Gaining Ground: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability

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In the wake of dramatic disruption in the news industry over the past decade, several nonprofits news ventures have sprouted up to fill the void left in local news and reporting.
Publication Date
Journalism, Media Innovation

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

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.

About our Journalism focus area

We support people and organizations committed to advancing excellence in journalism and informing people in communities of all sizes through experimentation, innovation and leadership.

About our Field research methodology

Field research is primary and secondary research done for Knight Foundation.