Knight Foundation’s Investments in Local News Sustainability – Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation’s Investments in Local News Sustainability

The main objective of this assessment is to understand the effects of grantees’ interventions in the context of Knight’s goals for sustainability of local news.

Learnings and Insights | February 2020 – February 2023

In February 2019, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (Knight Foundation) announced that it would double its investment in strengthening journalism to $300 million over five years, with a focus on building the future of local news and information, which are essential for democracy to function. In early 2020, Knight Foundation and Impact Architects launched this assessment of Knight’s investments in local news sustainability with the goal to better understand the impacts of these investments and promising practices that contribute to sustainability. This report is an interim learning memo assessing these investments after each of these programs has been operating for at least one full year. Some programs have been operating for at least two years.

The main objective of this assessment is to understand the effects of grantees’ interventions in the context of Knight’s goals for sustainability of local news. Knight defines sustainability as “a newsroom where revenue outstrips expenses in a repeatable fashion, when sources of revenue are diversified, and audience size is consistent or growing year over year.” For this assessment, we leverage data to measure newsroom sustainability through a combination of financial health and audience metrics.

We know that the long-term sustainability of local news cannot be divorced from the need for local news organizations to be diverse, equitable and inclusive, with sophisticated organizational practices, and representation from the communities they aim to serve. So, we include these aspects of organizational growth and development in the qualitative elements of this assessment as well.

The assessment includes ten unique interventions being carried out by nine grantee organizations, all of which are business-to-business (B2B) organizations supporting newsrooms through grantmaking, programming, training and networking. This report is the second annual report, following the first published in 2022.

To test Knight Foundation’s hypotheses with respect to local news sustainability, we are gathering comparable quantitative data from newsrooms pre- and post-grantee intervention, as well as over the longer term of two or even three years post-intervention, with respect to audience, revenue, operations and staff. These quantitative metrics, together with interviews to generate qualitative data, are used to answer key questions and provide insights with respect to:

  • The impact of grantee interventions on participating newsrooms’ financial health and sustainability.
  • The relative strengths of different grantee interventions with respect to audience growth, revenue generation, and organizational culture shift.
  • The effect of grantee interventions on newsrooms in the context of sector-level trends.

In total, we have data from 181 newsrooms, although the degree of completeness of data provided varies greatly. We have 2021 and 2022 data from 169 newsrooms. We have long-term data from a total of 85 newsrooms with either 2019 or 2020 as the baseline year. A complete list of data included in this report can be found in Appendix A.

The size of newsrooms included in this assessment vary from extremely small volunteer newsrooms to large newsrooms serving metro areas. There are newsrooms that don’t have a single full-time paid staff person and large newsrooms of more than 100 full-time employees (including one that has more than 300). Among the 132 news organizations for which we have the most recent staffing data, the average staff size is 32 and the median is 16. Newsrooms are nonprofit, independent for-profit and individual newsrooms that are part of larger corporations. Average total revenue for 2022 was just over $2 million, while median was half that. Annual revenues spanned from just under $8,000 to more than $14 million. Newsrooms’ digital average monthly users (DAMU) have a similarly wide breadth, with the smallest in 2022 having a DAMU of less than 400 and the largest over 8 million, with an average of around 440,000 but a median of less than 100,000.

From 2021 through 2022, across all newsrooms for which we have complete data, organizations experienced an average revenue increase of 19.1%. When broken down by nonprofit and commercial media, nonprofits experienced an average increase of 28.2%, while commercial media experienced an average increase of 3.3%. The overall increase in revenue is largely due to an increase in charitable revenue (which includes individual donations and philanthropic funding), which increased an average of 33.6% from 2021 to 2022.1,2

We have enough information to calculate the average ratio of operating expenses to revenue from three grantees, demonstrating that for the American Journalism Project (AJP), Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and News Revenue Hub (NRH) Sustainable Publishing Solutions (SPS) newsrooms revenue is greater than expenditure, suggesting sustainability.3 Newsrooms associated with these grantees didn’t see a notable change in the ratio of expenses to costs from 2021 to 2022.

During the same time period, digital audiences continued to shrink, as evidenced by an average decrease in digital average monthly users of 10.8% and with a median decline of only 2.4%, including decreases across all categories of newsrooms: nonprofit, commercial and public media. Audiences have generally continued to decline across the industry after a high in 2020,4 so the modest decline of the newsrooms included in this assessment can be seen as evidence that they are faring somewhat better than the industry as a whole.


TotalAverage RevenueMedian Revenue
% Change19.1%17.8%20.4%

DAMU CHANGE, 2021–226

TotalAverage DAMUMedian DAMU
% Change-10.8%-10.8%-2.4%

In general, from baseline (2020 or 2021) through 2022, newsrooms participating in grantee interventions reported both average and median increases in revenue. The majority of the increases in revenue can be attributed to increases in charitable revenue. During the same time period, nearly all newsrooms participating in grantee interventions saw decreases in average DAMU. For programs that serve early-stage newsrooms and/or newsrooms that are early in their transition to digital, such as AJP, NRH and BloomLab, there were increases in median DAMU as these newsrooms are at the beginning of building their digital audiences and reflect rapid early growth. Conversely, programs with newsrooms that already had large audiences at baseline saw the largest decreases in audience from baseline to 2022.


GranteeAverage Revenue Change% Average Charitable Revenue ChangeAverage Charitable Revenue Change% Average Charitable Revenue ChangeAverage DAMU Change% Average DAMU Change
NRH SPS$104,09718.4%$47,42612.2%-1,096-0.8%
TS API-487,384-18.2%
TS ASU-49,667-10.0%
TS POYNTER$34,5801.3%$51,29210.9%2,5700.8%
TS UNC-30,877-2.8%

While overall trends are helpful, the purpose of this assessment is to understand the extent to which specific grantee interventions move newsrooms in the direction of sustainability. In the tables below, we have outlined key insights about the impact of these interventions on newsrooms, based on both quantitative and qualitative data.

GranteeKey Insights
American Journalism Project (AJP)
Knight made a $20 million founding investment to support the launch of AJP.
• From 2020 through 2022, AJP grantees’ total revenue increased an average of 90.5%, from $1,034,231 to $1,970,447.
• AJP’s grantees diversified their revenue streams, with four newsrooms significantly lessening their reliance on one primary revenue source by developing new methods for revenue and moving from either one revenue source to two, or two sources to three.
• Newsrooms benefit from AJP’s support beyond its financial investments, noting, in particular, leadership and executive coaching, hiring tactics and financial accounting resources.
• Newsrooms would benefit from additional centralization of resources.
Knight supported the launch of BloomLab, a program designed to support Black publications’ digitization.
• From 2021 through 2022, BloomLab newsrooms reported an average of 19.8% growth in total revenue, from $1,588,323 to $1,903,116.
• Charitable revenue increased by an average of 36.2%, from $163,715 to $222,972.
• Newsrooms saw an average decrease of 14.9% in digital average monthly users, from 95,164 to 80,951.
• Participating newsrooms, often long-running local media organizations, were able to modernize their offerings in the digital age, often requiring significant cultural shifts within newsrooms, and thus will need to ensure the transformation is sustainable.
Institute for Nonprofit News (INN)
Knight provides project funding for INN. We have included newsrooms that have high engagement with INN.
• From 2021 through 2022, INN’s members included in this assessment had an average total revenue increase of 19.8%, from $1,221,694 to $1,463,277.
• Newsrooms increased their charitable revenue by an average of 19.4%, from $1,031,739 to $1,231,558.
• From 2021 through 2022, INN’s members included in this assessment reported an average decrease of 3.3% in digital average monthly users, from 198,721 to 192,176.
• Early-stage newsrooms greatly benefit from INN’s business and audience services that provide a foundation for growth over the approximately first five years of operations.
• As INN’s membership grows, it will be a challenge to serve the diversity of its members.
Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers
Knight made a $1 million investment in LION to hire full-time staff and build out programming.
• LION has built its full-time staff from zero to 11 and begun to develop programming to serve its now more than 445 members.
• From 2020 through 2022, LION members that participated in this assess- ment reported an average increase of 95.5% in total revenue, from $285,400 to $558,084. This increase was spurred in large part by a 276.8% average increase in charitable revenue, though we don’t have as much specific finan- cial data from LION members as for other interventions.
• LION provides beneficial, industry-wide insights and opportunities to its members, and will have to find ways to balance the needs of long-term and newer members.
• As LION grows, it will need to continue to work to meet the varied needs of its diverse membership.
News Revenue Hub (NRH)
Hub Services

Knight supports NRH’s general Hub Services. We have included newsrooms that benefitted from Hub Services in 2022 and that are not
included in this assessment via other grantee interventions.
• From 2021 through 2022, NRH newsrooms had an average revenue increase of 22%, from $2,254,768 to $2,752,594.
• NRH newsrooms saw an average increase of 17% for digital average monthly users from 251,514 to 296,511, although this is largely due to rapid growth among a subset of startups.
• NRH’s technology services provide early-stage newsrooms with the tools to accept donations in a streamlined fashion, and their consulting services benefit newsrooms by ensuring that the technology is put to use to serve an established model of success.
• NRH newsrooms benefit from the capacity add that results from founda- tional technology and building a revenue stream of small donors.
News Revenue Hub (NRH) Sustainable Publishing Solutions (SPS)
Knight supports the SPS program directly. The assessment included newsrooms that participated in the program in 2020 and 2022.
• From 2021 through 2022, SPS newsrooms included in this assess- ment reported an average increase of 18.4% in total revenue, from $566,306 to $670,403.
• SPS newsrooms are able to completely reinvent an element of technology crucial to their business operations over the long term.
• Most often, the technology emphasizes integrating audience and revenue elements of the business together into a single system.
• Maintenance of new technology continues to be challenging for some organizations.
Table StakesKey Insights
American Press Institute (API) Major Markets8
Knight supports API’s Major Market Table Stakes Program together with the Lenfest Institute.
• Major Market newsrooms reported an average decrease of 409,000 digital average monthly users, from 2,253,320 to 1,843,508, from 2019 through 2022, an 18.2% decrease.
• Newsrooms reported that, over the long term, individuals and organizations continue to employ approaches and principles learned through the Table Stakes, especially “design-do,” setting SMART goals and facilitating cross-de- partmental communication and projects.
Arizona State University (ASU)• Over the long term, newsrooms said that the Table Stakes program helped them think differently about how to approach coverage that matters to theircommunities and to try new things editorially to reach and engage audiences.
Poynter• From 2021 to 2022, total revenue rose by an average of 1.3% for the nine newsrooms where we have complete data, excluding public media, from $2,698,390 to $2,732,970.
• Participants in Poynter’s Table Stakes program held steady with digital average monthly users from 2021 through 2022, with an average 0.8% increase, from 312,999 to 315,569.
• Over the long term, newsrooms reported continuing to use Table Stakes principles and processes in their work, especially setting SMART goals and working across departments.
University of North Carolina (UNC)9
Knight directly supports UNC’s Table Stakes Program.
• From 2019 through 2022, UNC Table Stakes newsrooms saw a decrease in total digital average monthly users of 2.8%, from 1,084,541 to 1,053,664.
• Gannett newsrooms reported that over the long term they continue to employ principles and processes learned through the UNC Table Stakes program.
• Nonprofit newsrooms reported continuing to think about the Table Stakes principles in their work, but a lack of organizational capacity (mostly human capacity) to implement many of the processes over the long term.


  • Newsrooms generally followed sector-level digital audience trends, including peaks in 2020 and declines since.
    • Programs that bucked this trend — NRH, SPS and BloomLab newsrooms — serve startups and/or newsrooms that were just making the digital transition and thus had the most opportunity for rapid growth.
    • Newsrooms with the largest baseline audiences account for a great deal of the average decline from 2021 to 2022, suggesting that the overall declines were a product of top-heavy fluctuations.
      • The top 50% of newsrooms in terms of 2021 DAMU saw their DAMU’s decline by an average of 109,418 in 2022, whereas the lower 50% saw an average increase of 5,711.
      • 45% of newsrooms for which we have 2021 and 2022 data reported an increase in DAMU, whereas 51% reported a decrease (the remaining newsrooms reported no change). The scale was larger among the newsrooms to report decreases.
  • Targeted interventions with clear goals — such as AJP’s investments in newsrooms to develop business teams and practices, BloomLab’s high-touch targeted and customized support for newsrooms, NRH’s member services that aims to increase paying members or SPS’s program to improve technology — yield the most direct short-term and long-term impact with respect to sustainability.
    • Newsrooms said that customized support, while expensive, enabled them to make quick progress with respect to sustainability. For example, AJP’s success partners act as an external member of newsrooms’ revenue generating teams and are able to contribute to their strategies over time, and BloomLab team members provide customized consulting services (including in-person on-site support) for newsrooms, tailoring services to meet the newsrooms where they are with respect to digitizing.
  • Grantee interventions that provide training, such as INN and LION’s programming and Table Stakes, contribute to increased capacity among newsrooms and shift the culture to be more results-driven, likely contributing to increased revenue; however, it is more difficult to observe the direct impact of these interventions on organizational sustainability over the short or long term.
    • INN and LION’s programming is especially helpful to early-stage newsrooms as they build operational capacity and establish a foundation for growth, especially beyond editorial work. As membership organizations “age” and reach maturity, programs will need to evolve to meet their new needs.
    • Table Stakes provides a shared approach and language for participants (performance-driven change that requires setting measurable goals, implementing projects and using KPIs to determine the success of the project) that they continue to utilize over the long-term, often bringing the approach into their organizations and spreading it to colleagues who haven’t actually participated in a Table Stakes program.
  • For all programs that have cohorts, newsrooms find benefit in building trust-based relationships with peers with which they wouldn’t typically have the opportunity to learn from due to industry competition (e.g., different newspaper and TV ownership groups) or existing in separate industry silos (e.g., nonprofit news and public media).
  • Table Stakes is helpful for individual newsrooms to effect culture change. However, for commercial media owned by chains, even when the program yields incremental wins (e.g., increased digital subscriptions), organizational decisions are made outside of the newsroom. Greater profit margins have often proven to take priority over continued newsrooms’ capacity to grow audiences and generate revenue on an incremental basis.
  • Revenue increases from 2020 through 2022 are largely a result of increased philanthropic support for newsrooms, especially for nonprofits.


  1. From 2021 to 2022, nonprofits experienced an average increase of 32.3% for charitable revenue while commercial media saw an average increase of 29.9%.
  2. In our analysis we were not able to separate out charitable revenue based on the source foundations, individual giving, earned revenue and major gifts) due to data quality issues. However, in an analysis of 2022 data, INN’s Index Snapshot 2023 found that 58% of members reported that foundation funding grew, while individual giving (major, mid-level and small-dollar donors) was a “much more mixed picture.” Half saw individual donations grow, but a third saw decreases in individual donations.
  3. The expenses to revenue ratio is calculated as operating expenses divided by revenue, both as reported by newsrooms. A ratio lower than 1 means an organization is cash flow positive, with revenue higher than costs.
  4. Neal Rothschild, Sara Fischer, “News engagement plummets as Americans tune out,” Axios, July 12, 2022,
  5. This table reflects data from organizations for which we have both years of data. We removed four public media companies that had a more than 300% decrease in revenue from 2021 to 2022, a magnitude of millions, as these changes were likely a result of the end of capital campaigns.
  6. This table reflects data from organizations for which we have both years of data.
  7. LION shared aggregate data with Impact Architects, but a breakdown of revenue sources was not available.
  8. Major Market publications, most of which are commercial and owned by publicly traded companies, were largely unable to provide financial data due to SEC regulations.
  9. However, philanthropy is a significant driver in this increase in revenue, and it is perhaps too soon to tell if this support will continue over the long term.