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A pivotal moment: 15 years of building the nonprofit news movement

June 11, 2024

By Karen Rundlet

INN’s CEO Karen Rundlet prepared these remarks to open the INN Days conference in San Diego on June 11, 2024.

I attended my first INN Days as a very new journalism funder back in 2016. It was shortly after I’d spent a decade at a major metro, living through layoffs and salary reductions, and becoming increasingly focused on digital possibilities that could drive new revenue for the newsroom. In 2016, the Institute for Nonprofit News held a meeting for members in a single room at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in New Orleans. There might have been 50… maybe 60 people in attendance. My team, at the time, was able to schedule one-on-one meetings with every newsroom leader. 

I distinctly remember meeting inewsource founder (and one of INN’s founding members), Lorie Hearn, at that INN Days. Lorie opened up pretty quickly, sharing a story of easily getting her first grant, figuring that was the way philanthropy worked, and then being surprised at how tough it was to get another “yes” to funding. Just this week, she reminded me that the inewsource team had to re-focus its fundraising efforts on major donors, which turned out to be a much more effective strategy for her newsroom, now in its 15th year. Years of trial and error. Years of pivoting and being open to different ways of running her business.

It’s important to call on the history of the nonprofit news movement to understand where we are today. Through collective trial and error, the field of nonprofit news and INN have evolved. In the 15 years since our organization, INN, was established, membership has grown from 27 news organizations to more than 450. Since INN’s NewsMatch campaign was launched, we’ve gone from providing training, tools and funding for 57 newsrooms to now 340. In addition, today, INN leads a collaborative 70+ member Rural News Network, provides leadership training and paid fellowships to all sizes of member news organizations, and produces the INN Index, a research tool used by academics, members, and funders to understand, build the case for, and invest in nonprofit news.

It’s not enough to have more newsrooms, we have to focus on the right strategies to build financially sound and editorially dynamic organizations that will deliver impactful reporting for our communities. So where are we headed next? I’ve been doing a lot of listening and three things stand out, for me, that we need to do.

Grow audiences: Nonprofit news leaders continue to reimagine how news can serve the public. In recent years, members have been building more inclusive and useful journalism and civic information products. Outlets like Outlier Media, Wisconsin Watch and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service all deliver critical information and accountability journalism via SMS texting. Chicago’s City Bureau is involving and engaging audiences in the work by paying residents to document public meetings. At INN, we’ll continue to focus on helping our members grow their audiences and reach everyday people on the platforms they prefer and in the ways they prefer.

Elevate independent journalism: Not everyone gets to be an INN member. INN’s membership committee, which is member-run, carefully reviews and assesses applicants for financial transparency, editorial independence, and commitment to original public service reporting. This protects the value of membership. In 2023, INN was only able to accept 48% of applicants. INN members produce fact-based, data-driven original reporting – and you know exactly who their funders are. Let’s continue to make sure the public knows that what our members produce is very different from pink slime journalism, press releases, or funder prescribed content. Again, not everyone gets to be an INN member.

Collaborate and, perhaps, consolidate: Historically competitive, today’s news media has become increasingly collaborative. INN members provide content to 7000 media partners, and when we’re at our best, our members generously share what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. That saves the next generation of startup leaders valuable time, resources, and energy. But as more news entrepreneurs enter the sector, we’re starting to see some organizations merge, or enter joint operating agreements or formal partnerships. Just this year, we’ve seen CalMatters acquire The MarkUp and Mother Jones and Reveal/CIR combine forces. Still others, like the 19th, are building out networks. We’re seeing consolidation and networks because newsrooms see it as a way to become more financially stable and editorially powerful.

Big picture? We need nonprofit newsrooms to fill the void as for-profit journalism organizations shrink or shut their doors. To report for the underrepresented, to report for everyday people and to be valued by them. But here, in this room, and day to day with all members of the INN Network, we also need to support each other. I do believe that, working together, we will continue building solutions for the field, the public and informed communities. And when our communities have the news they need, that’s when we’ll know this movement has been successful.

These remarks were originally published on INNsights.

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