Are Non-profit News Organizations Moving Past the Foundation Grant Model?

A new report from the Knight Foundation shows clear evidence that non-profit news outlets around the country are becoming far less dependent on the traditional path of foundation funding and moving toward a more diverse model of financial sustainability. This shift includes an increased interest in revenue streams from individual donors, events, syndication, and sponsorships, among other things.

The report, entitled "Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability," gives the sharpest picture yet of how not-for-profit journalism is learning from the business world and diversifying its funding sources beyond a simple reliance on the generosity of large foundations. The analysis involves open data on 18 local, state, and national non-profit news outlets as a basis for showing how a variety of these organizations raise and spend their money.

Some of the organizations Knight looked at include City Limits, MinnPost, New Haven Independent, Oakland Local, Rocky Mountain PBS, Texas Tribune, Wisconsin Watch, ProPublica, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, among others. The report placed its main focus on audience engagement, revenue generation, and organizational capacity, tracking factors such as web traffic, social media, and "the ability to create unique and relevant content that builds lasting connections with audiences," as well as investments in expanded marketing and development and new editorial and technology tools.

"While there is no secret recipe for sustainability, some valuable practices are emerging that other players in this evolving field can learn from," said Michael Maness, vice president for journalism and media innovation at the Knight Foundation. "The report fills a major demand for comparative data on nonprofit news organizations and beyond in a transparent way."

This new report is a follow-up to Knight's 2011 study, "Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability," and it broadens the scope of how Knight looks at the way news outlets are operating. One of the things the new report found was that many of the organizations were devoting more of their resources to the editorial end of their operation than they can sustain. They also seemed to have limited technological capacity almost across the board. The report also points out that none of these organizations can afford to ignore the technology, business, and audience-engagement factors that are key to their long-term sustainability.

"Nonprofit news organizations have made progress — reducing their reliance on foundation funding, building new revenue sources and investing in business development and marketing. Among the clear front-runners are those that are constantly experimenting and challenging assumptions around who their audience is and what they care about," said Mayur Patel, Knight Foundation vice president for strategy and assessment. "But there is still work to be done. That's why creating a benchmark from which organizations can see themselves in context and examine their effectiveness is so important."

This report is integral to the Knight Foundation's efforts to collect best practices and establish some clear parameters around what does and does not work in the world of non-profit journalism funding. The report is organized around the three main areas of "social value creation," "economic value creation," and "organizational capacity," all considered essential to any organization's sustainability. The main take-aways from the report include investing in activities beyond content, bolstering a brand by building partnerships, striving for diversity in funding, and providing services beyond publishing, among other key points. You can parse an easily digestible overview of the entire report here.

This study should prove to be a great resource for all non-profit journalism ventures around the country. Knowing what works and what doesn't is key to understanding how to move your own organization forward, and Knight is leading the charge with its in-depth analysis.