Syndication is paying off for the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting

The Center for Investigative Reporting is turning content distribution partners into paying customers.

Like many nonprofit investigative news organizations, the center has offered free or low-cost content to distribution partners, such as newspapers, to get its work in front of as many people as possible.

But that’s not a formula for long-term financial sustainability. Now that the California-based center has established itself, it’s looking to increase revenue from syndication.

 “We are trying to figure out our next phase. Our strategy is that we charge for content,” said Robert Rosenthal, the center’s executive director.

Syndication was a small but fast-growing revenue stream in “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” Knight Foundation’s recently released study of 18 nonprofit news organizations. Eleven reported revenue from syndication, which also offers news organizations wide exposure for their content and brand.


The growth in the Center for Investigative Reporting’s revenue from this source stood out. The center reported total revenue from syndication of $403,000 in 2012, up from $47,000 two years earlier. However, it was a small share of the center’s 2012 revenue of more than $12 million.

But Rosenthal believes it has significant potential. In 2013, the center hopes to raise about $700,000 from syndication, or 6 to 7 percent of its total budget.

Rosenthal said syndication arrangements with the center’s network of 13 California newspaper and broadcast partners will bring in more than $250,000 in 2013. The California network has been the nonprofit’s core but Rosenthal said the center wants to attract more national news organizations as syndication partners.

National partners include Univision, the Spanish-language broadcast television network and an emerging relationship with CNN.

“Our model for distribution has changed in the past couple of years as we’ve both grown and expanded our editorial reach and production cycle,” Rosenthal said. “Some stories are distributed widely to multiple news organizations and others may be an exclusive.” Similarly, the center might produce video for broadcast outlets, such as PBS NewsHour, or it may lend “reporting muscle” to a partner such as CNN, which produces its own video.

In 2013 the Center for Investigative Reporting produced two high-profile investigations with CNN. One, developed with the Tampa Bay Times, exposed charity fraud nationally. Another exposed fraud in taxpayer-funded drug rehabilitation in California. Rosenthal hopes to develop the CNN partnership and produce more revenue.

“They paid us what I consider a small fee relative to the amount of time we spent and the reporting we did in the co-production,” he said. “For our next round of talks with them we will discuss all of this. I believe some of this is proving proof of concept. So much of this, from my perspective, is building trust and credibility.”

Rosenthal declined to give specific dollar amounts for specific stories or partnerships, saying only that they varied primarily by the size of the partner news organization.

He emphasized that the model is evolving.

“We are really trying to establish and understand our financial value to our partners,” he said. “It’s not simply the content we bring and the reporting and information; there’s also value in what I call the ‘halo effect.’ What is the value to a newspaper or a national broadcaster when their audience sees a strong investigative story they admire on ‘their channel’ or ‘in their newspaper,’ that would not have been seen or reported without our help?”

Michele McLellan, consultant to Knight Foundation

Below: Center for Investigative Reporting’s Expenditures 2010 vs. 2012

Recent Content