Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

ProPublica shares lessons on the path to sustainability

Oct. 19, 2011, 9:46 a.m., Posted by Benoit Wirz

Yesterday, Knight Foundation released a new report, offering a detailed look at some of the country’s leading online local nonprofit news ventures.

Today, the foundation shares what the nationally focused news nonprofit, ProPublica, is learning on its path to sustainability.

Ben Wirz, director/business consulting at Knight Foundation:

Foundation funding will never be able to plug the hole in editorial budgets being cut at for-profit daily newspapers – a total of $6.4 billion between 2006 and 2009, according to the FCC report "Information Needs of Communities".

Nor should it. The most successful nonprofit news organizations have diversified revenue sources.

To help nonprofit media outlets better supplement coverage – and get on the path to sustainability – we’re sharing a new report with some lessons learned from one of the country’s premier organizations, ProPublica.

A Knight grantee since 2009, ProPublica has garnered numerous awards including two Pulitzer Prizes. It uses a traditional nonprofit fundraising strategy focused on major donors and foundations to raise funds for investigative journalism, an area not traditionally the target of charitable donations.  Its stated aim is to change giving habits by create a new sort of cultural institution, and they are making progress towards that end.

ProPublica's goal is to get 50% of funding ($5 million) from sources beyond its founding contributors in 2011.  

ProPublica has built its funding strategy on key strengths: dedicated founding sponsors who provide significant continuous funding, a stellar management and editorial team, dramatic, impactful reporting and a committed board. It has built on these strengths by adding a development executive, additional board members and a Business Advisory Council to grow business/technology expertise and fundraising.

ProPublica has used these assets strategically. Because the appetite for very large gifts and grants in this arena ($1 million+/annum) remains limited, ProPublica has focused on developing a significant list of prospects for major gifts at lower levels. It has also developed a base of 1,500+ smaller donors who contribute 5% of revenues.

ProPublica has generated very little earned income to date. However, like all successful organizations in this space, ProPublica continues to experiment with additional revenue mechanisms, including using Press Plus, a pay metering system, and direct sales of long-form articles via Kindle Singles.

Because of the nascent stage of the industry and the ongoing need for new sources of information caused by the disruption of legacy media, there are almost as many different nonprofit news funding models as there are organizations. Knight supports this type of experimentation and will continue to share as much of this information as we can.

 

Wirz’s latest presentation on thoughts about sustainability is available on SlideShare.