Here at NPQ we have widely covered the rise of nonprofit journalism. If nonprofit ownership were to become the norm in local journalism—and, to be clear, it’s still a long way from that—it would not be the first time a field has been so transformed.
Radio news illustrates this possibility. As NPQ noted back in 2018, “Once, the idea that a nonprofit would dominate radio news was preposterous—until it happened.” Today, it is hard to remember that National Public Radio (NPR) at first had little influence. As Drew Lindsay in the Washingtonian once wrote, citing reporter Nina Totenberg, when NPR called sources in the mid-1970s, “nobody had any idea who you were.”
Last month, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), the trade association of nonprofit journalism organizations (of which NPQ is a member), took an important step in encouraging conversion of for-profit publications to nonprofits by publishing an online “how-to” titled Quick Guide to Converting a For-profit to Nonprofit News Outlet. Coauthored by Kate Butler, a business writer and news manager, and Fraser Nelson, a former vice president at the Salt Lake Tribune, the guide contains an introduction and eleven online chapters, with each section including hyperlinks to key resources.
Additionally, the guide includes three case studies on publications that have successfully converted. These publications are the San Antonio Report of San Antonio, Texas; the Piedmont Journalism Foundation in Virginia, which now operates the Fauquier Times, the free Prince William Times, and associated digital media; and Growing Community Media, publisher of four metro Chicago-area weeklies.
It is unlikely the guide would have come about but for the successful conversion of the Salt Lake Tribune to nonprofit status in 2019. At the time, as Christine Schmidt wrote for Nieman News, “Many observers were intrigued but skeptical that the 148-year-old newspaper could pull it off.” Indeed, Schmidt was among those skeptics, even if NPQ itself was more optimistic. The rapid decline of local newspapers, we believed, would make the civic value of nonprofit journalism more compelling to tax examiners.
Expected or not, the precedent-setting nature of the Salt Lake Tribune conversion is not in doubt: at least a half-dozen smaller publications followed in its footsteps in 2020. Not all conversions succeed, however. For instance, a high-profile attempt of a Maryland philanthropist to buy the Baltimore Sun and convert it to a nonprofit this year failed, with the paper instead being purchased by Alden Global Capital.
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In the “key considerations” section (Chapter 2), the guide warns media owners hoping for an easy exit that “it is important to have positive reasons to pursue nonprofit status, beyond a hoped-for exit strategy from a failing business.” In its sections on getting started (Chapter 3), building the board (Chapter 4), and surveying the community (Chapter 5), the guide emphasizes the need to build local support before approaching the IRS.
In Chapter 10, the guide also emphasizes that one key dividing line between for-profit publications and nonprofit media such as the Salt Lake Tribune is that the latter does not make candidate endorsements, a very specific concession that the paper made to get IRS approval for its conversion in 2019.
Perhaps the most important section is Chapter 6, which basically covers the steps nonprofit media must take to distinguish themselves from for-profit media. Some key points made include the following:
- “Many nonprofits focus on coverage that would not be commercially viable, such as investigative and deep, explanatory news that costs more to produce than you’d make from advertising, subscription or even membership revenue. The type of news you cover can be a distinguishing factor for a nonprofit.”
- “Consider the civic impact of sharing your content with other media, engaging the public through events, getting their input on coverage via public forums, or producing a voter guide. We all know such activities have impact, but you must articulate it forcefully. For a nonprofit, that’s a critical skill!”
- “Don’t underestimate the community value of an unbiased local news organization, not only to news consumers, but to local businesses, community organizations, other nonprofits, and civic institutions that need to engage with their community.”
Increasingly, nonprofit publications are succeeding. In the INN’s annual State of the Nonprofit News report published this past June, the topline numbers are impressive—a 43 percent gain in web audience and a 41 percent rise in revenues (driven by increased donations). Still, the median nonprofit journalism outlet remains small—with about 50,000 monthly online visitors and a median staff of fewer than 10 people.
In the concluding chapter, the authors recall that INN itself began in 2009, founded by 27 investigative journalists who were disheartened by declining commercial media. What exists at present, the authors point out, are “green shoots” of what they label a “fledgling nonprofit news ecosystem.” A long road remains ahead, but perhaps the guide will help make that road a little shorter.