A burgeoning array of university-based news projects have been quietly experimenting with new ways to organize and staff their newsrooms, to gather and produce news, and to deliver information and engage their audiences. There's one thing, though, that almost none of them have successfully tackled: how to make money at it.
Rather than create breakthrough business models, university-based news services tend to make their bottom lines by relying on a combination of funding from their schools, grants from foundations, and the use of unpaid student labor. A recent gathering of several dozen university news sites in Washington, D.C., June 1-2, organized by American University's J-Lab, made clear that the vast majority survive primarily with university support or else just "hobble along" raising money for tiny budgets.
But there appears to be an exception. One center has moved toward sustainability by parlaying its in-house journalistic expertise and the draw of a major university, doing what journalism schools do best -- train journalists.
Workshops are top revenue stream for Boston center
Boston University's New England Center for Investigative Reporting in the last fiscal year brought in $180,000 from an array of training workshops for professional and high school students. The center also earns money from sales of the investigative reporting content and custom research it creates with students and staff, plus raises funds from individual philanthropists, university contributions, and grants.
But the money from its training programs represents the single biggest revenue source for the center's $550,000 operating budget.
The center began the summer training workshops the year it opened in 2009. Revenue from the trainings has exploded nearly 700 percent, according to co-director Joe Bergantino. In the first year, it raised $24,000, up to $50,000 in the second, then $110,000 last year, and now $180,000.
The workshops were a key part of the center's mission to train the next generation of investigative reporters, so as to stem the erosion of quality reporting in small cities and towns.
Sustainability is also part of the mission -- particularly after it got a two-year $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in 2010 aimed at finding a sustainable business model that could be replicated at the dozens of other similar regional news centers cropping up as part of a growing national Investigative News Network. Bergantino noted that the $375,000 raised in training revenue now nearly matches the Knight grant.
Aspiring young journalists are biggest target market
Professional trainings focus on a certificate program for working journalists, many of them from overseas and with extensive experience but a desire for new tools in their reporting. The intensive two-week sessions, offered twice each summer for $2,000 per attendee, combine traditional sessions on ethics with discussion of the new news ecosystem, and a focus on computer-assisted reporting, the latest data sets and data visualization tools. The 10-12 reporters typically come with existing story ideas, then work directly with the faculty to execute them.
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This article first appeared on the site of IJNet’s partner, PBS MediaShift's Idea Lab, a group weblog by innovators who are reinventing community news for the Digital Age. Each author won a grant in the Knight News Challenge to help fund a startup idea or to blog on a topic related to reshaping community news. The complete article is translated in full into IJNet’s six other languages with permission from MediaShift.