A nonprofit news organization ‘on stable footing’

Some good news came the other day that is symbolic of the hard work fledgling nonprofit news organizations are doing to put their digital newsrooms on more stable footing. The story came in the form of an official report on grant from Boston University’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting. The center is one of the nonprofit news organizations Knight has supported as we helped partners experiment with different models for replacing at least some of the “missing journalism” communities need to be informed and engaged.

You can see the story in the pie charts. The investigative center, which reports important stories throughout New England, is now pulling in more than $340,000 a year from non-foundation sources. This means its “earned revenue” triples, mostly through a high school journalism training program. That’s good – what you want is a pie chart with a lot of fat slices. In the details below, look at how deliberate the center is: It tries a lot of different revenue ideas, since different things work in different community media ecosystems. It quickly evaluates each new attempt, dropping the ones that fail and doubling-down on the ones that work. It brings in professional development staff and business consultants as needed.

The center was proud of its progress and called my attention to its official grant report. We both thought reprinting it here would provide not just a look inside a nonprofit news organization but a look at Knight Foundation’s grant reporting system.

One idea worth considering is whether foundations should routinely publish lightly edited versions of these reports, or at least excerpts, on the web. You’ll note, below, that the center suggested that Knight Foundation take a more active role in connecting partners with good business consulting. Our vice president for journalism and media innovation, Michael Maness, is in the process of developing such a system. 

The center was recently profiled in the BU Today in an article “Putting the Powerful on their Toes.”

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation

Journalism Reporting Form

Organization name:  Boston University

Report due: April 30, 2012                                            Grant #: 20100028

Grant amount: $400,000                                              Grant date: 4/1/10-4/30/12

Project description: To put the New England Center for Investigative Reporting on stable footing.

Please report your project activities and outcomes clearly, briefly and honestly.  Include setbacks as well as successes. Knowing why something didn’t work can be as helpful as knowing why something worked. In describing your relationship with Knight Foundation, please be candid and provide constructive criticism whenever appropriate.  Honest feedback can help both of us improve our organizations.

To get started, please read the following anticipated outcomes paragraph carefully. That paragraph sums up what we were expecting from this grant.

Anticipated Outcomes:

By the end of this grant, Boston University will have placed the New England Center for Investigative Reporting on stable financial footing. The center’s reports are expected to have a significant, measurable impact in New England. The center’s partnerships are expected to reach a broader and more diverse audience.

Requested Information:

  1. Please list each anticipated outcome and tell us if, and when, you achieved it.

Over the past two years, NECIR has focused on establishing revenue streams that generate a significant amount of income and ensure our long-term financial sustainability. Training a new generation of investigative journalists has become a major source of revenue for our center. By the end of this fiscal year, June 30th, we will have earned about $180,000 from two summer training programs — one for international journalists and another for high school students. The sale of our investigative stories to media outlets across Massachusetts and New England will total about $70,000.   That means half of our budget is now covered by earned revenue.  As we grow both our training business and content sales, we project that percentage will increase substantially over the next two years.  We are happy to report that our efforts in this area have resulted in NECIR being on stable financial footing.

At the same time we’ve been focusing on our long-term financial sustainability, we also have been building NECIR’s reputation as a powerhouse for regional investigative reporting.  In May 2010, we decided to alter our model for doing reporting.  We switched from a model that had us giving away, for the most part, the majority of our stories to three news outlets to a model that now has us selling our stories to nine major media outlets.  NECIR produces and sells a monthly investigative report that reaches one million readers, viewers and listeners across Massachusetts.  That monthly subscription service that we call “The Public Eye” also generates about $50,000 of the $70,000 noted above.  Each report reaches both a racially and economically diverse audience.

The fact that our stories appear in practically every major media outlet in the state means that they are noticed by key lawmakers and, in some cases, result in legislative action.  In addition to our monthly subscription service, we have an exclusive content sales deal with WBUR, one of the two NPR stations in Boston.  Over the past three years and four months, NECIR has done 40 investigative stories and follow-up reports, far more stories than we anticipated doing when we launched the center.  Our reach has grown tremendously since we opened our doors in January 2009.  We believe our work is helping ensure the survival of in-depth, serious investigative reporting across Massachusetts.

  1. Were there any major changes in the project activities and timetable? What caused them?

We have accomplished most of our goals according to the timetable we projected. 

Investigative Reporting

By the end of 2010, we published and/or aired nine major investigative reports, three more than we projected for the calendar year.  By April 2010, we had applied for a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to support our monthly investigative subscription service. E&E has awarded us two grants of $75,000 each.  By June 2010, we did experiment with utilizing the Spot.Us method with a local web-based news site. The $500 raised was not enough to justify us investing additional time in this model of raising revenue to support our journalism.  Because we were not able to sign up any ethnic media outlets to pay for our monthly subscription service, we set aside our goal of designating a primary reporter to cover ethnic communities.  Long-term we plan to revisit this goal but it will be dependent on our ability to monetize our work with ethnic news outlets. 

Our goal to expand our work with Boston inner-city high school students was postponed until September 2011, at which time we had in place a grant from the Hearst Foundations to fund a partnership with Teens-in-Print, a city-wide high school newspaper that’s a project of WriteBoston, a nonprofit that focuses on improving the writing skills of Boston High School students.


We have exceeded each of these goals.  With the help of two business development staff members, who each worked with us for six months, we have transformed our training programs into a major revenue stream as noted above.  By July 2011, we had more than doubled enrollment in our high school program –from 24 students in 2009 to 54 students from 15 states and seven countries, grossing $110,000.  By the late fall of 2011, we began marketing an Investigative Reporting Certificate program.  By June 2011, we had 9 participants signed up for two, two-week workshops that grossed about $18,000.  We expect a slightly larger enrollment in June of this year. 

By the summer of 2010, we had pinpointed the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) community as one possible proprietary research-for-hire client that would be most compatible with our overall mission. We tried one pilot project that brought in minimal revenue and then shelved the idea for the short-term.  We made an internal business decision that there is more growth potential in training than in research-for-hire, at least for now.

As for the Knight Community Information Challenge, we tried in once in June 2010 with no significant results. We’re currently in the process of trying it again with a targeted group of alumni who live in the Boston area and have given to the local public radio station associated with Boston University. So far, we’ve raised a few hundred dollars in donations but it’s still too early to predict how this campaign will turn out. Boston University alums do not have a strong history of giving.  Overall, NECIR has raised about $25,000 of its $100,000 in individual donations from BU alumni.   We have been much more successful in using the BU brand to market our training programs and earn almost $400,000 from training alone since 2009 to help sustain NECIR.

  1. Describe any setbacks you encountered and how you addressed them.

Fortunately, we have not encountered any major setbacks.  We have been flexible in our business strategy and have been willing to alter our goals based on our own experience and advice from business experts including a consulting team that worked with us from June 2010 through the spring of 2011.

  1. Were there any positive surprises? If so, please explain.

We continue to be surprised by the extent to which we have grown and continue to grow our training revenue. We more than doubled revenue from 2010 to 2011 and are on target to boost those numbers substantially in 2012. That’s why we will be deciding in the next few weeks whether it makes good business sense to hire a full-time director of training who can market and grow the business exponentially in the years to come.  

We also have created new partnerships and revenue opportunities in the training arena.  NECIR initiated a proposal to Hearst Television for a series of investigative reporting training workshops to be conducted jointly by us and Investigative Reporters and Editors.  Hearst recently agreed to the proposal. In addition, we successfully initiated a partnership with Emerson College here in Boston to provide investigative reporting training to a diverse group of students.  We hope to continue this partnership in years to come.

We also are pleased with our success in meeting the needs of a diverse group of media outlets through our monthly investigative reporting subscription service.

  1. Please explain how you are meeting the overall goals stated in the anticipated outcomes.

Over the past two years, we have taken a very strategic approach to meeting our goals.  We contracted with a team of business consultants to help us shape a business plan and strategy.  We hired part-time business consultants to help execute the plan. We have recruited business experts for our advisory board.  We have learned how to better utilize the brand of Boston University to market and grow our training programs.   We have done all of the above while keeping are major goals in mind: to be a significant journalistic force in our region and to create a model for financial sustainability that other centers like ours can replicate.

  1. How are you measuring your progress? Please attach copies of any evaluation reports, and list results of any measurements, such as Web traffic, downloads, registered users, monthly trends, etc.

We continue to measure our progress in the sustainability area by setting specific revenue goals and striving to meet them.  For example, our goal for the current fiscal year is to boost enrollment in our summer training programs by at least 10 percent.  We are currently on target to do that.  We also set specific revenue targets for content sales and, for the past two years, we have exceeded our goals. 

NECIR measures its journalistic progress by both raw numbers and impact.  In calendar year 2011, we did 17 major investigative stories, almost double the number of reports NECIR produced in 2010.  As for impact, our stories continue to attract the attention of lawmakers.  Our report on juvenile killers sentenced to life without parole helped spark a debate about the inequities of that particular punishment. 

We also measure our progress by the amount of support we’ve been able to attract from other foundations, individual donors and the university itself. In addition to your foundation’s $650,000 in grants over three years, NECIR has received the following additional grants:  $150,000 in from The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, about $100,000 from the McCormick Foundation, $66,000 from the Open Society Foundation,  $50,000 from the Hearst Foundations,  $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, $35,000 from the Deer Creek Foundation, $10,000 from the Harbus Foundation and $2,500 from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. We have raised about $100,000 from individuals in our community and the university’s support over the past 3 years (cash and in-kind) at least equals the support we’ve received from Knight. 

  1. If you were publicizing the single most important outcome of your work, what headline would you write for your news release?

“The regional investigative reporting center that helped launch a national movement to create similar nonprofit centers across the nation has created a financially sustainable business model that will help ensure the survival of in-depth investigative reporting in New England.”

  1. What did you do to market the project? Was it successful? What would you do differently next time?

We continue to market NECIR by getting our stories—with our name attached—in as many news outlets as we can, both locally and regionally.  We aggressively market our stories and our training workshops through our website, Facebook, Constant Contact, Twitter, ads in key journalism publications, ads on the International Center for Journalists website, mailings and e-mails to high school journalism advisors and e-mail blasts from the BU Admissions Office to prospective workshop students. We also get the word out about our program by conducting training workshops at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s annual conference, through a workshop NECIR recently conducted at the New York Press Association annual conference and by speaking at numerous gatherings of journalists including the national conferences of IRE and Online News Association, the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (Kiev), a recent event at the Paley Center in NYC and another sponsored by J-Lab in Washington, D.C.

  1. Please provide the demographic breakdown of your staff. What percentage are women and people of color? How does this participation measure up to your diversity goals and plans?

Our full time staff consists of one male and one female, both white.  Our interns have included students who are white, black, Hispanic and Asian.  Our advisory board members have included whites, blacks and Hispanic men and women.

  1. Please provide the audited financial statements from your organization’s last fiscal year.

Here is the link to the most recent statement:
  1. Please attach the Knight Foundation budget report form showing the proposed budget and the actual spending in each project category. Explain any significant changes.


  1. Do you have a surplus from your Knight grant? If so, please tell us how much it is and explain why you have it. Please explain what you propose to do with the unspent funds, and indicate whether these are new or previously proposed activities.

We do not have a surplus.

  1. Who else funded this effort, and at what level? Was it necessary for you to make significant changes to the proposed project budget?  

As noted earlier, NECIR has been funded by several other foundations, individual donors and Boston University itself.  The combined total value of that support is about $1.2 million.  That does not include earned revenue from training programs and content sales.

  1. Please describe your plans in detail to sustain the project long term.

Our financial sustainability plan includes hiring a training director to substantially grow our training revenue long-term by increasing the number of participants in our current programs and creating new training programs to produce additional revenue.  It also includes expanding both the number of subscribers and our product lines in the content area to achieve a six-figure revenue stream within three years.  In addition to growing earned revenue, our long-term plan includes boosting individual donations (with the help of a part-time development director) to about $100,000 a year by June of 2014, maintaining university support at the level of about $70,000 a year (not including in-kind support), and attracting foundation support of at least $100,000 each year going forward.

  1. Did you collaborate with other organizations, particularly Knight Foundation grantees, during the course of this project? How?

We continue to collaborate on editorial projects with The Investigative News Network, of which NECIR is a founding member.  We have worked closely with The Center for Public Integrity on several projects over the past two years including—most recently– its state accountability investigation.  Knight Foundation grantee Lisa Williams is a member of NECIR’s advisory board and has been a collaborator on some of our trainings.  Her “Placeblogger Angel Fund” has provided scholarships for some of the citizen journalists and bloggers attending our investigative reporting training workshops.  We just finalized a partnership deal with IRE to conduct joint trainings for the Hearst TV group. 

Rosental Alves, the Knight Chair in International Journalism at the University of Texas, continues to assist us in getting the word out about our training programs to journalists across Latin America.  Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism at the University of Illinois, is one of our advisory board members. We are currently collaborating with Carlos Huertas, the Knight Latin American Fellow at the Nieman Foundation, who is assisting us in choosing a Latin American journalist for a reporter-in-residence program we are launching in September.  In addition, we have collaborated with several news outlets including The Boston Globe, New England Cable News, WBUR (NPR), WGBH radio and TV (NPR and PBS), WGBY (PBS), The Christian Science Monitor,  The Lawrence Eagle Tribune, The Lowell Sun,  The Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, MA,  The Cape Cod Times, The New Bedford Standard Times, The Worcester Telegram and Gazette, The Springfield Republican,  The Berkshire Eagle,  WCVB-TV (ABC Boston) along with other newspapers in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.   We also have collaborated on stories with other INN members including the Connecticut Health Investigative Team and serve as a resource for reporters around New England who need help with information access issues.

Thanks to a grant from The Hearst Foundations, we have established a partnership with WriteBoston and its citywide high school newspaper, Teens-in-Print.  NECIR is teaching a group of inner-city Teens-in-Print, high school journalists how to do investigative reporting.  Our first story, published in March 2012, attracted the attention of ProPublica, which cited the report as one of the best investigative stories in the country.

  1. Please describe your interaction with Knight Foundation staff. What was most useful and what changes would you suggest?

Our most helpful interaction has been with Eric Newton who consistently has been available to provide guidance over the past three years.  We would discuss ideas with Eric as well as seek his advice on projects under consideration.  Jose Zamora also has been helpful when we’ve reached out to him. 

Our one suggestion is that Knight take a more active role in ensuring the financial success of its grantees by more proactively connecting grantees with experts, consultants and others who can provide business expertise. 

Overall, we will be forever grateful to Knight for believing in us and in our idea.  Without your financial support, NECIR never would have gotten off the ground.  You served as our angel investor and we worked hard over the past three years to ensure your investment was a success. Thank you a thousand times over.

  1. Did you ever need Knight Foundation to help you facilitate contacts with experts in the field, professional peers and similar organizations? If so, was Knight Staff helpful?

We did ask Jose Zamora for help in connecting with news outlets and news groups in Central and South America and he provided some suggestions.

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