Non-Profit News Outlet Seeks to Fill Gap in Nebraska as Newspapers Shrink

Sept. 1, 2021, 11:25 a.m. ·

Matt Hansen, Flatwater Free Press
Matt Hansen, (left) editor of the Flatwater Free Press, gathers information for a story. (Courtesy)

After years of staff cutbacks at Nebraska's most established newspapers and broadcast newsrooms, a new player sees an opportunity to provide in-depth journalism.

A pair of veteran print reporters launched The Flatwater Free Press this week. The group's work will be made available to media outlets across Nebraska, including Nebraska Public Media and the Flatwater website.

Matt Hansen, a former columnist with the Omaha World-Herald, is a founding editor. Matt Wynn, a specialist in data reporting at the World-Herald and USA Today, serves as executive editor. The pair see the decline of local journalism as a problem for communities and an opportunity for this venture.

The publication's mission focuses on investigative and analytical reporting of Nebraska issues and long-form feature reporting from across the state.

The business model mirrors nonprofit news organizations around the country. The website will contain no advertising and no requirement for a paid subscription.

A nonprofit organization, the Nebraska Journalism Trust, brought in $2 Million in initial commitments from private foundations and donors, according to the financial statement provided on its website.

The publican is Nebraska's first statewide, not-for-profit journalism venture.

Hansen spoke with Bill Kelly of Nebraska Public Media-News.

He and Wynn frequently reference U.S. Census Bureau data showing Nebraska has lost half of its media and journalism jobs in the past two decades.

Matt Hansen, Flatwater Free Press: That isn't surprising to anyone in Nebraska media. But I think it's often surprising to people who rely on us for coverage.

I think we did it at a time in which it's becoming more obvious to people that this is happening, especially people who are subscribers to print newspapers.

The Flatwater Free Press isn't meant to or built to replace daily journalism in Nebraska in any way. You have that really good, really necessary daily journalism still taking place.

Flatwater Free Press is meant to augment that. It's meant to do things that are getting harder and harder for legacy American media to do. One of those is investigations. Another one of those are feature stories that kind of have a statewide impact or bind the state in some way. So we're hoping to be a sort of a value-added experience for both Nebraska media outlets and Nebraska readers and viewers.

Flatwater Free Press

Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media-News: So with that mission of investigative and feature reporting, can you kind of define what would typify a typical Flatwater Press article?

Hansen: I think that what binds those two ideas together, and it is two ideas, right. On the one hand, you have the projects and the investigations, which will be done by our full-time staff. The other part of it is, as you say, that feature stories that will be handled primarily by freelancers.

I think the common thread is stories that matter statewide that have some sort of statewide impact.

I think that what we're trying to do is hold up what's good about the state of Nebraska and show the statewide impact of that. And then try to show what is not working in the State of Nebraska at a systemic level and show the statewide impact.

Kelly: With what's been traditionally called print journalism, the business model is you sell newspapers, and you sell advertising. What sustains your organization and how can you stay viable without full subscription support?

Hansen: One of the really, really fascinating things about the last 20 years in American journalism and American print journalism is this move to the nonprofit entity.

It is somewhat of a revelation or feels like a revelation to those of us who have grown up inside organizations that were for profit. The way we will fund this thing is a combination of foundational and small and medium-sized donor support.

The early indications of success in fundraising have really blown me away. It becomes very clear very quickly, when you got any talk about this project, or projects like this, that people understand the need for this in a way that surprises even me.

That's true around the country. I mean, there are at this point, something I think there are over 300 of these around the United States.

This is the first attempt at a statewide journalism non-profit in Nebraska. It's really divorcing from that traditional business model of this thing and saying; we're going to do stuff that is important that we think is important, we hope you think it's important. And if you do, you can certainly read it for free, but if you want to help sustain it, we would love for your little bit of your hard-earned money as well.

The premier edition of Flatwater Free Press features reporting on why some parts of Nebraska embraced vaccination to protect against COVID-19. Meanwhile, other aggressive public health campaigns elsewhere in the state were unable to convince the vaccine skeptics.

Hansen: The main story really focuses on where this is working. There are places where that's actually happening in Nebraska and where it's actually happening very, very successfully. South Omaha, largely Hispanic neighborhoods in South Omaha, in particular. I mean, really stunning results from the last three months.

When we went out there and hung out, it was really easy to understand why. We are talking one on one conversation. Trust in the community. Those conditions are there in South Omaha.

And then you go to the panhandle, and you see almost none. And none of that stuff or much of that stuff isn't happening in the panhandle.

I want people to ask, why, why is it happening in this one place? And why is it successful in this one place, and it's not happening in this other place? And even when it does, it's, you know, that outreach campaign isn't as successful. We offer various reasons for it, both demographic and resources in the story, but that to me is the big takeaway from that.

Kelly: Will there be a point of view, and not necessarily a partisan point of view, but something identifiable as outside just a middle-of-the-road philosophy?

Hansen: There certainly won't be a point of view as it relates to partisanship or ideology. As I see it, it is going to be stories that matter. It's going to be the idea of getting beyond the journalistic topsoil, as it were, and really digging into both the problems and solutions that exist in the state at a more systemic level.

That is hard work. That takes a long time. You know, you frequently work for days or weeks, or even months on a project. And it turns out that the thing that you thought was true isn't true, and you have to start over. Right? It's all the sort of things that are really, really hard to fund. And again, not just the problems, but also potential solutions.