While nonprofit news organizations have existed for decades, the accelerated collapse of commercial media in recent years has fueled a rapid expansion of a model untethered from the advertising dollars, clicks, or pay walls for-profit outlets rely upon to keep their journalism afloat.
The pace of nonprofit startups has been rising at a steady clip for more than a decade now, with at least a dozen new newsrooms established each year since 2008, said Rick Edmonds, media analyst with the Poynter Institute.
Although the first wave of modern nonprofit news organizations was originally inspired by journalists and editors concerned about the hollowing out of newsrooms nationwide in the wake of the Great Recession, this new era of mostly small, hyper-focused digital nonprofit news outlets gained additional traction in 2015 when it became increasingly clear that local news coverage itself was at stake.
“Nationally, then and now, the big newspapers were still covering the biggest news stories, but local investigative work, and even more basic beat reporting and local reporting were taking a hit,” said Sue Cross, a former Associated Press reporter who is now executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), a nonprofit organization that supports nonprofit news. “Somebody needed to fill these coverage gaps and gradually different nonprofits have started to be established to do just that.”
Today, INN counts 367 organizations among its members, up from 27 newsrooms at INN’s inception in 2009. The rapid growth of nonprofit news has happened against a backdrop of decades-long declines in size and reach for-profit newsrooms.
Institute for Nonprofit News member newsrooms
Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that newsroom employment numbers for the entire industry, including print, radio, broadcast, cable, and digital media, had shrunk from 114,000 in 2008 to about 85,000 in 2020, a 26% decrease even before the COVID-19-fueled layoffs and budget cuts happened. Newspapers saw the sharpest decline, going from employing about 71,000 in 2008 to about 31,000 in 2020, a 57% decrease.
These new nonprofit outlets are filling critical voids left behind by legacy newspapers buttressing a rapidly diminishing local press corps in places where for-profit media has had to scale back its coverage, and offering local news coverage in areas where there are no other outlets left.
Studies published over the past decade examining the impact of the loss of local news coverage have tied the decline of local reporting to a decrease in voter participation, a rise in government waste, and an increase in polarization as national news attempts to fill the void, according to Sarabeth Berman, CEO of the American Journalism Project, an entity that helps digital local nonprofit news become sustainable.
“Across the country local news coverage has been in freefall for the last two decades, and now there are entire communities that no longer have any community-based coverage at all,” Berman said. “And that’s a problem. If you don’t have local news there’s evidence that you’re more likely to see voter participation decline, increases in government waste, and even increases in polarization because other things fill that information void and they’re not always particularly balanced.”
Nonprofits are distinct from their for-profit counterparts in a few ways. Because of their tax exemptions, they cannot endorse candidates for office, a tradition long practiced by legacy newspapers. Many nonprofits also offer up their content for free to local newspapers across the state.
Spotlight PA — a nonprofit based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, focused on covering state government — has been able to establish itself in less than three years by producing evenhanded coverage of the state capitol that quickly attracted readers and got republished by newsrooms around the state.
“Our bet has been that the public is not dumb,” said Christopher Baxter, executive director and founding editor of Spotlight PA. “We’ve set this up assuming that they know good work, they know what they are missing because local newspapers don’t have the bandwidth to cover it, and if we show them that we’re producing that they’ll respond. And we’ve seen that theory play out because we’ve had our (other news organizations that republish content) saying that Spotlight is a driver for membership for donations, for readers.”
An Experiment in Montana
John S. Adams first got the idea to start a nonprofit newsroom in Montana in 2015 when a wave of newspaper layoffs hit Adams and a slew of other longtime state government reporters stationed in Helena, Montana’s state capitol, particularly hard. In the span of a few months Montana lost most of its seasoned journalists, some of them legendary political and investigative reporters who had been keeping tabs on the state government for decades.
“It bothered me, the thought that nobody was going to be asking questions about things like campaign finance and generally holding our state elected officials accountable,” Adams said.
It was clear to Adams that the traditional media model, with advertisements and subscriptions fueling a newspaper’s work, wasn’t working. But Adams kept thinking about the one beacon of hope in the journalism world since the late 2000s — the steady rise of nonprofit newsrooms like Texas Tribune, ProPublica and a handful of others established and nurtured by individual donors, fundraisers, community support and large philanthropies.
“Somebody had suggested we should create a nonprofit and just cover it (state government) ourselves,” he recalls now. “I really liked that idea. When nobody else stepped up, I decided to take a crack.”
Our bet has been that the public is not dumb. We’ve set this up assuming that they know good work, they know what they are missing because local newspapers don’t have the bandwidth to cover it, and if we show them that we’re producing that they’ll respond.Christopher Baxter executive director and founding editor of Spotlight PA
Although Adams had been the capital bureau chief for The Great Falls Tribune, he’d never run a nonprofit before, let alone built one from the ground up with an editorial vision that is focused, unbiased, deeply reported and not beholden to page view numbers that fuel advertising dollars to stay afloat. But he had to try.
Adams did some research, put together an advisory board, wrote his bylaws and with a small grant from INN, and published his first story in 2015 under a new masthead, the Montana Free Press. Soon he was covering a trial focused on whether corporate campaign donations should be allowed to remain anonymous in Montana. His coverage would ultimately become the focus of an acclaimed 2018 documentary, Dark Money.
“It’s relatively easy to get started. It can be as simple as a journalist has left a job but has a burning desire to keep doing what they’ve been doing, or maybe it’s like with the Texas Tribune, where they have initial funders that will help them get up and running,” Edmonds of Poynter said. “Where it gets tricky is a few years in, when the funding and the energy to work 70-hour weeks for very little pay begin to fade.”
The Need to Diversify Funding
Evan Smith, executive director and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, underscores the importance of diversified funding.
“The biggest issue with starting one of these and running one of these is economic diversity,” Smith, said. “If you only have one source, you don’t have anywhere to go if that source dries up.”
Smith, who is retiring at the end of the year, said startups must have the discipline not to expand coverage or staff size too quickly.
“There’s always more work to be done than money to be spent,” Smith said. “You can’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of doing more than you can afford. Even now we don’t spend a dollar that we don’t have to, and we’re extremely disciplined about sticking to our budget.”
Adams didn’t know any of this when he started the Montana Free Press, a common issue with these startups, said Berman, at the American Journalism Project.
“The vast majority of people that come to this are journalists so they want to do the work, but they may not necessarily understand everything creating a nonprofit entails,” Berman said.
Within roughly a year, Adams was exhausted and nearly broke.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I would refer to ‘we’ and ‘us’ when I was writing, but it was a one-man operation. I was reporting, writing, editing, and trying to fundraise all at the same time. I was also funding it with my own savings and on credit cards. It just was not sustainable.”
He put his digital newsroom (himself) on hiatus and went to work for an established nonprofit in the hopes that he could learn what he needed to know while also paying his bills. His biggest realization was that he needed to start applying for grants to obtain the kind of funding that would give him a runway to build out his newsroom. At the same time, he realized he would need a skilled fundraiser on staff and someone to run the business side to ensure the Montana Free Press would be able to take off once initial funding ran out.
‘We Started to Prove Ourselves’
By 2017 he was ready, this time with a three-year start-up grant and someone on board to run the business department. He was even able to hire a few reporters. This time Montana Free Press gained traction, growing its readership through reliable reporting, newsletters, backing from nonprofits and donations from Montana residents who realized they wanted someone in Helena holding those in power accountable, Adams said.
“A lot of the folks who have wealth in Montana came to Montana to be left alone, and initially they weren’t interested in what we were doing,” Adams says. “But as we started to prove ourselves the locals began to invest in us and to value what we were doing.”
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, Adams and his lean staff were able to pivot and refocus their operation, offering up-to-date coverage, establishing a network of freelancers to do local reporting and working around the clock for the first year of the pandemic to keep readers informed.
“I won’t say that the pandemic was a good thing, but we were able to utilize an opportunity to develop the muscles we thought a nonprofit newsroom should have, and to set ourselves apart for readers,” Adams said. “We were a staff of four at the beginning and now there are 12 full-time positions. And we’ve figured out where we fit in the media landscape of Montana. We don’t want to detract from any other news organization. We just want to fill in the gaps and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.”
The future is continues to look bright for nonprofit outlets, Cross said.
“Where things are going with these nonprofit newsrooms is really interesting,” Cross said. “About 90% of these outlets start out small, but they make it through the first difficult years and then they grow. That’s held true even during the COVID-19 pandemic. While you’d think we’d have seen nonprofit newsrooms struggling, it’s proved to be just the opposite. The growth has actually accelerated over the past three years, and we expect that we’re going to see another wave of growth soon.”