground in alternative ways. Do you know of an organization using an innovative model for supporting local news like BINJ? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
More reading on BINJ:
- Alt-weeklies look for lifeline from nonprofits
- Two years in, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism is helping other community outlets develop membership programmes
Katie Donnelly is Associate Director at Dot Connector Studio. Donnelly has collaborated with businesses, nonprofits, universities, and independent media producers to create, evaluate, and amplify projects for social good. With a decade of experience in content creation and evaluation, she develops effective programs through research, strategic planning, and curriculum development. She has authored numerous engagement toolkits, including curricula addressing social issues including body image, substance abuse, and gender-based violence. Donnelly formerly served as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab, associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as research associate at Temple University’s Media Education Lab.