News Start-Ups Exchange Tips on Engaging Readers, Generating Revenue

Seeking Sustainability: A Nonprofit News Roundtable

Anyone curious about the future of journalism ‘ and how news outlets can effectively inform people in the digital age, while surviving as a business ‘ should check out a new Knight Foundation report, Seeking Sustainability: A Nonprofit News Roundtable.

The report (accompanied by videos) summarizes one of the first roundtable discussions of its kind with 12 groundbreaking nonprofit news organizations, including California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigating Reporting; The Huffington Post Investigative Fund; Chicago News Cooperative; Voice of San Diego and The Texas Tribune.

Knight Foundation sponsored the roundtable in April, which was co-hosted by The Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and the Knight Chair in Journalism at The University of Texas at Austin. In addition to the news groups detailing their experiences, several dozen funders, academics and researchers from around the country shared their perspectives.’ They touched on the issues all online news startups are experimenting with: journalism and advertising models, ways to generate revenue, interacting with and building community and technology and innovation.

Lessons learned and questions explored:

  • When getting an online news enterprise off the ground, participants agreed that ‘structure matters.’ Nontraditional media groups need to be entrepreneurial, adaptive, collaborative and flexible. Diversity of revenue and approaches to creating journalistic and community value is key to sustainability.
  • A group’s success at developing strong community and media partnerships seemed to be linked more to its leadership, business model and visibility than to its initial financial support.
  • Most of the startups agreed on the importance of finding partners in traditional media that can publish their work and provide support (both organizational and financial). The Texas Tribune, for example, has partnered with NPR. Public media were viewed as the most natural collaborators because they share a nonprofit, community information mission.
  • In terms of creating revenue streams, memberships were considered an effective way to raise money as well as to foster engagement. Incentives or benefits to membership need to be explored, such as those offered by symphonies and public media.
  • News startups, which typically have very limited tech staffing and budget, seem to find most success using existing technology rather than developing their own tools. Voice of San Diego, for example, acquired an iPhone app for a small licensing fee.

While participants agreed that nonprofit news startups face serious challenges, including financial self-sufficiency, those at the roundtable have enjoyed significant success carrying out their missions. In this sphere of journalism, optimism is reigning.

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