Journalism,” Fredrik Walløe

August 16, 2020; Aspen Daily News

An article in the Aspen Daily News observes that the region’s nonprofit news sites are doing better overall than those that are for-profit; it does a nice review of why that is the case, focusing on the enterprise model.

Enterprise or business models are increasingly varied among news sites, as increasing number of nonprofits set up shop. Today’s sites are increasingly likely to be part of a “supply chain,” perhaps engaging in co-reporting relationships or focused primarily on doing in-depth investigations while depending on others to disseminate content. Additionally, nonprofit news sites often have a different ownership relationship with their listeners, including donor bases that provide community and cushion.

What they generally do not have are shareholders who believe their profits take precedence over local news. This should not imply that establishing a nonprofit news site is a breeze, but it is far less a “survival of the fittest” these days than “survival of the fitting.”

After discussing the current problems being experienced by for-profit news sites that are 90-percent dependent on ad income, this article, written by Erica Robbie, the Arts & Culture Editor at the Aspen Daily News, points out that even those nonprofits who do rely on advertising have other sources to keep them afloat when advertising dollars disappear, as they tend to do in recessions.

The Sopris Sun, for instance, is 80-percent reliant on advertising but gets that last 20 percent from donations. Still, it has had to make adjustments, reducing its number of pages from 20 to 16. It was essentially born cautious after a predecessor folded during the Great Recession. Sun editor Will Grandbois explains, “We’re not flourishing, but we’re hanging in there, which is a success under the circumstances.”

“Our whole model is built to endure lean times and continue to bring [Carbondale, Colorado] the news it needs,” he said.

Aspen Journalism is a site focusing on investigations, specifically into environmental and water issues. It does not have an earned income base, nor any costs associated with printing or distribution, allowing it to function on a $333,000 budget in 2020.

Executive director Brent Gardner-Smith likes the simple economic model. “If the community would like to be more informed, it can provide more funding to our organization,” Gardner-Smith says. “And we will use that funding to pay more journalists who write more stories, who will then inform the citizens.”

Aspen Public Radio, of course, has a more traditional model, one which also depends on the same direct demand stream as Aspen Journalism. While it relies upon the triad of memberships, underwriting, and grants, most of its revenue comes from memberships. (It also has outside support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) It has had a harder road to travel, cutting staff after running through a Paycheck Protection Program loan and heavily prioritizing news over other content.

KDNK Community Radio received a PPP loan and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting too, but it is less dependent on memberships. “That diversity of incomes really helps us,” says KDNK board member Chris Hassig, who believes that public radio really showed its strengths during the pandemic stay-at-home period.

“It was kind of the moment where KDNK showed why we exist,” Hassig said, “and why we believe in our mission of connecting people.”

I’ve written before that as nonprofits, the designs of our enterprise or business plans ought to differ from for-profits in essential ways, as they desire and produce different outcomes. Nowhere is this more ripe to be proven than local news.—Ruth McCambridge