Where nonprofit news and business intersect

Some people might think of the nonprofit news field as a slow-moving, foundation-funded industry. While this picture might have held up a decade ago, today nonprofit newsrooms are bucking the typical reliance on grants and donations and growing into strategically funded enterprises—fueled by dollars from individual donors and local and national businesses. 

Take, for example, statewide nonprofit news outlets like the Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight, which in 2019grew earned revenue to 37 percent and 33 percent of their overall business, respectively. We’ve seen that this growth is consistent across smaller metro news organizations, too.

Indeed, according to the 2020 Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) Index, now more than 40 percent of nonprofit newsrooms have created four or more different revenue streams to fund their high-quality, nonpartisan journalism. Out of these revenue streams, INN identified earned revenue, such as advertising, event sponsorship and sponsored content, as a major area for development across the nonprofit news field. 

That growth opportunity brought the Google News Initiative and INN together to analyze how nonprofit newsrooms can build earned revenue models and identify best practices to help others succeed. Today, we’re thrilled to share a new contribution to the field: the Nonprofit News Guide to Earned Revenue. This guide combines lessons learned from several nonprofit news organizations, and was designed to be used and reused by leaders and staff to grow and retain revenue from earned sources.

The GNI-INN partnership comes as dramatic revenue losses sweep across the journalism industry, with tens of thousands of jobs cut just since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The decline in advertising is a big part of that picture. From April 2019 to April 2020, Pew Research Center reported a 42 percent revenue loss in advertising for newspapers, a revenue stream that largely fuels traditional media organizations. 

In the same time period, however, INN gained about 65 nonprofit newsrooms as members and existing members profiled by our research became more financially sustainable. 

So how can nonprofit newsrooms continue to increase earned revenue during this industry decline? Here are the guide’s top takeaways to act on now:

Sell solutions. Identify needs and offer solutions for partners. News outlets that had success with earned revenue figured out how to align their financial goals with the interests of their community members, including local business owners. For example, the San Antonio Report created a business membership that offers an opportunity for companies to underwrite relevant content and receive recognition without placing advertisements. 

View local businesses as partners and allies. Relationships with sponsors and prospects aren’t transactional. Newsrooms should foster a connection with them. Just as nonprofit journalism is service-oriented, so are these partnerships. Take for example Madison365, which created a program promoting its mission of producing coverage specifically for communities of color to find potential sponsors who support that goal. 

Get the tech stack right. Even the best people and strategies can fall short with a weak foundation. In the guide, we review the basic tools newsrooms should consider, such as content management systems, ad servers and virtual event technology, and discuss how these systems should work together in a way where data collected now can be cleanly imported into a more advanced tech stack down the road. 

Develop (and improve!) an efficient work flow. Nonprofit news organizations are often small and scrappy—they work smarter, not harder. For example, we look at NJ Spotlight’s process for deciding which sales to chase, and which to let go. Here’s how it works: Log all interactions with clients and categorize each prospect with either a “90” (likely to convert, so drop everything to make this sale), 50 (possible to convert, spend some time here), or 10 (remember this contact, but move on for now).

INN is putting this guide’s best practices to work as the core curriculum of the GNI Sponsorship Lab. Launched in October, the six-month program is providing coaching to support a diverse group of eight nonprofit publishers as they develop and improve their earned revenue streams over time. 

We hope this guide helps nonprofit newsrooms make decisions, prioritize staff time and resources and chart ambitious new business plans in the year ahead. Above all, newsrooms can use this guide to identify the growth opportunity rooted in earned revenue and take action today.