Nonprofit news outlets tout creativity in seeking sustainability

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Nonprofit news organizations have begun to carve out their own lanes with niche audiences.

The Institute for Nonprofit News, which started as a 27-member gathering of nonprofit news outlets to plan the future of investigative journalism, has expanded to more than 230 members. Many of these organizations started in the past 10 years as traditional newsrooms retrenched and cut back on statehouse and investigative reporting. 

While nonprofits provide an interesting case study in consumer-driven reporting and most have similar missions, they do not share a single business model, nor do they promise to be the future of journalism, newsroom leaders say. Outlets like The Texas Tribune and ProPublica have achieved success nationally.

A common thread in today’s nonprofit news is deep, investigative reporting. At its conception, the Institute for Nonprofit News was called the Investigative News Network. The purpose of its first meeting in 2009 was to plan the future of investigative journalism, according to the institute’s website.

Mississippi Today was founded in 2005 and is based near Jackson, Mississippi. The newsroom occupies a unique space. It is designed not to compete with other newsrooms but to coexist and report on subjects and places other publications don’t cover, said Ryan Nave, the site’s editor-in-chief. 

“We’re not extracting from the news ecosystem. We’re adding to it,” Nave said. “We recognize there are things other organizations do well, and we don’t want to replicate that.”

Mississippi Today’s deep-dive coverage is tailored to encourage civic action. The Texas Tribune also aims to engage readers with their focus on public policy and politics. 

Like commercial media, nonprofit news organizations face the challenge of developing a sustainable model to make money. 

 “We’re very promiscuous with our revenue,” said Rodney Gibbs, chief product officer at The Texas Tribune. “Some nonprofit news organizations have faltered because they were dependent on a single foundation or a single major donor. Some commercial media has failed because they’re dependent on classified ads or banner advertisements.” Gibbs is a board member for ONA and a member of the mentor team for the 2019 Student Newsroom and Innovation Lab.

The Tribune has five major sources of income: foundations, major donors, members who write smaller checks, corporate support from advertising and sponsored events, and earned income from such activities as speaking engagements and content licensing. 

Both Gibbs and Nave stressed the importance of being creative in terms of revenue generation. 

“We recognize reader support is never going to sustain us,” Nave said.

Both online publications have received contributions from organizations outside of journalism.

Chris Krewson is executive director of LION Publishers, an association dedicated to independent news. About 30% of the group’s publishers are nonprofit organizations. 

The future, Krewson says, lies in finding sustainable entrepreneurship models.

“Grant support for new things should be a push and not a pull. It should be a push to get them going and then after that, they’re making their own money in various different ways — not just asking for money from foundations in perpetuity,” he said. 

Though nonprofits are in vogue, they are just a small piece in the puzzle that is the future of media, according to Krewson. He said journalists must continue to experiment with new and different ways of making money.

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