Sustainability strategies for nonprofit news organizations

Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

The news site MinnPost created an “Earth Journal Circle” for donors who want to see more environmental news. The Texas Tribune staged 52 events that raised more than $500,000 after expenses last year. And the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting aims to cover about 6 percent of this year's operating budget by syndicating its content to more than a dozen news organizations.

These are a few of the innovative ways that successful nonprofit news organizations, many of which got their start with funding from foundations or donation campaigns, are diversifying their revenue streams as they make their way to financial sustainability.

A new report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” looks at what has worked—and what hasn’t—at 18 U.S. nonprofit news organizations with newsroom staffs that range in size from four to 50. (Disclosure: Knight Foundation helps support IJNet.)

Despite the outlets’ still-fragile prospects for long-term sustainability, their experience offers "reference points for news organizations looking for ways to scale and succeed,” write Michael Maness, Knight Foundation vice president of journalism and media innovation, and Mayur Patel, the foundation’s vice president of strategy and assessment.

The data Knight gathered from these outlets are “valuable whether you’re a nonprofit news outlet seeking new revenue sources, a startup thinking about where to focus its internal resources or a for-profit media venture exploring new commercial opportunities,” Maness and Patel wrote on the foundation's blog.

The report found that the news outlets gaining momentum toward sustainability are using several key strategies. Although the news organizations highlighted are based in the U.S., the strategies will be useful to nonprofit news outlets in other countries:

-Challenge your own assumptions

Successful nonprofit news outlets “gather insights on who their audience is and what their audience cares about. They incorporate that feedback to pitch sponsors, refine membership programs and tailor user experiences,” the report says.

-The answer to “Who is your audience?” should never be “Everybody.”

Find a niche that is narrow enough that you can build a community around it, but broad enough that you can attract a substantial audience, which usually creates more financial opportunities.

-Offer services beyond publishing.

These organizations "recognize that their business isn’t about publishing and advertising, but about developing and marketing experiences…that are rich in information and connections,” the report says. “They see events, community discussions and partnerships as content that’s created in many forms.”

-Invest beyond content

Successful nonprofits operate more like businesses than you might think. Marketing, business development and fundraising can't simply be afterthoughts, but must be a core part of operations.

-Build partnerships

These organizations “offer their content to others to reach key audiences. Those partnerships provide syndication fees, opportunities to prominently market their brand, and feedback and intelligence on the audience their content reaches,” the report says.

-Go where your audience is

They might find your brand and content via social media or on a website, accessed from a mobile phone, tablet or desktop computer. Successful nonprofit news orgs “understand the changing habits of how individuals consume information. They don’t just focus on the home page of their website; they’re incorporating responsive design, and they prioritize social media,” according to the report.

-Measure what matters

"While they track traditional Web metrics such as monthly unique visitors, they focus on indicators that offer feedback on repeat visitor engagement," the report says. "They combine this data with qualitative narrative accounts on how their reporting affects their target community."

Below: Highlights from a September roundtable on the future of nonprofit journalism, co-hosted by The Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation. The discussion reviewed data from a Pew report on the financial sustainability of nonprofit news organizations and an early draft of the Knight report.

Photo from Texas Tribune TribLive event published on IJNet with permission from Texas Tribune.