The Colorado Independent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
April 25, 2019; Bloomberg

The findings from a recent Pew Research Center survey suggest that 71 percent of US adults think local news media sources are doing well financially. That might come as a surprise, since these publications have actually been working around the clock to reinvent themselves. With advertising revenue shrinking and many areas of the country losing news coverage as a result, many journalists and business leaders are increasingly looking to nonprofit models for answers.

Bloomberg acknowledged the trend, declaring, “Local News in America Is Dying. Charity Might Save It.”  Gerry Smith reports the launch of The City, a new independent, nonprofit news site “dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.” Smith makes the important point that the nearly $10 million The City has already raised is almost double the amount that the Texas Tribune, which NPQ has also covered, had on hand when it started 10 years ago.

Even with this strong start, John Wotowicz, a former banker and the site’s current publisher, told Bloomberg that looking ahead, “Fundraising will continue to be a terrifically important part of our business.” Like the Texas Tribune, also a nonprofit and a leader in the field, The City has established clever names for membership levels and giving circles. It is significant too that Craig Newmark is a lead funder via Craig Newmark Philanthropies; he has been one of those who invested early in the national effort to strengthen journalism.

Even with major philanthropic commitments from Newmark, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and many others, the uncertainty of this new era for journalism can be daunting. Texas Tribune chief executive officer Evan Smith told Bloomberg, “It’s like Indiana Jones outrunning the boulder.” He added, “You have to focus on the business 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or you’ll get flattened.”

The City website has the look of a traditional newspaper but makes it clear that the staff is going about its work in a new way. “At a time when the media has been upended by technological, economic and political shifts, we want to reconnect people back to local news—and reconnect local news to getting action,” the site declares, with a note that stories are available free to readers. The paper aims to fill a gap left by the closure of outlets like the Village Voice.

The City also shares a list of four best practices from the most successful news sites, a list that has relevance for nonprofits even beyond the news industry:

  1. “They recruit high-quality and diverse talent”;
  2. “They’ve implemented state-of-the-art technology for delivery and engagement”;
  3. “They operate with efficient cost structures”;
  4. “They draw from multiple not-for-profit revenue streams, including institutional and individual philanthropy, corporate sponsorship, events, and membership—and constantly seek to diversify and grow their funding.”

In another, related story about the growth of local news sites, a recent issue of Denver publication 5280 surveys the local news scene and wonders if Denver is witnessing a digital news revolution. The city’s only remaining daily paper, The Denver Post, has experienced upheaval in the last few years, which has resulted in local journalists opening a range of new local ventures As an example, The Sun, which NPQ has covered, is a journalist-owned publication that aims, simply, “not to turn a profit,” but instead to “produce the best possible journalism.” The Colorado Independent, a nonprofit also led by a former Post writer, has joined the field, as has Denverite, which was recently acquired by a local public radio station, another growing national trend.

Because Denverite was originally founded as a for-profit media site, the switch to nonprofit status is requiring some adjustment. Founding editor and former Post staffer Dave Burdick told 5280, “Nonprofit is a better fit for us because people understand that it means we’re a civic-oriented organization.” Reflecting on the next step, he added, “What we have to do as journalists is take down every conceivable barrier to regain the public trust.” It is a tall order to aim to rebuild trust while simultaneously building new audiences and revenue streams, but it’s more reason why “revolution” might be an apt descriptor.—Anne Eigeman