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Can ecoRI News sustain its efforts to be a vital environmental watchdog?
By PHILIP EIL  |  December 6, 2013

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SMALL TEAM, HIGH STAKES The ecoRI staff. [Photo by Natalja Kent]

When was the last time you saw a news organization share the details of its finances with the world?

Perhaps it was Sunday, December 1, when ecoRI News — the nonprofit hyper-local environmental news outlet headquartered at the Providence home of its (married) co-founders, Joanna Detz and Frank Carini — rolled out its “Most Epic Fund Drive Ever,” with a goal of raising $20,000 by January 1.

The fundraising page has a ticker at the top tracking the drive’s progress and a pitch for donations below that reads, in part, “In the past year, ecoRI News brought you more than 500 environmental news stories written by local reporters. We’re keeping an eye on: the effects of climate change on our coastline; how federal regulations are effecting local farms; innovative plans for transportation and urban smart growth; the renewable-energy sector; people making a difference in our communities.”

Along the side of the page are two pie charts: one breaking down the organization’s $73,980 expenses so far for 2013 (82 percent went to “Reporting & Outreach Programs,” with the rest earmarked for administrative costs and marketing); the other, labeling various sources for $79,002 in revenue, from grants, fundraisers, reader donations, advertising, consulting and coordinating services for green events, and ecoRI’s recently-launched compost collection service ecoRI Earth. “Our annual budget is less than $90,000, only enough to ensure part-time wages for our staff,” the page says. “Next year, we’d like to ramp up our coverage, shoot more video and produce more podcasts; but we can’t do this without your help.”

Carini, ecoRI News’ executive editor, and Detz, the organization’s executive director and chief web designer, were even more forthcoming with the Phoenix prior to the drive’s launch. Transparency is “our obligation as a 501(c)(3),” Carini wrote in an email. True to that promise, he sent over copy of his business plan describing a “unique initiative that blends journalism with public outreach” and listing The Rhode Island Foundation, CVS Caremark, Blue State Coffee, Save The Bay, and the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals among ecoRI’s many grantors and sponsors. Along with it came a report showing how, among other stats, ecoRI’s page views per month rose from 22,056 to 45,602 between January and December of 2012. ecoRI programs manager Kevin Proft also sent a copy of ecoRI’s recycling-themed “Slim Your Waste” PowerPoint presentation (sample quote: “The average RI household generated approximately 1900 pounds of trash in 2010”), and an accompanying list of 100 locations around the state — from All Saints Academy in Middletown to Whole Foods in Cranston — where the presentation was delivered.

Indeed, Carini and Detz were even open to discussing the uncomfortable question that’s loomed since ecori.org went live in September of 2009: is the project sustainable?

The answer, in the environmental sense of the word, is an immediate and resounding “Yes.” In just four years, ecoRI News has established itself as the go-to resource for anything vaguely environment-related in our tiny, coastal state where newsrooms are shrinking and sea levels are steadily rising. At ecori.org, you’ll find everything from videos of elderly protestors being arrested at July’s Brayton Point power plant protest in Somerset, Massachusetts, to advice on how to “Avoid Stank Breath, Naturally,” to stats about Providence bicycle crashes in recent years, to a deep-dive analysis into the fact that 60 percent of the watershed for Narragansett Bay — Rhode Island’s signature body of water — actually falls within Massachusetts state lines.

This past month, when Alex and Ani CEO Carolyn Rafaelian made headlines for signing a state funding request for a solar panel project at her Newport mansion (“She said she must have signed the letter on a day when she had hundreds of documents and checks before her,” the Providence Journal reported), it was ecoRI staff writer Tim Faulkner who first broke the story. Reporting on RIEDC alternative-energy grant recipients in a November 4 article, Faulkner matter-of-factly noted, “A request for $18,504 for an 18-kilowatt solar array at Belcourt Castle in Newport was deferred until the EDC’s November meeting . . . Belcourt Castle is owned by Carolyn Rafaelian, founder of Alex and Ani jewelry.” Rhode Island Public Radio news director Catherine Welch later tweeted an account of how the story progressed: “ecoRI had it first, then I ran it, then ABC6 ran an item, then Patch jumped on, then Projo jumped on it and got comment.”

And this doesn’t even begin to describe ecoRI’s outreach arm, which, aside from the compost collection program and “Slim Your Waste” tour, has produced post-holiday take-backs for pumpkins, turkey carcasses, and Christmas trees, and worked at local road races to make sure that water bottles and other race waste are properly disposed and recycled.

So, when Carini and Detz discuss ecoRI’s sustainability as an issue they haven’t fully solved, they’re not talking about “going green”; they’re talking about financial survival. When he first left his post as city editor at the Newport Daily News and drew up the business plan for a new project, Carini says he envisioned an organization that could bring in $250,000 annually and employ six full time staffers. He has since tempered those ambitions. “Now, I’m thinking we can do it with $150,000 a year,” he says. But even that sum is around twice what ecoRI currently brings in. Right now, divvied up between four main staffers — Carini, Detz, Faulkner, and Proft — plus freelancers, ecoRI’s revenues fall short of a living wage.

Indeed, despite how much fun the staffers say they’re having; despite high-profile testimonials about the work they do (“I read ecoRI on a regular basis and appreciate its commitment to covering important environmental issues in our state,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse tells us); despite watching the numbers of readers and advertisers steadily rise; Carini says that if revenues level off at $80,000 in the upcoming year, they’ll probably have to make some major decisions.

In other words, 2014 seems likely to bring an answer to whether a model like ecoRI’s can succeed in the Ocean State — or anywhere else.

ORGANIC JOURNALISM

ecoRI isn’t completely alone in allowing readers to browse internal financial numbers once they’ve finished reading headlines. At the web home of Voice of San Diego — the self-described “member-based nonprofit investigative news organization that gives concerned citizens the tools they need to engage in important conversations about their community” founded in the mid-2000s by a longtime columnist/editor who had been summarily laid off from San Diego’s daily newspaper — visitors can click links to IRS 990 forms detailing exactly how much the organization spends on laptops, scanners, phone lines, office chairs, digital cameras, and everything else necessary to fulfill the mission stated on the form’s first page: “ON-LINE NEWSPAPER OPERATED EXCLUSIVELY TO EDUCATE AND INFORM RESIDENTS OF SAN DIEGO COUNTY.” Carini and Detz have looked at Voice as somewhat of model, they say. They also point to the Seattle-based Grist, the feisty, eco-focused outlet founded in 1999 that calls itself “A Beacon In the Smog,” as a source of inspiration.

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