What, exactly, does a healthy nonprofit news site look like?
If you’re a national site like ProPublica, is the metric winning major awards and changing policy through your reporting? If you’re a state-focused site like The Texas Tribune, does success mean increasing traffic and diversifying revenue through events? Or if you’re a local site like Voice of San Diego, is it improving the membership experience of your core audience?
A new report this week from the Knight Foundation (disclosure: a funder of Nieman Lab) took a look at the state of play of 18 nonprofit news organizations around the country to find out how they run their business, how they produce their journalism, and how they connect with their communities. Analyzing finances, online traffic, and other audience data, the report found that the overall story is a good one: Revenue is up, business models are being diversified, and audiences are growing.
But that success is not without some uncertainty...
You have to hand it to the Knight Foundation, they really press for results and go about it most methodically.
As I read this report, a follow-up to their look at nonprofit news startups from a few years ago, I keep thinking how this is nothing new to us in public media. We're nonprofits doing news and struggling with all the same questions of growth, sustainability, social value, core audience, etc, etc.
(In fact, some of the 18 start-ups featured in this report are partners with public media stations.)
The closest thing we have to a sugardaddy like the Knight Foundation is perhaps the CPB, the stand alone agency that receives money from the U.S. government (taxpayers) to be distributed among some 580 broadcast organizations who deliver local and national programs. But the CPB has not been open about sharing comparative data like Knight is doing here. Nor does it seem as concerted in its effort to grow public media through a national conversation about the future of news, as Knight is so good at doing.
Yet, public media has this data and holds these conversations -- in fact it is about to convene the biggest evidence of that: a gathering of public radio station managers from around the country in DC this month.
(From the "super regional meeting" promotion page: "The event allows the major stakeholders in public media to come together to discuss today’s most important and pressing topics, such as, leadership, the evolving environment we face, collaboration, digital innovation, and our business going forward.")
I suggest public media leaders borrow a page from the Knight Foundation and initiate a concerted look at our long range plans for growth and sustainability, especially as it relates to the future of journalism in America. A systematic and open study would help. These would complement the "Public Media Futures" conversations headed up by Mark Fuerst and Current.
Here are the main takeaways from the Knight report. These apply entirely to what we do as a public media system:
The most successful nonprofit news organizations that have momentum exhibit the following traits:
1. Attack your assumptions, always. They regularly develop ways to gather insights on who their audience is and what their audience cares about. They incorporate that feedback to pitch sponsors, refine membership programs and tailor user experiences.
2. Pursue the greatest overlap between niche and need. Their strategy grows out of observing the market in which they operate and identifying a balance between two extremes – coverage that’s so broad it’s hard to build a community around it while so narrow that it creates long-term financial challenges. Their answer to “who is your audience?” is never “everyone.”
3. Provide services, don’t just publish. They recognize that their business isn’t about publishing and advertising, but about developing and marketing experiences for individuals that are rich in information and connections. They think beyond their website and see events, community discussions and partnerships as content that’s created in many forms.
4. Invest beyond content. They devote a significant share of their spending to priorities that go beyond editorial. They invest in marketing, business development and fundraising and see these activities as core to their operation, rather than something done “after-hours.”
5. Measure what matters. While they track traditional cumulative Web metrics such as monthly unique visitors, they focus on indicators that offer feedback on repeat user engagement. They combine this data with qualitative narrative accounts on how their reporting affects their target community.
6. Strive for diversity in funding. They aggressively look for ways to step down foundation funding and to raise dollars from their community through sponsorship, events and individual donations. These revenue sources are prized because they offer greater independence in reporting and more flexibility strategically.
7. Bolster the brand by building partnerships. They offer their content to others to reach key audiences and structure those partnerships to derive the following benefits: opportunities to prominently market their brand, feedback and business intelligence on the audience their content reaches and fees from syndication.
8. Move to where your audience is. They understand the changing habits of how individuals consume information. They don’t only focus on the home page of their website; they’re building responsive design and prioritize social media.