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

Jan 28, 2014

Knight Local Media Initiative supports a path to sustainability for local news

Posted by Marie Gilot

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Photo credit: Flickr user GiantsFanatic.

Today we’re announcing a $5 million, two-year Local Media Initiative that includes a $1 million INNovation Fund managed by the Investigative News Network, part of an effort to encourage innovation and experimentation by nonprofit newsrooms and public media.

Related Link 

"What you need to know about the $1 million INNovation Fund" by Marie Gilot and Kevin Davis

When the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism  did a story on abuses at nursing homes last year, the state reformed its oversight procedures. In New Jersey, a NJ Spotlight report on corruption at a public utility company triggered an investigation by the state’s attorney general. And in Seattle, InvestigateWest shed light on the health hazards of handling chemotherapy drugs, which prompted Washington state to pass two new laws to protect health care workers.

These examples of impactful journalism were not the work of traditional newspapers. The Wisconsin Center, NJ Spotlight and InvestigateWest operate news websites as nonprofit organizations. None of them is more than 4 years old. Like dozens of other similar groups that sprang up in the latter part of the last decade, they aim to fill the information gap as legacy media lays off staff or closes shop altogether.  

Knight Foundation has supported their efforts through startup and digital transformation grants and through assessments of the industry. Last year, we recognized the Texas Tribune as a model in the space with a $1.5 million grant to investigate additional earned revenue streams. And in September 2013 we met with several of these organizations and experts in the field during a roundtable discussion co-sponsored with  Pew Research to discuss the way forward for nonprofit news. Now we’re encouraging smaller organizations in the space to continue their journeys toward sustainability and journalistic excellence.

Nonprofit online news organizations and public media in the United States can apply for  micro-grants for innovative projects through the INNovation Fund. We will accept grant proposals for around $35,000 but expect grants to average about $25,000. The initiative also includes general support grants for around 30 organizations and INN.

In our most recent analysis of nonprofit news startups, which examined information from 18 organizations between 2010 and 2012, we found some progress, including that:

  • Most of them have increased their revenue.
  • Many are building a diverse set of revenue sources, including individual donors, sponsorships, events and syndication.
  • Models for engagement and content distribution are emerging, ranging from events to publishing through multiple partners.

But the study also showed that the organizations are fragile. Most organizations are devoting a higher share of their resources to editorial expenses than is likely to be sustainable in the long term. And, with a few exceptions, they have very limited technological capacity, which may impair their ability to adapt to the rapid shifts that characterize the digital environment.

What we expect to see with the Knight Local Media Initiative is that the organizations will  increase both their revenue and their audience while continuing to provide public service journalism to communities. And we also expect that we, at Knight, will better understand what lies ahead for local news.

Representatives from Investigative News Network and Knight Foundation will be available to talk about the fund via a live Google Hangout on Thursday, Feb. 13,  from 2 to 3 p.m. ET. To request access to the Google Hangout, please email us. You may also submit questions online or via Twitter using the hashtag #INNFund.

Marie Gilot, media innovation associate at Knight Foundation

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