An Important Update — or –The State of the Fourth Estate

Recent inquiries from the folks at iMediaEthics have me thinking about greater transparency into how The Fourth Estate operates. We strive to be effective at advocating for robust, independent and effective journalism – and we can best do that when our members and other interested parties fully understand our organization.

The state of the Fourth Estate: As of this date, the Fourth Estate has growing revenues and positive cash flow from variety of revenue sources. Since the Fourth Estate’s founding in 2010 as a crazy idea coming out of Journalism That Matters, Create or Die – and In a scenario that would be familiar to any veteran of lean start-ups — we entered the market with a baseline product (or MVP) and we’re trying to quickly build out the offerings along several lines,. We also have pivoted a couple times along the way — and will probably do so again. Does that mean continuing to grow the membership base? Yes. But it also means developing meaningful and diverse service offerings for news businesses, journalism-related nonprofits and other advocates of robust, independent journalism.

How we’re structured: Fourth Estate is a Public Benefit Corporation, a designation that means that we are a for-profit entity with a concrete public benefit purpose that comes first in our charter purposes. More simply: We put our mission before profits.

Why aren’t we a nonprofit? Because we believe the future of journalism, and our work in support of that future, should leverage all the tools in the toolkit – including markets. We’re trying to build something valuable to journalists and the journalism ecosystem; in return, our members will own much of that created value. (More on that below.)

We are structured like a new generation cooperative.

So if The Fourth Estate isn’t a nonprofit, who owns it? Who funds it? It took just one investor – me – to plant the seed and get the organization under way.

The voting, or common stock, shareholders are the equity members of the Fourth Estate — a group that, at this time, consists only of myself holding one single share of common stock. Additionally, non-voting, or preferred stock, is held by Dresden Capital Fund and myself. We’re looking at ways for Fourth Estate members to acquire and benefit from equity as part of their membership, and expect to announce these when it makes sense, maybe in 2018.

Do we offer grants, scholarships or awards? Yes. We’ve given out six Awesome Journalism Awards – $1,000 no-strings micro grants – and have started funds and planning for other annual awards as well. Many of these are on the website but have never been awarded because they’re new, we haven’t completed developing the application forms yet, or both. We also have funding goals for most of the awards and, on a case by case basis, may be waiting to achieve baseline funding for them before issuing a call for entries.

We have also started planning for more formal journalism scholarship and investigative journalism fund and I’ve personally contributed all of the funding to seed these projects. Any additional funds in the projects will come from revenue; we’ve considered crowdfunding for some specific project funds but that’s not something we’re actively pursuing at this time.

What else has the Fourth Estate done lately? Our JournSpark initiative provides qualifying journalism organizations and news related startups with no-cost hosting services, technical support, and mentorship. Websites all around the world are taking advantage of this valuable program.

We’ve also provided free startup mentoring, assistance and guidance to dozens of would-be media and journalism startups and paid for two startup founders to participate in an incubator. Our angel investor group has also provided $25,000 in seed funds to two seed-stage journalism entrepreneurs.

We are also actively litigating a case likely on its way to the US Supreme Court. This case seeks to clarify an important issue for news organizations over when copyright enforceability becomes effective and when copyright owners can legally enforce their intellectual property rights. A very important issue for smaller news publishers.

In many ways, we’re also a tech company and have provided dozens of hours of software development time to a variety of open source software initiatives.

We wish we could do more right now, but this is a start.

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