When nonprofit journalism sites first began to develop in greater numbers, many wondered if they could sustain themselves. Their business models were often beyond frail, staffed by passionate journalists with less in the area of technology or business and few institutional sources of philanthropic funding. Heavy demands were placed on these groups to become financially stable almost immediately even as even the biggest for-profit publications were struggling with their own mix of digital and print strategies.
But a few philanthropic players got in and stayed in—among them, the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur and Ford Foundations. Individual deep-pocketed donors also came forward for some sites out of a passion for investigative reporting or reporting on a particular set of issues. The field began to evolve into the haves and the have-nots in terms of reasonable capitalization. Still, both the relatively well-funded and the less well-heeled persisted, and after a decade and a half we are beginning to see a financial maturing of the field that should be instructive to other types of nonprofits both in terms of reach and revenue.
In two online articles released yesterday, Nieman Lab reports on the rapid development of a new economic model for nonprofit journalism. While Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and other streaming services are racing for content, production organizations are searching for large-scale distribution channels and new revenue opportunities. Is this a match made in heaven?
John Temple, Managing Editor at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Productions (IRP), said, “For the first time since the serious decline in journalism’s economic model, there is a commercial market for reliable nonfiction production. That’s the result of the Internet and streaming video and these companies are paying well and interested in high quality. Why not take advantage of that?”
IRP focuses on juvenile justice, climate change, and politics. Its distribution deal with Amazon is a first of this scale for Amazon, which said it “wanted ‘first look’ rights (meaning that it gets to see new ideas before any other company).” Amazon is interested in audio as well, as it searches for podcasts to distribute as series on its Audible audiobook platform.
The deal also allows IRP to work with outside groups “looking to turn reporting ideas into documentary production.”
“Amazon is interested in almost everything,” said [investigative journalist and IRP director Lowell] Bergman, who added that IRP is able to pitch elsewhere any projects that Amazon doesn’t think would be a good fit for its service. In this new world of video production and distribution “there are all kinds of places we can go,” Temple said.
Traditionally, public universities have outsourced their long-form video production to private companies with the necessary staffing, facilities, and equipment to “meet the requirements of typical video production, which demands speed and flexibility.” The problem with this is that the universities do not retain intellectual rights to the materials and miss out on potential revenue.
The new partnership with Amazon allows IRP to produce more new work, retain intellectual rights, and earn revenue. Bergman said, “These are very tumultuous times for journalism. The current administration has been talking about eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is a major funder of the kind of work we do. Any way that we can build a more diverse revenue stream can only make us healthier and more editorially independent.”
Another article describes a similar deal. ProPublica, an “independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest,” and Vox.com, an online news outlet that seeks to “explain the news,” just announced that they are hiring a joint video producer.
According to Nieman Lab, “Such partnerships between nonprofits and commercial news organizations are becoming more common. At their best, they benefit both sides: The commercial publishers get expert reporting in specific areas that they don’t have time to devote resources to in their own newsrooms, while the nonprofits get extended reach for their work (and, hopefully, money, too).”
There partnerships can be very rewarding. ProPublica has won numerous awards for its collaborative reporting, including three Pulitzers—in 2010 with the New York Times Magazine; in 2016 with The Marshall Project; and this year with the New York Daily News for their “joint investigation of nuisance abatement in New York City.” A collaboration between public media station KQED and the Food & Environment Reporting Network is among the 2016 Edward R. Murrow Award winners.
A report released yesterday by the American Press Institute agrees. “Collaborations with and between nonprofit newsrooms regularly produce exceptional works of journalism with national resonance and local consequence.”
The report is titled, “How news partnerships work: Commercial and nonprofit newsrooms can work together to benefit and change journalism,” and is part of a series of Strategy Studies. It offers “the three characteristics of successful newsroom partnerships.”
- Successful partnerships fill a need on both sides. Many commercial news outlets struggle to cover large projects, complex topics, and public meetings. Nonprofit news outlets, and nonprofits in general, specialize in these same areas. The first step toward a partnership is to ask about each partner’s needs: What stubborn, hard-to-solve organizational challenges do you each face?
- Successful partnerships have specific goals. Working on similar issues is not enough: “You need a specific, shared goal.”
- Successful partnerships enable great journalism. Not only do these collaborations “enable great journalism that wouldn’t otherwise get done,” they drive innovation. “Collaboration can lead to a cross-pollination of knowledge, ideas, and editorial approaches.” The partnerships give journalist the “freedom to step back from the 24-hour news cycle.”
The paper also notes that these arrangements are also business deals: “[S]uccessful partnerships often involve the commercial newsroom paying the nonprofit.” Jim Heaney, editor and executive director of Investigative Post, had more than one local TV station interested in an exclusive arrangement, which allowed him to negotiate a deal with WGRZ-TV in Buffalo. He said, “When I sat down, I made it very clear I won’t work for exposure.”
The study found that payments can range between $50,000 to $100,000 for long-term projects. The money may go to pay shared staff. “Partnerships for a single story or a short-term project involve less money, of course—comparable to what a commercial publication would pay an experienced freelancer.” The study found a range of “$100 to a few thousand dollars per story.”
If a partnership doesn’t include money, it may be a sign that the product offered by the nonprofit isn’t actually valuable to the partner. Some nonprofits do good journalism but don’t solve a problem faced by commercial news outlets. The commercial outlet will take the nonprofit’s stories if they’re free, but if there’s a price tag, they’ll just do without. In this case, it’s time to rethink whether the partnership is worthwhile.
For other nonprofits, however, the benefit of wide distribution outweighs the lost revenue. […] In Virginia, nonprofit Charlottesville Tomorrow and newspaper the Daily Progress co-publish a guide to local general elections every other year. The guide began as a project of Charlottesville Tomorrow. Today, as part of a partnership agreement, the newspaper designs, prints and delivers it to the post office—all at its own expense.
Charlottesville Tomorrow saves on production costs, but the guide also provides publicity and fulfills an important part of the organization’s mission. In return, the Daily Progress can run any of the nonprofit’s articles. Often, Charlottesville Tomorrow has the only coverage of city planning, transportation, and certain education issues.
The report goes on to provide in-depth information about how to find collaborators and key issues to address, such as roles and responsibilities, chain of command, cost, copyright, and marketing and branding. Finally, it provides recommendations for nurturing these types of partnerships.
While these partnerships are relatively new, they also reflect a larger trend towards platform thinking—leveraging an external system of collaborators to create value and build scale. Sangeet Paul Choudary, co-author of Platform Revolution, calls it “the future of work.” Nonprofits often collaborate with other organizations to achieve their mission. News outlets offer nonprofits another example of what an evolution of such thinking could look like, and perhaps encourage non-news-focused nonprofits to leverage their expertise in the larger landscape.
For more on this kind of thinking, readers can also go back to an interview with Douglas Rushkoff, entitled “The Sustainability Prerogative: Nonprofits in the Future of our Economy.”
On a concluding note, we are by no means urging foundations to get obsessed with this model—in fact, precisely otherwise. What’s useful here is that some of the funders in this instance actually provided enough capital and a long enough runway to allow the field to evolve. It’s what’s called “patient capital,” and we wish more funders practiced this way.—Cyndi Suarez