Healthy Initiatives  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2008

Healthy Initiatives   

By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     


Carol Gentry doesn't think "it's any mystery why health care is bubbling up so early" as the focus of at least two nonprofit, state-level news services. "People don't understand how it works," says Gentry, founding editor of the year-old FloridaHealthNews.org. "It's hard to get good coverage, particularly at the local and state level."

There's another basic reason. "It's where the money is," explains Carol DeVita, a researcher at the Urban Institute's Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. The news services largely are supported by so-called "conversion" foundations, created when nonprofit hospitals were sold to for-profit providers. Dozens of states have required that proceeds from charitable assets be redirected to support community health through efforts such as clinics, immunization programs and research.

The Kansas Health Institute, an independent, nonprofit policy and research organization in Topeka, in January 2007 introduced the online KHI News Service to cover state health policy. It has four staff journalists with newspaper backgrounds. It features daily spot news stories and a weekly centerpiece. A recent one examined whether a proposed tobacco tax increase could provide reliable funding for health reform.

Vice President for Public Affairs Jim McLean says the free service primarily reaches legislators, government staffers and lobbyists, though it's also intended for consumers. KHI stories have been picked up by the Topeka Capital-Journal (where McLean was a managing editor) and assorted small papers. McLean hopes to increase distribution this year by introducing story budgets to help editors plan.

The institute gets its funding mostly from philanthropy, with some project-based funding from state and federal agencies. The editorial staff works independently, McLean emphasizes, and "there's no advocacy mission at all."

Florida's independent online news service covers a wide range of state and local health issues. Launched in March 2007 primarily as a news aggregator, the St. Petersburg-based FloridaHealthNews.org tracked health care bills when the Legislature was in session and posted original stories. Until mid-December, it had one paid staffer, part-time Managing Editor Pat Curtis, as well as a paid intern. Gentry has signed up a Tallahassee correspondent and is recruiting stringers around the state. She herself didn't start drawing a paycheck until mid-December, instead logging volunteer hours while reporting on health full time for the Tampa Tribune. She resigned from the paper in late November, after the Florida Health Policy Center a partnership of eight foundations approved $183,000 in new grants. The center had provided seed money of $59,200 for the news service's first year.

Gentry says she'll "outsource the fundraising, the marketing, the advertising. We want, as much as we can, to have a firewall between the newsroom and the business side... That's the most important thing, that people can trust us as journalists."

A decade ago, the Oakland-based nonprofit California HealthCare Foundation introduced a health news aggregation site, California Healthline. Now, it may add experienced journalists to produce "in-depth health care reporting in partnership with media organizations," says David Olmos, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor who in the fall stepped down as the foundation's communications director. He's researching the project, which might entail partnering with newspapers, public radio and television stations or other news organizations. Like ProPublica, the new nonprofit news outlet for investigative reporting, its services "almost certainly would be free," Olmos says.

Its mission would be "tackling some larger issues that are not sufficiently covered in California," which Olmos describes as "a proving ground or laboratory for some of the health efforts" relevant nationwide.

Both he and Gentry say these niche news services may serve as templates for other areas of coverage, such as education or the environment. Says Olmos: "It's going to be really important that these start-up ventures are thoughtful."

C.G.

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