In the wake of the dramatic disruption in the news industry over the past decade, several nonprofit news ventures have sprouted to fill the void left in local news and reporting. Knight Foundation has invested in many of these nonprofit news organizations, seeking to promote stronger practices and ultimately the sustainability of these organizations.

This marks the third installment in a series of reports produced by Knight Foundation since 2011 tracking the progress of nonprofit news sites as they strive for sustainability. The first report, “Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” produced in 2011, focused on eight nonprofit news organizations: The Bay Citizen, Chi-Town Daily News, Crosscut, MinnPost, New Haven Independent, St. Louis Beacon, The Texas Tribune and the Voice of San Diego. Today, some of these sites are thriving, some have merged with others and some have closed their doors. When we began studying the field of nonprofit news organizations, sustainability of operations was unquestionably the leading concern for the field.

In 2013, Knight released “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” which examined a larger cohort of 18 nonprofit news organizations. The report found much more stability among the organizations, as many had secured a footing in generating revenue and building audience.

This report builds on the prior analyses by continuing to benchmark revenue, expenses and audience metrics and to identify emerging best practices. The report analyzes trends among 20 local, state and regional nonprofit news organizations. It also incorporates insights from interviews with leaders of a few additional nonprofit news organizations that have a predominantly national scope. Many, though not all, of the organizations included in the study have been funded by Knight Foundation.

Key findings include:

The revenue for nonprofit news organizations increased by an average of 73 percent between 2011 and 2013. In 2012, revenue grew by an average of 30 percent; however median revenue was only 7 percent suggesting year-over-year revenue for half the sites was either flat or declining.

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The organizations generated 23 percent of revenue through earned income in 2013 compared with 18 percent in 2011. Nonprofits remain very reliant on foundation funding, and few appear to be rapidly approaching a sustainable business model.

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The most growth in earned income has occurred through sponsorships and in-person events. Though advertising is the earned income source utilized by the most nonprofit news organizations, advertising revenue was flat from 2011 to 2013.

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Spending remains highly concentrated in editorial expenses, though as organizations grow in size they appear to invest more in marketing and technology.

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Sites grew Web traffic by an average of 75 percent from 2011 to 2013, and the share of mobile traffic and referral traffic from social media grew considerably. A few sites are piloting more sophisticated efforts for tracking impact beyond basic website analytics.

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About the report

This report is based on data collected from a cohort of 20 nonprofit news organizations about their mission, Web traffic, revenue and expenditures. Researcher Kate Marshall Dole led the data collection efforts and report development. Community Wealth Partners, a social sector consultancy and evaluation firm, performed the data analysis.

Findings are organized in three sections:

Revenue Model
Generation of multiple revenue streams to support the mission of creating content, engagement and impact.

Organizational Capacity
Infrastructure, resource allocation and skills that enable an organization to adapt and innovate as it creates social and economic value.

Social Value
Efforts to attract and engage audiences to produce measurable impact.

The table below outlines news ventures included in the study. The organizations fall into two geographic groupings: local organizations, which primarily serve cities and towns, and state and regional organizations, which largely focus on major investigative projects, state government, politics and policy (some cover daily statehouse news, while others produce less frequent investigative reports). Several analyses in the report are segmented by the geographic focus of the organizations as well as their budget size and age.

PublicationLaunchMarketEmployees2013 Budget
Charlottesville Tomorrow2005Charlottesville, VA4$237,000
City Limits1976New York, NY3$465,000
inewsource2009San Diego, CA4$590,000
The Lens2009New Orleans, LA9$855,000
New Haven Independent2005New Haven, CT6$530,000
Oakland Local2009Oakland, CA2$261,000
Philadelphia Public School Notebook1994Philadelphia, PA7$845,000
The Rapidian2009Grand Rapids, MI3$34,000
Voice of OC2009Orange County, CA5$572,000
Voice of San Diego2005San Diego, CA11$1,323,000
State/ Regional
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting2010Florida2$147,000
Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting2009Midwest1$140,000
New England Center for Investigative Reporting2009New England 3$616,000
NJ Spotlight2010New Jersey9$909,000
The Texas Tribune2009Texas42$7,055,000
WyoFile 2008Wyoming3$243,000

Note: The report also captures insights from interviews and data collected from five additional organizations (Center for Investigative Reporting, Center for Public Integrity, Chalkbeat, ProPublica and St. Louis Public Radio). Their national and/or multi-market geographic scope along with their vastly larger size made these sites imperfect fits for benchmarking metrics data with others, but insights from their work are incorporated.

next: Revenue Models