Knight Blog

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

News nonprofits must balance capacity, growth of new revenue

Nov. 14, 2013, 7:59 a.m., Posted by Kevin Davis

Knight Foundation supports the Investigative News Network, a consortium of more than 80 nonprofit newsrooms, to cultivate sustainable new models in journalism. Below, Kevin Davis, CEO of the organization, writes about the findings in a recent report from Knight, Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability.” Above: Pew Research and Knight Foundation Nonprofit News Roundtable.

Finding a Foothold” validated what we here at the Investigative News Network have been preaching for sometime: that nonprofit newsrooms are first and foremost mission-driven businesses.

While nonprofits are traditionally thought of as “charitable organizations,” this report correctly underscores that successful nonprofits must develop multiple revenue streams that are consistent with their mission. That economic value creation is directly related to the social value of the organization’s work and the services it provides. When, as in all of these cases, the mission is in educating the public to hold the powers-that-be accountable and to promote the social value of a free democracy, it turns out that the number of revenue streams available to these nonprofit newsrooms is surprisingly large and diversified. 

This report also underscores that organizations that are successful at increasing their sources of revenue are structured and staffed accordingly. Here at the Investigative News Network, we see the organizational capacity question as the biggest challenge to the nonprofit news community today. 

Generally, the questions I hear most often from our member organizations involve some variation of the following: “If growing revenue requires more staff, where will the money come from?” and “How do we fund additional staff while continuing to meet the growing information needs of the communities we serve?”

This is particularly challenging to organizations that have only a handful of full-time employees and who must also rely on the skills and dedication of freelancers, students and volunteers. The accomplishments of newsrooms highlighted in the report, such as Oakland Local, VT Digger and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, demonstrate that revenue diversification and appropriate resource allocation is possible in smaller organizations.

Still, this remains a controversial or difficult topic for many nonprofit news organization executive directors who believe that their mission is to keep investigative journalism alive and well. After all, many of today’s nonprofit newsrooms exist to help fill the very large gap in the amount of accountability and investigative journalism left by the significant pullback in commercial news (particularly in small and mid-size communities), not necessarily to compete in an ever-changing information marketplace.

I agree that philanthropy will likely remain a part of the revenue mix, but the predictability of that revenue stream—particularly from foundations—makes it nearly impossible to sustain operations over the long haul. 

Given the diversity in size, focus and business models of the organizations covered in this report, it may be challenging for some practitioners to understand the commonality among the various case studies. However, to best serve the needs of a community, one needs to constantly challenge assumptions, ask lots of questions, involve the people served, and move aggressively towards where the audience is going—without worrying about from whence you came. “Finding a Foothold” supports this.

Organizations that embrace these traits and principles will enable the nonprofit news community to continue to grow, to serve more citizens and to ensure that investigative and accountability journalism continues to provide its necessary function in society.