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Omaha Magazine

Helping Citizens Profit From Information: New Journalism Format Fills Gaps

Aug 29, 2022 04:40PM ● By Sean McCarthy
Matt Wynn and Matt Hansen of flatwater free press

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Matt Wynn and Matthew Hansen were looking for a place to get a sustainable lunch on a warm Friday before Memorial Day, but had to settle for a busy coffeehouse. Hungry stomachs didn’t dull their enthusiasm for talking about how to save the field of journalism. At the Little Bohemia location of Archetype Coffee, they spoke about their nonprofit news organization, Flatwater Free Press, with the fervor of two tech-loving entrepreneurs who created a startup set to revolutionize an industry. 

Their optimism is a rarity in an industry that has had little to be cheerful about over the past 20 years. The holdout loyalists of print newspaper have likely bemoaned at the thinning product of papers like the Omaha World-Herald. Those who complain too loudly, should note that Omaha is one city that still has a daily print paper. 

A Nov. 30, 2021, article in the Washington Post reported that more than 2,200 local newspapers have shuttered since 2005. It’s a grim reality for an industry that, according to a Pew Research report in May, stated total weekday circulation for local papers has fallen 40% since 2015. The report did offer a glimmer of hope, stating that digital circulation increased by 30% in 2020. The numbers, however, have not been enough to prevent massive layoffs.

Media commentators routinely blame the newspaper industry for getting themselves into this state, claiming most were too slow to respond to the rise of the Internet. Most newspapers waffled between creating a paywall (limiting the number of stories a person can read for free), or letting people read their content for free. A growing number of news organizations, especially new ones, have decided to move away from a for-profit, advertising-based business model, and treat the institute of journalism as a public trust. Three local organizations—Flatwater Free Press, the Nebraska Examiner, and NOISE—have gone the nonprofit route.

Each of these news organizations gives their content away for free. For-profit media outlets that want to run one of their stories need only provide a citation or follow a few simple steps on one of their websites. If people like what they’re reading, they are obviously free to donate. 

“It’s the future of journalism,” said Wynn, executive director at Flatwater Free Press. Matthew Hansen is the publication’s editor. 

The two worked together at the Omaha World-Herald in the early 2010s. They had cubicles close to one another and routinely talked all things journalism. Wynn left the World-Herald in 2016, and in 2018, he became the deputy data editor at USA Today. After winning several awards for his World-Herald columns, Hansen joined the Buffet Early Childhood Institute as managing editor in 2019. 

While at the World-Herald and USA Today, Wynn took notice at the growing number of nonprofit journalism organizations. Wynn said the movement really took off during the financial crisis of 2008. He was interested in starting a nonprofit journalism organization in Nebraska, but didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of earlier nonprofit startups. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann        
Matthew Hansen, editor of Flatwater Free Press

Wynn and Hansen studied nonprofit news outlets in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Oklahoma for almost a year before forming Flatwater Free Press in a similar vein. During a conversation with Hansen, Jack Marsh, co-founder of the nonprofit South Dakota News Watch, gave him the following advice: “Get the journalism right every time, and essentially everything else flows from that.” Inspired by the talk, Hansen wrote, “Get the journalism right every time” on a sticky note. Shortly after, Hansen’s wife—food blogger and former World-Herald food writer Sarah Baker Hansen—framed that note for him. 

“I try to let that be my North Star as we do this stuff,” he said. 

The majority of donations to Flatwater Free Press come from foundations. According to its 2021 budget, the Nebraska Journalism Trust, the 501(c)(3) charity that publishes Flatwater Free Press, had almost $800,000 in donations from foundations. About $80,000 came from individual contributors. Wynn is also the executive director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust. Wynn said fundraising is his primary full-time job but having survived newsrooms for the past 20 years was more of a challenge than fundraising could ever be. 

“Fundraising for journalism is the right thing to do,” Wynn said. “It’s right where I want to be.” 

Flatwater Free Press and the Nebraska Examiner are two of the newer nonprofit news outlets in the state. North Omaha Information Support Everyone (NOISE) began in 2018 and covers news issues directly related to North Omaha, operating out of a few offices in the historic Redfield Building at 1901 Howard St. 

Sitting in the break room of a largely vacant second floor filled with renovated meeting rooms and glass-enclosed offices, NOISE President and Executive Director Myles A. Davis said his organization was focused on community journalism. That, he said, is different from what he dubbed “activist journalism,” which pushes readers toward a certain goal. 

“We want to give them [NOISE’s readers] all the information they need in order to be engaged,” Davis said. “Their level of engagement or type of engagement is up to them.” 

Davis said NOISE began with a $25,000 donation from the Weitz Family Foundation and have also received more than $5,000 in donations from the Sherwood Foundation and the American Journalism Project. As executive director, Davis estimated he spends 80% of his time fundraising. He also estimated the NOISE staff spend 30% of their time fundraising to continue the organization’s operations and continued growth.

In April 2021, Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office denied press credentials to NOISE to cover his press briefings. Taylor Gage, then Ricketts’ director of strategic communications, said NOISE was not a mainstream news organization and was “an advocacy organization funded by liberal donors.” 

The story made national headlines, and local and national media figures came to NOISE’s defense. In July 2021, the governor’s office reversed its decision and approved press credentials to NOISE. Davis praised the outpouring of support, specifically from Nebraska Examiner senior reporter Paul Hammel, but would prefer mainstream outlets devote more time to cover the issues NOISE covers.

“We’ll continue to shine a light and give a voice to people who need to be heard,” Davis said. 

Flatwater Free Press and NOISE have partnered to train the next generation of journalists. In June, the two organizations co-hosted the grand opening of the Omaha Journalism Project, which aims to train students in the field of journalism. One class involves a six-week program about reporting and social media, and in the fall, a course will be offered on podcasting. Davis hopes to train enough community journalists so that each student could assume their own beat to cover for a news publication.

As a reader, it can be difficult to keep track of the news reported by outlets like Flatwater Free Press, the Nebraska Examiner, and NOISE. Fortunately, there’s an organization that broadcasts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings on Facebook and YouTube. The subscription-based outlet 1st Sky Omaha routinely brings on reporters from Flatwater Free Press, The Reader, and NOISE to talk about the stories they’re covering. 

Paul B. Allen IV sits at the bar of the Benson Theatre as a few students from Metropolitan Community College film a day in his life. Allen is the founder of 1st Sky Omaha and communications director at the Benson Theatre. Before moving to Omaha, Allen lived in California and Hawaii, but came to Omaha in 2010 to spend time with his grandfather who had cancer. Allen remembered flying into Omaha during a blizzard. 

“I came in…shorts and flip-flops, “Allen said. “I was like ‘What did I do?’” 

Allen chose to hang around Omaha and help put together a radio station for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. In 2016, he helped assemble Mind & Soul, a morning radio show focused on North Omaha issues. Along with spoken word artist Michelle Troxclair, longtime TV anchor Michael Scott hosted the morning show. In 2020, following a leadership change at the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, the morning show ceased operations.  

Allen wanted to continue doing community-based journalism, so he formed 1st Sky Omaha in 2021. He started live broadcasting a morning news show on Facebook with Troxclair and Mark McGaugh, better known as Buddi3 Da Gawd. 1st Sky Omaha now livestreams on Twitter and YouTube in addition to Facebook. Throughout the May primaries, local candidates came on to answer questions from the hosts as well as those posted by virtual spectators. Affectionally dubbed “chat chimers,” listeners react in a real-time setting to the topics of the morning. While heavily focused on the news, Allen said 1st Sky Omaha is primarily a discussion group for the stories uncovered by organizations like NOISE and Flatwater Free Press.

“We take the headlines and break down stuff, read between the lines, discuss it, and feature the articles from those groups,” Allen said.

To fund the ad-free content on 1st Sky Omaha, Allen has set up a subscription service on PayPal. He’s also applied for grants and teamed with other organizations like the Omaha Institute For Nonprofit Journalism. Allen said he preferred the nonprofit business model, but it’s still in its early stages of development and much could be improved. One of the biggest areas of improvement includes finding more experienced individuals to navigate the nonprofit landscape in order to secure more funding, Allen said. 

Finding funds to keep nonprofits afloat is arguably the biggest challenge these news organizations face. Fortunately for the Nebraska Examiner, they have been given the resources to operate a staff of four full-time individuals for three years from States Newsroom, a North Carolina-based nonprofit dedicated to covering state government issues. All four staffers are former World-Herald stalwarts. 

Cate Folsom is the editor-in-chief of the Nebraska Examiner. She began her career at the World-Herald in 1979 as a reporter for the Living section, which Folsom pointed out was then called “Women’s News.” In a telephone interview from her Omaha home, Folsom recalled how different technology was in her early reporting life. 

In 1986, Folsom was assigned to the Washington bureau. When it came time to file her story, she had to write her copy on a TRS-80, which Folsom said was routinely known as a “trash 80” by fellow reporters. The device was smaller than a laptop of today, and Folsom could only see seven lines of text. When she was done with her story, she had to go to a phone booth at the press gallery, place the headset into the TRS-80, and send the story over the phone. 

“Things are different today,” Folsom quipped. 

In June 2012, Folsom became the World-Herald’s metro editor. In 2018, she was inducted into the Omaha Press Club Hall of Fame. In 2019, she retired from the World-Herald, and for a few months, she went to hot air balloon festivals with her husband, John Folsom. The retirement didn’t last long. She was approached by Paul Hammel in 2021, just as he was leaving the World-Herald, ending his tenure which began in 1990. 

Hammel had learned about States Newsroom from the Iowa Capital Dispatch and their ability to attract veteran reporters from the Des Moines Register. As of July 2022, States Newsroom has 28 state nonprofit news organizations across the country, the Iowa Capital Dispatch among them and Nebraska the 26th newsroom to fall under the organization’s umbrella of news outlets. Folsom said she was intrigued by States Newsroom’s nonprofit business model and their dedication to policy-based news coverage. 

“One of our goals is to cover what’s under-covered or uncovered now,” Folsom said. 

Hammel, senior reporter at the Nebraska Examiner, has seen the newspaper industry’s decline during his 30 years at the World-Herald. In a phone interview from his Lincoln home, Hammel said when he joined the World-Herald in 1990, there were about seven full-time reporters that were dedicated to business reporting. There was one reporter who was just focused on the environment, and at least two full-time reporters worked in their Lincoln bureau. 

“It was a hopping place,” Hammel said. “There’d be people working there until 10 o’clock at night on a Friday night to put out not only the Saturday paper, but the Sunday paper.” 

Hammel’s focus is on state and local government, which was his primary beat while at the World-Herald. Hammel brings nearly three decades of deep, established sources to The Nebraska Examiner, which helped them scoop most of the established news outlets this past January when Hammel, along with reporters Cindy Gonzalez and Aaron Sanderford, wrote about Mutual of Omaha’s plan to build a new headquarters on the site of the downtown public library. While the Mutual of Omaha story made big headlines, Hammel was just as happy publishing stories that major news outlets are likely to overlook, such as a March 3 story about a large percentage of applicants who were snubbed for grants from the state’s Environmental Trust. 

“We’re a feisty little news organization that tries to cover things that aren’t being covered any more,” Hammel said. 

This past May, Flatwater Free Press wrote about Vinebrook Homes, an Ohio-based company that had purchased more than 250 homes in the Omaha metro area since October 2019. Virtually unknown three years ago, the organization is now one of the biggest landlords in the state. The story started with Matt Wynn just wanting to know about every piece of property that had been sold in Douglas County over the past few years. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Matt Wynn, Executive Director of Flatwater Free Press. 

“It’s data reporting 101,” Wynn said. 

The Nebraska Examiner was the organization that broke the story about eight women who accused former gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster of sexual misconduct. While the majority of the women asked to remain anonymous, Republican State Sen. Julie Slama went on the record, stating she was groped by Herbster during a dinner for the Douglas County Republican Party. Written by Aaron Sanderford, the story was widely believed to be the reason why Herbster–backed by former president Donald Trump–lost the election to Jim Pillen, who was actively supported by fellow Republican, Gov. Pete Ricketts. 

During the night of the May primary, Hammel was present at Herbster’s campaign event. People he’d known and covered for years made little effort to mask their anger toward the Nebraska Examiner. 

“They came up and said, ‘You guys killed our guy…unfairly,’” Hammel said. “They saw it as part of some grand conspiracy that had been cooked up by the Ricketts people; we saw it as not a very well-kept secret.” 

In a phone interview from its headquarters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, States Newsroom Deputy Director Andrea Verykoukis said her organization generally has a “hands off” editorial policy among its 28 news organizations. The only time Verykoukis envisioned States Newsroom involving themselves in the day-to-day operations of publications like the Nebraska Examiner is if they begin straying away from reporting primarily on state government issues. Other than that, she trusts the local experts. 

“Cate knows what Nebraskans need to read about their state government,” Verykoukis said. “Our whole goal is to have readers be able to access high-quality, nonpartisan news about their state government, because we believe that state government touches most people’s daily lives the most of any level, and that’s where the coverage was going away the most.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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