October 30, 2017; Columbia Journalism Review
Stories about news organizations restructuring and even closing are unfortunately fairly common these days, which is why a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) about digital news source CALmatters stands out. Established three years ago to fill the growing gaps in California’s statehouse press corps, CALmatters has since broadened its statewide coverage beyond politics to seven key issue areas and is now working to raise $10 million in the next three years. What is striking about CALmatters’ early success is how focused the publication has been on conveying the timeliness and the value of its coverage—an important model for nonprofits in any field.
In its recent piece, CJR points out that 90 percent of the money that CALmatters raised in its first three years came from individuals, which is atypical, according to a 2015 study by the Knight Foundation. According to its own list of supporters, this includes a number of large gifts from individuals who the publication has worked to keep engaged. Referring to support from these individual donors, co-founder Simone Coxe told CJR that they “bought the idea, they like the execution, and I don’t have any indication they’re going to stop.” Significantly, the publication’s supporters page also notes that all donors must sign the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Donor Policy on Editorial Independence and a note on the masthead describes the publication as “a nonprofit nonpartisan media venture.”
CALmatters’ publisher and COO Marcia Parker oversees the publication’s business side, which includes new staff positions in the areas of development, membership, and revenue. Last month, she wrote a piece for Harvard’s Nieman Reports highlighting early challenges along with goals for the future. According to Parker, a central driving question for the publication is “How do we break down the barriers to effective storytelling about politics and policy so that Californians think differently about and want to consume news that really matters in their lives?” The publication has found some answers to this question in various new approaches to storytelling, including a “graphically pleasing” deck of conversation cards that explain “how bad the affordable home crisis is and how it got that way,” an approach borrowed from Vox. Lately, the publication has also found additional success with a new podcast that explores emerging issues in housing policy.
In a follow-up phone conversation last week, Parker emphasized that CALmatters is still in its start-up phase, adding, “I celebrate our success and still very much see us at the beginning of the process of finding a sustainable business model.” Like other nonprofit leaders, Parker has spent some time sharpening the case that the publication makes to supporters. She has come up with three separate appeals which include: the good citizen appeal (a strong democracy needs thriving news sources), the get-on-the-bandwagon appeal (nonprofit news is just as vital as other entities in the nonprofit sector), and the current issues appeal, which most recently highlighted a connection between the #MeToo movement and the publication’s own recent coverage. Whether or not you live in California, CALmatters is an interesting nonprofit model to keep an eye on as it evolves and moves toward sustainability.—Anne Eigeman