June 12, 2017; NiemanLab
In an era where “layoffs” and “cash-strapped” are the words most often associated with traditional newsrooms, the effort to find ways for journalism to turn a profit—or at least live to fight another day—has given rise to new business models. Many of the most successful of those, such as ProPublica, are led by nonprofit groups.
NPQ has covered the rise of such groups, most recently in May, when it explored journalistic partnerships with streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Video, as well as foundation efforts to bolster local journalism. Two weeks ago, NiemanLab reported on the promising growth of News Revenue Hub, a nonprofit organization that began last fall under the umbrella of the Voice of San Diego. This month, the Hub announced it would become a standalone organization.
News Revenue Hub’s basic business model is to provide news organizations with the expertise and technical support to successfully build a paying membership base, something many journalists focused on getting out the news don’t have the time or inclination for (to their eternal financial detriment). News Revenue Hub began last fall with five news organizations: Honolulu Civic Beat, InsideClimate News, The Lens, NJ Spotlight, and PolitiFact. Of the five pilot organizations, only PolitiFact is listed as for-profit.
According to its website, News Revenue Hub has raised $1 million in reader membership and donations for its participating news organizations.
“It’s been great from a couple of perspectives,” Beth Daley, director of strategic development at InsideClimate News, told NiemanLab. “The first, basically learning how to do this kind of fundraising, and then also, realizing there’s a definite benefit to asking often of people, more often than I think as organizations we previously felt comfortable doing, and that’s been gratifying.”
Daley added that another benefit was that foundations, which still provide most of InsideClimate’s support, like to see the diversification of funding coming from individual donors.
The reader membership programs’ annual and monthly giving levels for donors offer benefits that vary by the organization. For example, at InsideClimate, a $35–$249 annual donation comes with a subscription to its quarterly, The ICN Insider. At PolitiFact, an annual donation of $500 or more lets you listen in on their Chamber Calls where editors and reporters hash out where a fact-check will end up on the Truth-O-Meter. (It will also get you a “Pants on Fire” sticker.)
The success of these pilot programs has led the Hub to not only become a standalone organization but also to take on five new organizations: The Marshall Project, The Intercept, CalMatters, Youth Radio, and the Rivard Report.
“At first, I thought, gosh, I hope this wasn’t just this weird enigma. It’s starting to become more predictable, which is what I’m excited about,” News Revenue Hub’s CEO Mary Walter-Brown told NiemanLab. “We’re starting to see that membership can work for a PolitiFact, an InsideClimate News—organizations with national and global readers—that it can work for The Lens, NJ Spotlight, Civil Beat. And we’re now seeing the same thing for The Intercept—an international site focused on privacy and surveillance issues—when we weren’t sure how that was going to resonate with readers.”
Walter-Brown told NiemanLab that there is already a waiting list of news organizations looking to join—but not everyone is ready.
“We evaluate each client based on whether they have a base big enough and diverse enough to make it worth their while, whether they have the internal staff willing to dedicate the amount of time and energy to this that’s needed, whether they have the buy-in from the top, whether they support the principle of building a true relationship with your audience,” Walter-Brown said in an interview with NiemanLab. “It’s clear when you go through these conversations. There are some where I just say, ‘You’re not ready, but here are some tools you can use to build your audience, and let’s talk in six months.’ We don’t turn people away with a blanket ‘no.’”
The News Revenue Hub itself receives funding from the Voice of San Diego and the Democracy Fund, which describes itself as a bipartisan foundation founded by eBay founder (and now philanthropist) Pierre Omidyar.—Nancy Young