December 8, 2017; Columbia Journalism Review
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, in 2009, Anne Galloway, founder and editor of the nonprofit VTDigger, kicked off her news site with 80- to 90-hour weeks of independent reporting without pay. Seven years later, under Galloway’s direction, VTDigger has a staff of 19, an annual budget of $1.5 million, and plans to get to the $2 million benchmark in the next four years. For David Westphal, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, these numbers make VTDigger eligible for the designation as “the largest investigative reporting nonprofit in the country that is focusing on local or state news.” The fact that this growth occurred relatively rapidly in a small state when the whole field of journalism is in a period of change highlights Galloway’s innovative thinking in responding to the needs of her audience.
Reflecting on VTDigger’s expansion, Galloway told Nieman Lab that a key factor has been the publication’s regular publishing cycle. “Part of the reason people like us is because we’re a daily.” She added, “We publish eight to 12 stories a day focused on major public policy issues and community reporting, and we interact with the public a lot.”
As VTDigger has broadened news coverage it has also gained recognition for investigative pieces on fraud at Vermont ski areas and local problems with toxic waste. The news source has also found success with podcasts and Nieman Lab reports that a reader poll revealed that 25 percent of VTDigger readers get their news from podcasts. Building on this new area of interest, VTDigger has recently partnered with nonprofit Writers for Recovery with a Writers for Recovery Podcast.
Like some other nonprofit news sources, VTDigger started out with funding that came mostly from foundations, but as with its broadening news coverage, it has folded in other funding sources over time. According to Nieman Lab, in 2018, 45 percent of VTDigger’s budget will be from donations from readers, 40 percent from underwriting, and five percent from sales of content to other news organizations. (The remaining 10 percent will come from foundations, down from 75 percent in its early days.)
During a time when daily newspapers are losing revenue, slashing jobs and having to justify their existence like never before, VTDigger’s track record seems all the more remarkable. In a letter to readers posted on the site, Galloway writes, “I am grateful to the Vermonters who have fueled VTDigger with large and small contributions, all of which we greatly appreciate.”
She continues, “We wouldn’t exist without the readers and underwriters who have supported our work.” Reinforcing this point and in an effort to keep readers engaged, the site includes brief paragraphs on every page from committed readers who explain “Why I Support Digger.” Galloway also notes that a new $1 million growth fund to expand the newsroom and to develop a sustainable business model has been established with support from two Vermont philanthropists.
With daily newspapers shrinking, Nieman Lab points out that VTDigger has strategically positioned itself to incorporate job listings and obituaries—staples of daily newspapers—on the site. Sharing her thinking on these additions, Galloway told Nieman Lab “funeral homes, flower shops, medical centers, and (other) nonprofits could potentially underwrite the obituary section,” and she noted that other underwriters have also been asking about job listings.
Looking ahead, Vermont, like other states, is in the midst of a budget shortfall and VTDigger’s robust comment section on a related story about education funding highlights the fact that it has become a trusted news source even in a time of change.—Anne Eigeman