June 17, 2018; Rivard Report
“What is the future of a free press in US cities like San Antonio?” asks Robert Rivard, founder and publisher of the Rivard Report, a 501c3 nonprofit San Antonio-based media organization. The answer, he says, lies in nonprofit journalism. “There are now more than 140 state and city nonprofit media sites in the US that belong to the Institute for Nonprofit News. No one claims these nonprofit news sites equal the historic reach of daily newspapers, but they are making a measurable difference and they are growing rather than declining.”
At NPQ, this is hardly the first time we have covered what we labeled at the beginning of this year the rising wave of nonprofit journalism. Indeed, it was only two months ago in April when editors and reporters of a number of papers, including the Denver Post and the Orange County Register, advocated openly for conversion of their papers from for-profit to nonprofit ownership. In May, in Montréal, Canada, family owners of La Presse, a large French-language local daily digital publication (with circulation estimated at 270,000 daily) indicated that they were donating the outlet to a nonprofit foundation that was being established.
But Rivard, who has deep roots in the traditional daily newspaper world, provides an interesting perspective. Rivard began his journalism career in 1976, serving as executive vice president and editor of the San Antonio Express-News from 1997 to 2011, before leaving to start the Rivard Report in 2012. According to the Rivard Report’s 2016 Form 990 filing, the media organization had a net surplus of nearly $100,000 on net revenues of $954,500. The operation remains highly dependent on philanthropy, though. In 2016, roughly 55 percent of its income was financed through donations, 23 percent from advertising revenues and 22 percent through membership income (effectively individual contributors).
Rivard’s article was prompted by the layoff of 14 more journalists at his old employer, the Express-News. By contrast, Rivard notes, “The Rivard Report has grown from a staff of five to our current size of 17 full-time employees and a number of paid freelance contributors, thanks to generous local philanthropists, foundations, advertisers, and our supporting members. We are relatively small but big enough to make a difference.”
Rivard notes that his move away from the Express-News was largely prompted by the fact that several years ago he “became convinced that for San Antonio and most cities of similar size, nonprofit online news was the best path forward.”
The growth of nonprofit journalism is a national trend that has been highlighted by the Columbia Journalism Review and others. But, not surprisingly, for his part, Rivard emphasizes the impact in his home state of Texas. Rivard notes that he “was a close observer of the Texas Tribune, launched by Austin venture capitalist John Thornton in 2009 as Texas newspapers drastically reduced their presence in the state capital. Under founding CEO Evan Smith’s fundraising success, the Tribune probably has more reporters and data specialists deployed now than all the daily newspapers combined at their height.” Additionally, Rivard points out that this year a new nonprofit new operation called the Borderzine launched in El Paso.
Rivard is clear, however, that forging “a sustaining membership base to securely underwrite our operations” remains a challenge. According to Rivard, the challenge is similar to the one faced by public radio. At Texas Public Radio, Rivard writes, about one-in-ten listeners are public radio members. As for the Rivard Report, “Less than one in 10 of our daily readers are members,” Rivard concedes. “We have to convince more people that the work we do is worthy not only of their time and attention but also their investment.”
Still, Rivard notes, “I would not trade that challenge for the one my former employer, the Express-News, and other regional US newspapers face as fewer people prove willing to pay the rising production and delivery cost of the print newspaper, while even fewer people pay for expressnews.com.”
Rivard observes that national papers—like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—can make the digital paywall model work for them. But, he contends, for publications like San Antonio’s Express-News, “that cost-benefit proposition adds up to a shaky business model. The reduced content simply does not justify the price.” In such an environment, the importance of nonprofit media in providing local content is very likely to grow.—Steve Dubb