Upgrade your CMS; News21 lessons; product-thinking scores

Nominate a South Florida journalist for the Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards!

I have learned quickly one of the realities of philanthropy: You cannot fund every idea you like. In fact, you can’t fund most ideas you like. Even foundations with substantial endowments have limits on what they can spend in a given year and, to be most effective, those funds need to be applied to areas of strategy.

Knight’s core goal is fostering informed and engaged communities, and we believe reliable journalism is key to achieving that goal. So when the Journalism team assesses grant proposals, the scalability of the idea is important to us. We are seeking projects with the potential to produce technology, services, knowledge or journalism that can be used across the local news ecosystem and support the informed and engaged communities we care so deeply about. 

The reason we pursue scalability is simple: Local journalism faces so many challenges these days, and attacking individual problems for individual publishers simply takes too long and costs too much. We need industry-wide solutions to shorten the road to sustainability for publishers, because we believe with sustainability comes increased independence and deeper trust.

One of the programs that fits this one-to-many strategy – and one we’ve been proud to support – is the Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant that just kicked off its application process for its third year. 

Knight made this $2 million, three-year grant in 2020, and since then, 50 newsrooms have received up to $20,000 to either move to a new content management system or upgrade an existing one. Yes, moving or upgrading a content management system is a lot of work. But it can also be transformative for a media business.

Que Pasa Media, a North Carolina-based Spanish-language media organization, used its grant money to move to Newspack. Knowing more than 90 percent of its traffic came from mobile devices, Que Pasa was able to launch a faster, mobile-first site that was better able to target readers in specific markets so they could align with their sponsors and better serve targeted ads. 

At The Afro, a Baltimore-based Black media company, its new website provided better analytics and data to inform its business strategy. For example, The Afro was considering launching a paywall but, after reviewing new data, it determined that collecting email addresses and making a membership push was a better fit for the organization. 

These are just two examples of the many strategic decisions that publishers made after moving or upgrading their publishing system. You could be next. If you’re considering applying, check out the grant releases from 2020 and 2021 to get a sense of how publishers planned to use their grant money. (Disclosures: I was a judge for the 2020 grant cycle, and also served as a consultant for Newspack before starting my job at Knight). 

The deadline to apply for this grant – which is administered by our good friends at the News Revenue Hub – is April 3 at 11:59 p.m. PT

News21: What We Learned

In 2005, Knight and the Carnegie Corporation of New York helped launch News21 with 12 U.S. universities. The program brings together journalism students across the country to report and produce in-depth, multimedia projects on an annual basis. News21 participants have been able to work with terrific journalists such as Leonard Downie Jr., Jacquee Petchel and Sarah Cohen to produce really wonderful student work you can find here.  

News21 produced its first project in 2006 and, two years later, Arizona State University’s Cronkite School began coordinating the project.  In 2011, Carnegie and Knight selected ASU to operate News21 for 10 years. Since then, more than 360 students from 40-plus universities have taken part in News21 and have produced more than 260 stories. 

We were eager to learn more about how the News21 program was progressing, so Knight’s crack Learning & Impact team commissioned a report on the topic. Our key learnings were:

  • Just over 88% of alumni survey respondents indicated they have previously worked or remain working in journalism––64% reported that they currently hold jobs in news organizations. 
  • The program’s newsroom partners universally confirmed that News21 is a trusted provider of quality journalism. 
  • Journalism program administrators said News21 does not directly impact their curricula, but they value what the initiative offers students. They also indicated that the price of the program was a concern. 
  • There was little direct evidence that News21 fosters innovation in partner newsrooms. 

The final finding isn’t too surprising, as the level of digital innovation in partner newsrooms has dramatically increased over the past 10 years as a more digital-savvy generation of journalists gets more deeply ingrained into newsrooms. The idea that students – even those participating in a high-quality program like News21 – will radically change a newsroom’s digital capabilities upon arrival seems a stretch in 2022. But, overall, while concerns about cost require a deeper examination, we’re happy to see such a high percentage of News21 alums still working in journalism during this time of great newsroom unrest.

The full report contains much more detail on the bullet points above – and much more – and you can find that report here.

Other news around the horn…


🌴 Give South Florida journalists some love! They did the shoe-leather reporting. They received the huzzahs. Now let’s get them the moolah. The Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards will hand out $16,000+ to reporters who provided the best public service journalism in South Florida last year. It’s time to nominate your favorites and act fast as the deadline is tomorrow! 


💸 Product-thinking pays dividends. The nascent News Product Alliance got a boost with a $900,000 investment from Knight Foundation and Google News Initiative right during their 2022 NPA Summit last week. The support will help NPA expand its global Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program at Newmark J-School, as well as create a resource directory, mentorship program and teaching fellowship. Why does product thinking matter? People who can align business, audience and tech goals while integrating ethics can help build sustainable and inclusive news organizations. And we need a whole lot more of those.

💰BlueLena sees green. The Local Media Association and Automattic have invested in BlueLena, which provides custom services to boost revenues for small and medium-sized news publishers. What makes BlueLena tick? It has partnerships with Pico, ActiveCampaign, Zapier, SurveyMonkey and Tableau to provide a marketing stack for registration, monetization and engagement for local news outlets. Now it will be more tightly integrated with Automattic’s Newspack publishing system. 

New Ideas

💡Ready to road test your business idea? LION Publishers is offering a free News Founder Challenge with actionable advice from the GNI Startups Playbook. And here’s a blessing: There’s no lengthy Zoom calls. It’s a six-week, self-guided course taken over email, with a challenge to complete each week. Plus you get a one-on-one consulting session with LION to discuss next steps.  


🔔Philly founders of color: The brand new Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange announced its first cohort of 12 media founders of color who will participate in the community-focused accelerator program. The entrepreneurs will get training on operations, revenues and monetization, with marketing and branding help. They will each receive a $10,000 grant, with potential for more financial support down the line. The program is supported by Lenfest InstituteKnight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund and the Independence Public Media Foundation.

👩🏽‍👦🏽 Walking the talk. A lot of news publishers have diversity plans, but the Center for Public Integrity took action, becoming a majority minority news organization. Jin Ding joined as chief of staff and Maya Srikrishnan joined as a reporter recently. CEO Paul Cheung, a former Knight journalism program director, says that staff diversity is vital to do better journalism and earn the trust of audiences. We agree.


☕ Soy or low-fat milk with your news? Think local, act local and buy local. It’s all in the community when you buy a subscription to the Keene (NH) Sentinel, with offers of a free pound of local coffee, a rum tasting, chocolate or more leading to increased profits and retention for subscribers. Through the Table Stakes program, the Sentinel was able to bring in more than $10,000 in profits with the program, and lowered subscriber churn. Yum.

News @ Knight Credits

Written by Jim Brady, with Mark Glaser

Edited by Jessica Clark & Kenny Ma

Produced by Kenny Ma

Executive Produced by Heidi Barker & Jim Brady

Godfathered by Alberto Ibargüen

A Knight + Dot Connector Joint

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