Five alternative business models for journalism

byMargaret Looney
Feb 10, 2012 in Miscellaneous

With newsrooms downsizing, money is tight and the profit-making model of traditional journalism warrants nostalgia.

With major publications like the Washington Post turning to employee buyouts, it's time for journalists to seek alternative business models.

For journalists venturing out on their own, taking on entrepreneurial projects or working for newsrooms relying on flaky advertising-based approaches, options exist. Here are a few:

  1. Community-funded. Crowdfunding campaigns raise money from everyday citizens with a vested interest in stories that are often overlooked. This business model suits pre-existing projects that need more funding and allows journalists to retain editorial independence. The self-proclaimed “largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter mimics journalism as a funding project with deadline. If the project isn't fully-funded after a certain amount of time, the money is returned. For an example of a successful campaign, see Newsmotion, a storytelling startup that raised US$5,000 over its US$35,000 Kickstarter goal. Spot.us is another fundraising engine that specifically caters to journalism, successfully raising donations for more than 200 stories.

  2. Microgrants. Perfect for earning seed money to sprout side projects, microgrants offer energizing funds without the bureaucratic headache. Typically, trustees each donate a small sum to entrepreneurial journalists or freelancers. For more on microgrants, check out IJNet's recent post here.

  3. Paywalls. This hotly-debated business model charges a flat fee for digital access, but these hurdles are only noticeable for the most loyal of readers. The New York Times charges at least US$15 monthly if visitors read more than 20 articles. This hybrid model uses advertising and subscription to offer something for both the casual grazer and the most committed readers. The Times' paywall initially caused a visitor spike that has since flattened. The PostMedia Network has also employed a paywall at 38 of its publications across Canada.

  4. Cooperatives. The United Nations proclaimed 2012 the year of the co-op, which means the Banyan Project has a chance. The first U.S. web-based community journalism cooperative aiming to hydrate the desert news crisis could be the next farmer's market of journalism. A similar model is working in other countries as well, including Mexico and Germany. Canada hosts a worker-owned co-op that combines the efforts of city-by-city news sites to create one national weekly newspaper. This business model may be the most democratic and feasible choice for this economic climate, since news coverage is decided by the community at a low cost rather than from a top-bottom corporate approach.

  5. Philanthropy/Nonprofits. This model usually features multiple streams of revenue, ranging from hefty foundations, anonymous donors and sometimes corporate sponsors. Investigative news site ProPublica is a common example of philanthropically-funded news, though the organization does accept advertising. A cooperative in its mission but essentially a nonprofit in its business tactics, the Chicago News Cooperative works with other organizations that serve the public interest while relying on the usual sources of income, with one unique exception - a chunk from The New York Times. Alongside its partnerships with Chicago's public television and radio stations, the news outlet receives a paycheck in exchange for content exclusive to the Times for 24 hours.

Some of these models are more idealistic than achievable in their current state, but which business model do you think makes the most sense for journalism?