KnightBlog

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

Journalism
Oct 29, 2013

Delving into the data: Report examines progress of nonprofit news

Posted by Mayur Patel and Michael Maness

Above: Data from a new Knight Foundation report offers an in-depth view into the nonprofit news industry, revealing the significant progress that news organizations have made toward sustainability and the challenges they still face.

The search for sustainable news business models requires good comparative data that allows organizations to benchmark the effectiveness of their work. This kind of information is rare. It takes time to collect and structure, and requires organizations be comfortable with sharing their financial and operational data openly. A Knight Foundation report released today helps fill that gap and illuminates an emerging aspect of the news industry.

 “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Venture Seek Sustainability” offers a detailed look at 18 nonprofit news organizations, and their progress towards sustainability. The report, a follow-up to the 2011 Knight study “Getting Local,” examines the emerging business models of nonprofit news organizations in a transparent way. This time we expanded the number of nonprofit sites included in the research and broadened the study to state and national organizations.

The report reveals significant trends over a three-year period (2010-2012), and provides a view into what has worked and what hasn’t. Importantly, the nonprofit news sector is growing but relying less on funding from foundations, as organizations find more individual donors and cultivate earned revenue from events and corporate sponsors. 

However, the prospects for sustainability remain fragile. Organizations have to resist the impulse to recreate the traditional newspaper online, while anticipating and adapting to changes in how individuals consume and share news.

The report offers reference points for news organizations looking for ways to scale and succeed. The data is 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. Here are a few ways to use the report to accelerate your work:

  • Compare the sources of your revenue to where other organizations get support. How diverse is your income? Are there opportunities that you’re not exploring?
  • Benchmark your expenditures on editorial, business development and technology against others. How much money do you spend on content versus marketing, and how do those investments compare to other organizations?
  • Explore new practices organizations are using to survey their audience and track the reach of their syndicated articles. Define an engagement strategy that connects those insights to new revenue opportunities.
  • Read profiles on how organizations are experimenting with new business development approaches, such as designing membership models and structuring events and corporate partnerships to improve their financial sustainability.
  • Test your own assumptions and business projections against the three-year trend data on revenue growth and progress towards sustainability. (We’ve created profiles that detail each organization’s three-year financial data from 2010-2012).

The news organizations highlighted in the report range from four-person local operations to 50-strong national newsrooms. See which ones align with what you’re doing the best when you’re looking for helpful comparisons.

The report also points out some useful commonalities that held true no matter the size of the nonprofit news organization. At the back of the study, we detailed traits exhibited by successful organizations that have momentum. Here are some highlights: 

  • Attack your assumptions, always. They regularly develop ways to 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.
  • Don’t just publish; provide services. They recognize that their business isn’t about publishing and advertising, but about developing and marketing experiences for individuals that are rich in information and connections. They see events, community discussions and partnerships as content that’s created in many forms.
  • Bolster the brand by building partnerships. They 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.
  • Move to where your audience is. They 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.

We’re grateful for the openness of the 18 nonprofit news organizations examined in “Finding a Foothold.” Their transparency has produced a broad view of emerging news business models that can help others find new ways forward amid the current climate of disruption. Investors, and the public, can learn how others are adopting entrepreneurial models and new innovations to grow—and to sustain their operations. We also hope foundations that support journalism can glean helpful ideas to shape their philanthropy and assess their role in promoting sustainability among nonprofit news organizations.

Michael Maness, vice president of journalism and media innovation, and Mayur Patel, vice president of strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation

Back to top

Comments