ANNO Is Genuinely Different

“ANNO is the grassroots trade association that we've all been dreaming of.”

ANNO Is Genuinely Different

By Alice Dreger

If you’re running a nonprofit news operation and you haven’t joined ANNO, the Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets, I’m curious to hear why. 

In a nutshell, ANNO costs nothing to join, operates democratically and transparently, and is designed to get philanthropic dollars to news outlets doing serious journalism. The discussion list is uncensored, lively, and useful, with a diversity of viewpoints and a wealth of experience and wisdom. There’s no bureaucracy to minimize your concerns and skim off the grants. To be honest, it’s what I thought INN would be when my operation joined in 2018.

If you haven’t heard of ANNO, which is relatively new, you might want to check out the two-part NeimanLab feature by Sophie Culpepper (here and here). One of the people Culpepper interviewed was Jason Pramas, Executive Director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), who helped to convene 18 nonprofit news outlets to form ANNO in August 2023. 

In an email interview with me for Local News Blues, Pramas summed up the reason behind ANNO’s establishment:

“A growing number of nonprofit news publishers in the U.S. feel like we are not getting nearly as much direct funding in the form of general operating grants as we should be from foundations that sometimes have endowments larger than the GDP of many nations. So, all the ANNO founding member-outlets and the nonprofit news outlets that have joined us since agree strongly with our mission of ‘encouraging funders in every available forum to put more money into local and regional nonprofit journalism on an ongoing basis for the long haul—with a special focus on helping smaller news outlets.’”

I think of ANNO as Battlestar Galactica. No bacon-wrapped-shrimp conferences, no execs pulling money off “news” grants to earn salaries bigger than our annual budgets, no long surveys we’re supposed to fill out for free so the umbrella organization can keep using us to gain revenue. Free dialogue, shared missions.

“ANNO is extremely democratic by design,” Pramas explains. “So when we say that the network has ‘no dues, no staff, no board, and no office,’ we're serious. Every member-outlet has the power to recruit any other nonprofit news outlet that agrees with our mission. And every member-outlet can put any decision they'd like ANNO to make up for a vote. Majority rules.”

Says Pramas, “This horizontal structure together with the fact that member-outlets can talk about anything they like with other member-outlets explains why we've grown fairly quickly in our first several months (from 18 to 34 member-outlets thus far).” 

Even the central work of ANNO is up for discussion.

“As a very democratic organization,” Pramas says, “ANNO already has a debate brewing about whether our network should seek funding for just our own member-outlets or continue on our original path of seeking funding for the entire nonprofit news sector in the U.S. Which is all to the good. I'm in support of the second option…perhaps unsurprisingly since I've been pushing that strategy since the original discussions that led to ANNO's formation starting in summer 2022. But I'm really glad ANNO is an organization where all participants can have open debates about issues of the day and then make any decisions that resolving those debates may require democratically. Very different from certain other national organizations for news outlets that I could name.”

I asked Pramas whether he wanted to expand on anything in Culpepper’s twin articles, which he deemed “really excellent.” (I agree.) He responded he wouldn’t have minded seeing more on “our analysis of what foundations actually are and what role they have in maintaining the political and economic status quo in the U.S. Meaning that foundations are actually instruments of the American ruling class and they do, therefore, play a role in maintaining that class' social control over everyone else,” in this case, by deciding whose news operations are supported.

“Any news organization that understands the role of the Fourth Estate in defending what's left of American democracy is duty-bound to report on such institutions with a critical eye,” Pramas wrote, “which is at variance with the idea of going hat in hand to them and singing for our proverbial supper.”

He also noted Culpepper’s article didn’t cover the growing discussion (including at the ANNO list) about “the critical role of government at all levels in figuring out a long-term solution to the journalism funding crisis.”

Jason Pramas, Executive Director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and cofounder of ANNO.

For his part, Pramas thinks “foundation money and the ‘pennies of working people’ are not going to be enough to fix our broken American news ecology without government assistance. Yet, as a journalist and a publisher, I understand implicitly that both taking any kind of aid and comfort from the rich and the government are fraught with contradictions for the surviving lively press. But we've got to muddle our way to a solution or the accelerating loss of journalism will be another nail in the coffin of our democracy. And we're very much talking all this out in ANNO.”

Let me be clear: If you disagree with some of what Pramas has to say on this, that’s a reason to join ANNO, not a reason to avoid it. 

Pramas sums up my feelings when he calls ANNO “the grassroots trade association that we've all been dreaming of. Because it's run by nonprofit news outlets for nonprofit news outlets, as stated above. And because we've all been very dissatisfied with the other national organizations that are supposed to represent our interests.”

Joining ANNO doesn’t mean giving up your INN membership (which, let’s face it, is all about NewsMatch) or your LION membership if you have those, unless you want to. But it does mean having a place where you don’t feel…well, used. Or like you’re jumping hoops.

“OK, so I guess I will name those ‘certain other national organizations’ after all. I myself was a LION founder,” Pramas says. “At least one other ANNO publisher helped found INN. And neither of us worked on starting organizations like INN and LION to create our own gatekeepers. Yet that is what they have become from ANNO’s perspective. We see foundations using INN and LION to determine which nonprofit news outlets get certain funding and which do not – weirdly, as was the case during ANNO's meeting with one of the largest foundations on the planet last fall, claiming that they don't possibly have the staff to handle the task of giving money to all the hundreds of nonprofit news outlets directly...and thence their ‘need’ to use the intermediaries as gatekeepers to do some of the work of disbursing the rather miniscule and inoffensive amounts of money they have given thus far to smaller outlets such as ours. To the point where news outlets literally have to be accepted for membership to one or the other organization to even be able to apply for particular grants or investment programs.”

Pramas notes that INN and LION and “other ‘intermediary organizations,’ as Dick Tofel has aptly dubbed them,” launched with foundation grants have ended up establishing large bureaucracies that mimic those of the foundations. 

“Nonprofit news publishers in ANNO see INN and LION building up increasingly large staffs who maintain an iron grip on those groups' strategy and tactics in no small part by blocking their member-outlets from having any meaningful control over the organizations. So, increasingly, those staffs don't listen to member-outlets any more than foundations generally listen to their grantee organizations – which is to say, hardly at all. In fact, the foundation and intermediary organization staffers spend most of their time concocting new and innovative ways to waste the time of nonprofit news outlets while uniformly failing to help us raise enough money to survive and thrive.

“Our thinking that INN and LION staffs are ridiculously overpaid in addition to being overly large can best be understood in that context. Just frittering away significant amounts of money that could be used to produce actual journalism on the ground in growing news deserts from coast-to-coast.”

Here’s where to join ANNO.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.