Don’t Let Money Drive Editorial; Let Editorial Drive the Money

Journalism / Article

Goldberg discusses her time at ProPublica and what it takes to build sustainable revenues at nonprofit news organizations

“If you don’t believe the mission you’re in the wrong job.”

So says Debby Goldberg, who has made a career of fundraising for the Center for American Progress, Brooklyn College, Human Rights Watch, and is currently at Schwarzman Scholars. But she had a unique challenge when she was hired in 2010 as vice president of development at ProPublica, tasked with building a fundraising team for a new powerhouse nonprofit newsroom that relied heavily on its initial funders, Herbert & Marion Sandler.

Since then, ProPublica has blossomed with funding from a variety of sources, including national foundations, high net-worth individuals and small donations from readers. But how can the model of ProPublica be applied to smaller nonprofit newsrooms, and what can they learn from its success?

And how much should these publishers rely on philanthropy? “We need to do everything in our power to find resources beyond philanthropy—but without philanthropy we can’t make this work,” Goldberg said.

I talked with her about trends and ideas around funding local news. Here’s what we discussed, edited for length and clarity.

What would you say are the unique selling points and challenges of raising money to support journalism, and local journalism?

You need to have, before approaching anyone, a business plan and a business team. No matter if you are for-profit or nonprofit it’s still the business of news, and how you put out the “daily miracle.” In any nonprofit environment, you need a case and you need prospects. What’s the case? “Nothing like this exists, the local news has been here for X number of years, and we have been able to hold companies and officials to account. Without that, democracy is undermined.” You have to use that so the language is powerful and you have examples.

And then you need to think about who would be interested in supporting a cause like that. When you’re local, if these are all online platforms, this goes to the business operation. Do you have a revenue model that’s not philanthropy alone? There’s the subscription model that’s seen some success, but the expectation is an online platform should be free. Can you find sponsors that don’t compromise your interests? Do you use ad networks on your site? That won’t sustain newsrooms alone. Philanthropy is an important part of the mix but you have to articulate that. 

I’ve seen some studies showing that for a lot of the nonprofit newsrooms around the country — while they have diversified to some extent — philanthropy is still the number one revenue stream. Do you think that’s going to continue? Do you think that revenue mix has to change?

No. I think if it changes, then the only way that it could change and continue its success is to grow. And so the idea that you define journalism as a public good, and so the public should help invest in it, is really important.

I also feel like we’re in a moment now where we have a president who’s talking about “fake news” all the time. So being able to define yourself as a trusted source of news is really important and valuable. And I think people who would support journalism as a philanthropic commitment would understand that at its core. The language that’s being used now is undermining democracy. And that’s unacceptable.

Many news organizations, nonprofit and for profit alike, have seen the “Trump bump” in terms of revenue support since his election. The question is, will that continue? I think you need to start making the case now that the legacy he’s leaving — however long he stays in office — is that he’s undermining the veracity of what we have always known and trusted to be true and fact-based. And so that’s kind of a good way to start linking to future support—that it’s going to take a long time to come out of that hole. That it’s not only that local newsrooms are being depleted or decimated, but that we also have language from a national leader that is continuing to undermine what we do and why we matter.

What do you think about the role of public media? They’ve done memberships for a long time. Their model is something to possibly emulate. Was that something you thought about when you were you were helping to build things at ProPublica?

Personally, no. We didn’t think a subscription model would work. And with public media, it’s radio or TV, and that wasn’t the principal medium of ProPublica, at least when we started. And so it didn’t occur to us, really, to pursue a membership strategy.

What ended up happening, by virtue of our politics, is that more and more small donors started giving unsolicited money to ProPublica. And with that, you can begin the idea of developing monthly subscriptions, or a program where you ask someone to give $10 a month for a year. But it was only possible once we got the initial tranche of small donors —  that it could build these campaigns and gain what you would loosely call a membership. I think they’re still trying to define what that looks like — what the expectations are.

Do you think local news outlets should consider these membership programs? Could they become a bigger part of their business model?

It depends on the potential audience, right? With ProPublica, it’s a national and or international audience. If you’re talking about Toledo, Ohio, you’re sort of limited by virtue of how big the population is there. So I think it’s a little bit less viable if you were to invest resources, what the return would be. And in those cases, it might be better to try to go to a local foundation or other philanthropists.

When we started out, we had to really make the case that journalism was like the ballet, or like the museum. That it should be considered among the other philanthropic options that were out there. And we were the first to start selling that idea in any real way. And so I think that that’s become more accepted. People will say, “Oh yeah, sure. Of course, I should give to The Marshall Project or ProPublica because they have consistently done good work. And I’ve now seen this model produces results.”

So I think that hurdle is a little bit lower than it was in the early days of getting started. Even in your local community – especially in your local community – you can make that case in a way that wasn’t really understood before.

Is that a harder sell in journalism, though, because it may make the powerful people in the community wary? Usually, I think ballet might not make them as uncomfortable as, say, hard-hitting investigative work. Does that make it difficult in some ways to get community support from philanthropists?

I do not know. The idea is that we’re building a news source for the community. If you go to someone and they’re a corporate titan and they don’t want to give, then they might have something to hide — there’s probably a good story there. 

I’d like to think that there are other members of the community writ large who would make a contribution. And then you can target them based on the kinds of journalism that you’re doing. So for example, I’m from a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts. There were swastikas drawn on my temple, right? And so if you start writing about hate crimes, then you could go to people who have had experiences related to this. And they might say, yes, I want there to be more reporting on this because I understand that we need to get to the bottom of it. 

So you just have to be creative in how you think about it. Based on what you’re writing about, you can find an audience that would be moved and be inspired. And you have to be up front with them. If that was a one-off story, maybe they wouldn’t want to support you. But that’s how you certainly can get their attention. 

It’s really important that you don’t let the money drive the editorial, but you can let the editorial drive the money. I was excited when ProPublica hired an environmental reporter, so that gave me a lot of ways to raise money. Based on what you’re writing about, that can lead to funding. That’s how you can get their attention. 

What are some ways to bring in more foundations that have been on the sidelines, outside of the obvious fact that local news is in such terrible shape and we have these attacks from the president?

It depends on who these people are — if they’re local community foundations, if they’re family foundations that happen to be based in and support a particular community. But I think what would be interesting is an organizing effort where a respected person in journalism working on these issues shows up and says, “We’re here to tell you why this is important.” I mean, it really is a personal appeal. And somebody who has experienced how this investment has been beneficial can speak to that.