As recent studies by the Pew Research Center have documented, newspaper reporting at the state government level is on the decline. Here at the Franklin Center, one of the key things we’ve already explored is how Pew’s research found that nontraditional media are increasingly picking up the important reporting task of keeping the public informed about state level activity. Today we’ll examine one segment of this “nontraditional” media—nonprofit news.
So What is Nonprofit News?
Overall, a nonprofit news organization’s business operation is designed to sustain itself and serve its mission rather than generate dividends for investors. Typically, they seek IRS 501(c)(3) status or they fall under the status of a sponsoring organization such as a think tank, university, or other nonprofit organization.
In June 2013 the Pew Research Center identified 172 digital nonprofit news outlets and reviewed their funding sources and the focus of their operations.They also provided a listing of Nonprofit News Sites with a more detailed look at the stories they generate and their staffing levels. Their full report can be found at Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System.
They found that all but 9 states have at least one nonprofit online news organization. They further noted that more than a third (38%) of nonprofit outlets focus on state-level news, while 29% focus on metro-level, 15% national, 8% hyper-local, 6% international, and 4% regional.
The Pew report on nonprofits focused on the fragile business foundation for these operations. They cite the need to find staff on the business and fundraising side for a number of these organizations. In fact, of the 172 nonprofit organizations their research documented in 2012, their current online listing of nonprofit organizations notes that seven have already closed or become inactive.
Their full report states that 55 out of 77 responding to their survey said that they brought in no more than $500,000 in 2011. Many launch with relatively large start-up grants but struggle to find on-going funding to further their mission. Therein lies the fragile nature of these news outlets. Other sources of revenue are pretty small — individual donations at the top followed by advertising/sponsorship and events. Yet it is these types of funding that can serve to support the organization over the long-term versus the hit and miss timing of a large grant or donation.
They are further challenged by spending most of their time and resources on journalism and limited time on fundraising and business operations such as advertising sales. This is often endemic for nonprofits of all stripes.They feel that they need to demonstrate to current and potential supporters that a very high percentage of every dollar donated goes toward fulfilling the mission rather than into “overhead.” However, business and fundraising operations are not “overhead” but essential to maintaining the organization’s mid- and long-term viability as an on-going operation.
One quote in particular from the report stood out:
When one small nonprofit news organization discussed its ongoing struggle to raise money, the message was simple. “We don’t have time to do this,” it reported. “And we don’t know how.”
So if the typical nonprofit news organization is not allocating its resources to business operations or fundraising, what’s happening with reporting?
Staffing and Stories
The Pew study of nonprofit websites over a two-week period found that close to half (44%) produced 10 or fewer pieces of original content. Roughly one-third published at least 11 straight news stories of 500 words or less, while two-thirds produced no long-form stories of 1,000 words or more.The study further found that 77% produced no opinion or commentary during this two-week assessment.
To provide some perspective, on the staffing side of things they noted that traditional newspapers had an average of 29 full-time journalists in 2011, down from 39 in 2001. Of the 93 nonprofit organizations who responded to the Pew survey, three-fourths had no more than five paid full-time staffers across all aspects of the business — both reporters and business. Right at half of the nonprofits had between one and five paid, part-time employees. Yet nearly three-fourths also used unpaid volunteers, interns or contributors, and some had only unpaid volunteer staff.
Nonprofit News Examples
So what do these nonprofit news outlets look like? Here’s a quick listing and, as noted above, you can find the full list compiled for the Pew study online.
- VTDigger.com has three full-time reporters in Vermont.
- TexasTribune has the largest statehouse bureau of any news organization in the country: 15 full-time year-round reporters and 10 students.
- Center for Investigative Reporting — started in 1977. Reported over $7 million revenue for 2013, $11 million in 2012.
- Texas Observer — covering the statehouse in Austin for 60 years (1954). The Texas Observer has three full-time reporters and three students.
- The Connecticut Mirror has four full-time reporters.
Growing Need for Nonprofit News Outlets
There’s clearly a need for these nontraditional media outlets, as indicated by their growth and their efforts to fill the gap left by the decline in traditional newspaper coverage in the statehouse and many other areas. There is also a growing level of support for them either through grants or philanthropic efforts. Yet it’s clear that more focus needs to be paid to the business side of their operations along with serious year-round fundraising through donations, subscriptions, or advertising sales — perhaps even all three.
Stay tuned for our next post, which will take a deeper dive into a few of these organizations to learn more about how they operate and the impact of their efforts. In the meantime, you can subscribe to our email newsletter at the top right hand corner of this page to keep up-to-date on all our efforts.