We’re launching the next phase in Nebraska news. Here’s why Flatwater Free Press is crucial

Welcome to the Flatwater Free Press, the first independent, nonprofit, collaborative, purely investigative and enterprise news outlet serving the entire state of Nebraska.

There is not a single editor on the planet who would let me publish that sentence.

That mix of amorphous adjectives and high-falutin’ mumbo jumbo would have led to a long sit-down with anyone who has ever had to polish my work.

But in this case, I mean it. Every word.

For nearly three years, we at the Flatwater Free Press have been studying and planning the next phase for Nebraska’s news ecosystem. 

We’ve researched the 330-plus other members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, with a special eye toward nearby operations in Wyoming, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

We’ve talked to dozens of stakeholders around the state, casting a purposely wide net. We met with policymakers, civic organizations and advocacy groups. We reached out to people who, traditionally, have been excluded or overlooked by media and the other powers that be.

We talked to the media. We met with publishers and editors, station managers and reporters.

We heard what people want from a newsroom that gets the benefit of starting from scratch in 2021. We meshed that advice with industry best practices, and came up with what we think is a uniquely Nebraskan take on the nonprofit news movement that has swept the country over the past decade.

I hope you’ll join the thousands who have already signed up for our newsletter, and I hope you’ll let us know how we can best do journalism that matters to you. We want that. We need that.

Meanwhile, here, on the day of our formal launch, let me tease out what that mouthful of a lede means. 

INDEPENDENT means just that. We are who we say we are. We are not part of any government entity, not beholden to any corporation, not responsive to any political party or private interest. We get in front of organizational biases and are transparent with our funding. This is a project shaped by our staff and incredible board, who represent a cross-section of Nebraska. We disclose all donors above $5,000, and have taken care to reflect a range of foundational interests. 

NONPROFIT speaks to both our tax status and philanthropic business model. As Richard Tofel, the former ProPublica president wrote in June, nonprofit news exists precisely because earned revenue proved insufficient. Philanthropy is a perfect match for journalism. In the good old days, car dealerships and grocery stores would underwrite watchdog reports. It was a marriage of convenience. News got eyeballs. Advertisers wanted them. The Flatwater Free Press skips the unnatural middleman, aligning the model with the mission. We allow community-minded people and institutions to support work that lifts that same community. It’s funding journalism, a public good, as a public good. 

COLLABORATIVE describes our approach to the work. We are full partners with our readers. We’ve implored our thousands of early subscribers to share their story ideas. Those have gone on a list we’re going to hand our full-time reporters as soon as they’re in the door. We’re also full partners with the state’s newsrooms. We’ve met with dozens across the state — and country — to talk about doing work that matters, and distributing it to the widest possible audience. We’re decoupling journalism from distribution, giving our content away for the low, low price of $0. Media partners get the benefit of high-quality stories and free page views. We get to see good stories told to the largest audience. The entire state gets access to the same stories. It’s win-win-win.

INVESTIGATIVE means we’ll spend time getting to answers that aren’t easy. It means using data, documents and interviews to answer questions officials can’t (or won’t). It means all those classic journalistic cliches — that we’ll act without fear or favor, that we’ll comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I like to put it another way: We punch up. 

ENTERPRISE is, as I’ve found myself saying embarrassingly often, the yin to the investigative yang. Whereas investigations tend to call out people or organizations that misbehave, enterprise lifts up people who deserve credit. It teases out interesting stories from conditions that all of us may acknowledge exist, or are too slow-moving to otherwise justify a story. All the stories you read here today are enterprise.

NEWS OUTLET is a little bit of a wiggle word. We aren’t a replacement for any other news source. We’ll never cover a car accident or shooting. We won’t be on a basketball court, or in a court of law. Consider us more like a magazine. We’re newsy, but we leave breaking news to the experts. And that takes us to, last but certainly not least…

THE ENTIRE STATE OF NEBRASKA, which I’d argue is the most ambitious bit of this admittedly audacious plan. Every year, we’ll measure ourselves based on the amount and quality of coverage in four different focus areas: statewide, specific to the Omaha-Lincoln metro, from Greater Nebraska, and of historically excluded groups. To do that, we’re recruiting an army of freelancers. That’s people across the state, from a former reporter with decades of experience in the panhandle to a new high school grad in Omaha. The idea is to have people who know the realities and context of a situation tell those stories to the rest of us. It’s, admittedly, not part of the nonprofit newsrooms we’ve studied. But it’s something I believe in, something needed, and something I want to read myself.

There is so much more I could tell you. I could tell you about our desire to get weird with content, our interest in making stories resonate past mere publication. I could tell you about the incredible applicants we’ve had for our first few positions, some of the collaborations we’ll launch, or the work we already have in the hopper.

But the same editors who would never let me get away with my lede wouldn’t sign off on that, either. Show, they’d tell me. Don’t tell.

That’s just what we intend to do.

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.

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From my perspective, and the clients we serve in the communications field, there is always room for quality journalism. I thank you for taking this step for Nebraska and look forward to measuring the impact of your stories.