Journalism

Going beyond grants: Eight new ways news nonprofits are raising revenue

This post is the third in a series about a Knight Foundation roundtable that brought together news start-ups and tech entrepreneurs. A report is forthcoming.

Journalists are notoriously averse to math, but there’s no equation in which nonprofit news organizations can survive for the long term without a steady mix of revenue.

The more diversified a revenue portfolio, the greater promise of stability. So the business objective for local news nonprofits has moved beyond foundation grants and major giving to multiple revenue streams. How best to get there was a central question at the Knight Foundation’s May 6 roundtable meeting of nonprofit news organizations, tech entrepreneurs and researchers.

Generally, financial sustainability plans for all the organizations include a mix of membership (small donors), advertising and underwriting and grants. Future growth ideas for some outlets include syndication, live events, and exploring paid specialty publications, in the vein of Politico Pro, a subscription-based news product whose audience includes the most inside of the policy insiders in and around Washington.

Tribune CEO Evan Smith interviews Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White before an audience.
  1. In-person events are emerging as a growing source for nonprofit startups. Face-to-face get togethers have extended far beyond one-to-one meetings with major donors; news organizations are finding great success with live events that generate engagement and revenue. Voice of San Diego has found fast success through hosting coffees with its donor members. The participation is of value even if it doesn’t bring a cent, but the engagement with an organization “can create the buzz and intensity that [corporate] sponsors are looking for,” said St. Louis Beacon’s Nicole Hollway. That can lead to healthy revenue potential, she said.  For The Texas Tribune, in-person events have brought in $500,000 in corporate sponsorships and major giving. Corporations such as AT&T and BP have ponied up tens of thousands to sponsor the Tribune’s biweekly breakfast event series, TribLive, in which newsmakers are interviewed in front of a live audience. The audience, which is charged no admission fee, is often made up of Texas’ opinion leaders and thought shapers. The sponsors find value in getting their name out in that space. The Tribune and the Chicago News Cooperative have both brought in sizable audiences to these gatherings and hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate underwriting that far exceed the cost of putting on the events.
  2. Content syndication sales. California Watch uses a la carte pricing to charge its partners to run its original content, and got the partner’s on board with low prices. “We had to establish the psychology that syndication is not free,” said California Watch’s Chase Davis. According to the the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, each California Watch client pays between $3,000 and $15,000 for a subscription or $300 to $1,000 for an individual article.
  3. Product development, like data apps for news organizations that don’t have the resources to create their own. For nonprofits like California Watch and The Texas Tribune, whose missions include data-driven applications, charging news organizations for the nonprofit team’s development work, either by pricing by pageview or with other metrics, was presented as a potential. Embeddable applications with the nonprofit’s name on them could be another extension of the brand. As YouTube’s Hong Qu told the journalists, giving users a tangible way to show their membership and “wear the brand” can help bring in new participation.
  4. Co-sponsoring events with traditional news organizations. Finding untapped audiences can be enabled by co-hosting events with more established news organizations, as Paul Bass’ regional startup has found in Connecticut. The New Haven Independent has established strong ties with local television affiliates and the NPR member station in the community.
  5. Underwriting for coverage areas and themes. For both MinnPost and the Chicago News Cooperative, sponsors are able to underwrite health reporting or a site section, like “Community Voices.” Clear firewalls are established at the outset of these relationships to make clear the underwriters have no influence over coverage.
  6. Journalism or social media boot camps and workshops. Oakland Local reaches beyond news-related topics and offers classes for jobseekers.
  7. Partnerships with The New York Times. Chicago News Coop’s David Griesing said its organization’s relationship with The Times, in which it publishes stories in the local print editions of the Times twice a week, presented a “pretty good” revenue stream, but it was not “hugely profitable.” The Texas Tribune’s Mark Miller said its organization’s partnership with the Times was beneficial in helping win over new audiences, and it will soon experiment with combined ad buys that allow the Tribune to sell and get a cut of ads that run on its Times pages. The Bay Citizen had more mixed reviews of its similar relationship, questioning whether the value of the partnership was worth the time and resources devoted to production for section.
  8. Micro-donations. Non-news entrepreneurs are encouraging journalism organizations to get creative around more micro-giving tools by putting them on every story or feature, and making it easier to micro-donate through mobile apps.

Other ideas abound, and nonprofit news organizations remain a lab for testing new revenue ideas. But for the journalism nonprofits gathered in Miami, the most emergent piece of the revenue pie is what’s happening around live events, proving that a profitable way to practice community journalism is happening the old fashioned way — face-to-face.

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Elise Hu is the digital editor of the Impact of Government project at NPR. She wrote this post as a freelance writer for Knight Foundation.