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Eight practices lead to revenue sustainability for these statewide nonprofit news outlets

July 13, 2023

Last month INN reported in the INN Index Snapshot that state and regional outlets are behind much of the nonprofit news sector’s revenue gains, growing their median revenue by 36% in a one-year timeframe (from 2021 to 2022).

A major driver has been foundations increasingly funding journalism at the state level, allowing nonprofit news outlets with a state or regional focus to to translate this philanthropic investment into long-term revenue sustainability.

How are these outlets doing it? A set of four case studies, the first released today, show how statewide outlets who’ve chartered a path to revenue sustainability share a few common practices and themes. By building deep connections with their community and audiences, meeting critical information needs, using the right audience platforms (including events and email newsletters), and investing in revenue staff and technology, these four outlets built successful individual giving and earned revenue streams that fuel the growth of the entire organization.

Below, we summarize the eight most common themes and practices identified across this set of outlets.

Jump to the first case study on Bridge Michigan here. Cases featuring Honolulu Civil Beat, Mississippi Free Press and WyoFile will be published in the coming weeks.

State and regional nonprofit news outlets report close to half of their total revenue coming from foundations, with one-third from individual giving (small-dollar to major donors) and about one-sixth from earned sources.
State and regional nonprofit news outlets report close to half of their total revenue coming from foundations, with one-third from individual giving (small-dollar to major donors) and about one-sixth from earned revenue (advertising, underwriting and sponsorships).

State and regional nonprofit news outlets began to fill significant gaps in news and information about politics and government policy in the wake of severe cutbacks by legacy news media more than a decade ago. Since then, state and regional nonprofit news outlets have grown steadily in number for more than a decade. Taken together, state and regional outlets in the INN network now provide coverage for at least 49 states and are spread evenly across five major regions of the United States (with significantly fewer in the South).

1. Establish a two-way investment between you and your readers

Honolulu Civil Beat took a risk when it hypothesized that moving from a paywalled site to reader-supported news would build revenue and grow its audience. The team created a database of donors to start building relationships with them. “In those early days, we would call every single donor, and thank them over the phone on a weekly basis,” said Mariko Chang, now Civil Beat’s director of philanthropy.

Chang said that the membership base is “the strongest currency,” Honolulu Civil Beat has.

“That was the community that we cultivated that has stayed with us, and it shows in the retention. Those are the people that are going to tell their friends to read us, share stories within their classes, at the dinner table,” Change said.“That’s where the trust and the name recognition is. And what’s so important in Hawaii is word of mouth.”

The hypothesis was proven true: In 2016, Civil Beat had about 1,000 subscribers paying $5 a month, bringing in $60,000 in annual revenue from subscriptions. By 2022, the organization generated $732,000 in small donations from over 7,300 individuals, as well as an additional $176,000 from mid-level and major donors.

Connecting with audiences was also the focus for Bridge Michigan a deliberate shift to build out the membership program

Engagement was the “secret sauce,” according to Amber DeLind, Bridge Michigan’s membership and engagement director. The deeper connections went both ways, expanding the organization’s concept about who the audience was and making readers feel more valued. “We had that muscle memory, that institutional knowledge, of how to make people know that you care about them…and that membership is really just the ultimate expression of engagement with your organization.”

The engagement translated into tangible results: in 2019, the first year of its membership program, Bridge Michigan brought in 3,173 members, an increase of 28% over the 2,475 individuals that donated in 2018.

Mississippi Free Press has also demonstrated its long-term investment in the community through literal financial investment by acquiring another news organization, a trusted local outlet that was hard-hit by changes to the for-profit news model. Mississippi Free Press bought the Jackson Free Press’ journalism assets, archives and office, immediately leading to new donations, a combined email list that quadrupled the organization’s reach and a wider social media following.

The move was also a way to leverage and retain readers who have been supporting local journalism for decades. This ties into the core of fundraising, as cofounder, publisher and chief revenue officer Kimberly Griffin said, “Find your community — find people — that share a common vision and believe in what you’re doing.”

2. Build community and membership with events

Bridge Michigan has evolved its event strategy over time. With early events, the organization hosted town hall-style meetings to listen to the concerns of citizens and bring awareness to policy issues. But they weren’t a blockbuster success.

When the outlet decided to prioritize engagement, it changed tactics. In 2018, Bridge got a dog (Coney Dog, named after a Michigan culinary favorite) and a van and took the “Truth Tour” on the road. The tour made 100 stops around the state, connecting with thousands of readers about local policy issues. They focused on listening to the concerns of citizens in communities all over the state.

The organization now sees free events as playing a part in a bigger strategy — a pipeline to membership. Bridge’s bimonthly book club featuring Michigan authors has brought in new readers and converted readers to paying members.

During the pandemic, WyoFile found that its virtual events were not only COVID-friendly but also connected readers across the vast Wyoming landscape. The team says these events have been successful because they have included far-flung parts of the state, rather than alienating them. They’ve also found resonance with topic-specific events, like on energy or the environment. “We’re finding that the more Wyoming-specific topics and themes for these events, the more turnout and more interest we have,” Komornicki said.

3. Make a strong case for the value of nonprofit news in your community

Instead of enticing donors with swag or tote bags, Civil Beat reaches out with a different value proposition: that supporting news is good for the community, good for democracy and fits with readers’ charitable giving practices. “A lot of our messaging [ now is], ‘Support Civil Beat by making a tax deductible donation’ as opposed to ‘Become a member to receive X goods or access to these events,’” said Ben Nishimoto, Civil Beat’s vice president of operations and philanthropy. “To me, it was a stronger distinction between the transactional relationship of subscriptions and the more trust and value-based relationship generated from donors.”

As media outlets across the country began to cover the Trump administration, WyoFile found there was new momentum for trustworthy journalism. Operations director Guy Padgett heard anecdotes from donors who appreciated that the outlet was digging into important issues. Matthew Copeland, chief executive and editor, said it was easy to make the case, “Our basic value proposition is that you simply can’t have healthy democracy, robust civic participation … without verifiable access to factual information about what is going on.”

WyoFile’s development team also found success in a simple mantra: Just ask. “People are feeling the backslide of news nationally, and very acutely in Wyoming,” said Dan Kenah, WyoFile’s development director. “When they see the quality of the work coming out of our newsroom, the message that we got from our first member survey was, ‘Would you support independent news?’ And they say, ‘yeah, just ask.’”

4. Rethink your philanthropy network

Instead of only relying on traditional donors to nonprofit organizations, the Mississippi Free Press is prioritizing building a more diverse donor base. Readers are sold on journalism from a newsroom that reflects Mississippi — “Because if you don’t look like who you report on, then what are you doing?” Griffin said.

Cofounder, editor and CEO Donna Ladd said a core goal is unlocking a new philanthropy network. “We are out there looking for [people] who don’t traditionally give to media,” Ladd said. The idea is to broaden the donor base.

The Mississippi Free Press targets readers no matter their net worth, according to Griffin. “They are contributing the way they can. Some people have $50,000. Some people have $5. Some people can’t do anything right now, but they’re going to keep reading. So everybody’s got a job here. My job is to find out, are you at capacity.”

The donor base has also been diverse from a geographical standpoint. “Mississippians both in-state, expat, people across the nation, Mississippi-adjacent, non-Mississippi folks really invested in us,” Griffin said.

Part of the process is inspiring belief in the future of Mississippi. “It takes work because we have to overturn those stones and find the people and connect with them — and help them believe as we do that good change is possible,” Ladd said.

Bridge Michigan found early success as a nonprofit with foundation funding, and experienced stability with that philanthropy model. But publisher John Bebow had experienced the financial rollercoaster of commercial news dating back to the 1990s, and he worried about what might happen if foundation support dried up.

By 2017, Bebow had kicked off a multi-year process of culture change and strategy to augment the revenue mix. Bridge Michigan’s success engaging individual donors demonstrates that investing in community engagement can unlock new support for news organizations, shifting their dependency away from traditional philanthropy.

“The future is really about audience,” Bebow said. “It’s about finding that intersection between in-depth journalism and a much bigger group of people that we think want to read it.”

5. Step up to meet your community’s information needs — and keep that trust

Filling urgent information gaps as COVID-19 swept the country helped each of these nonprofit newsrooms build trust and readership in 2020. Well after that, these news organizations are still maintaining the audience and relationships they grew during that time.

Mississippi Free Press accelerated its timeline to launch months earlier than expected as a response to the pandemic in early 2020. The team mobilized immediately, put up a temporary website and began publishing stories about how different parts of the state were dealing with a patchwork of safety regulations.

People started paying attention — both across the state and country — and responded with financial support. The early launch became the foundation for a solid news organization. “We had to just hit the ground running,” said Griffin. “The pandemic was pivotal for us because it allowed [us] to show up front that we’re going to give you accurate, responsible information— we’re out the gate with urgent information that will keep people alive.”

Bridge Michigan increased its reporting in 2020 as well, answering hundreds of reader questions and reporting on critical COVID-19 issues. A 2020 explosion in reader traffic was one of the main drivers for increased membership. Growth strategy director Bill Emkow believes that, as new readers came back for multiple sessions, they saw the value in what Bridge Michigan was offering and wanted to contribute.

With fewer and fewer news outlets serving the state, WyoFile also became an authority for news on the pandemic, COVID-19 vaccines and PPP loans. To communicate the value of supporting nonprofit news, Komornicki said, it’s important to ask “what motivates folks to give — whether it’s general messaging around our mission, or being more specific about one certain element that we’re trying to fund with their help.”

During 2020, the team found success with messaging about misinformation, and reminding people why they came to WyoFile in the first place “urgently seeking out very specific, Wyoming-focused information they may not be able to get elsewhere,” Komornicki said.

When the pandemic hit, Civil Beat saw its website traffic more than double, as readers sought out information about COVID-19 and how it was impacting Hawaii. The organization also almost doubled its newsletter subscribers, going from 27,000 in 2019 to 45,000 in 2020.

In 2021, the team braced itself for a steep decline in the number of donors and their average gifts, but this didn’t happen. “We were able to convert enough of those casual readers into core readers, so that our donations continued to increase in 2021,” Nishimoto said.

6. Invest in technology and learn how to use it strategically

Both Civil Beat and Michigan Bridge became clients of News Revenue Hub, which provides technology and strategy advice for launching membership programs. For Civil Beat, that coaching helped the team invest in a donor database, optimize the information they were looking to monitor and develop an email strategy, which would turn into a key driver of readers’ support.

WyoFile adopted Newspack, a set of tech tools for its website to help with audience building and revenue generation. Komornicki has used Newspack to create tailored calls-to-action on the WyoFile site. “Folks who aren’t subscribed and aren’t members see a subscribe-ask, and then subscribers will see a donate-ask,” she added. These targeted fundraising asks have been the biggest drivers of support to WyoFile.

7. Optimize the power of email with more sophistication

WyoFile became more strategic on reader segmentation during fund drives when they utilized News Revenue Hub’s tools, along with Mailchimp and Salesforce. Previously, WyoFile would just send out generic emails about fund drives to its audiences. With the new tools in place, WyoFile has been able to soft-ask people who are members to support during fund drives, as well as target readers who are lapsed members with separate messaging.

Civil Beat has devoted more staff resources — including hiring a newsletter editor — to its daily email newsletter, the Morning Beat. “We look at the Morning Beat as our primary news product for core readers,” Nishimoto said. “My thinking was that we could create a really strong news product that cultivates habitual readers who, over time, are more likely to become donors.”

When someone signs up for the Morning Beat, they receive an educational “drip” campaign: a number of emails with a goal of converting them into a supporter. From 2016 to 2021, newsletter subscribers rose from around 4,000 to 45,000.

8. Invest in staff focused on revenue

Chang and Nishimoto have been key hires for Civil Beat. Chang’s background in fundraising for Hawaii-based arts and culture organizations complemented Nishimoto’s experience leading a public television station strategy, where he cultivated individual, foundation and organizational donors in Hawaii. “The idea that you can donate to nonprofit news sometimes catches people by surprise,” Chang said. She and Nishimoto bring a passion for linking people with causes they care about and creating new ways for people to connect with journalism.

Michigan Bridge made significant staff investments in hiring a growth strategy director and membership director, in addition to training the team and learning from news organizations across the country. “Good talent, good training, good news environment, good luck,” said Bebow. “There’s been exponential growth because we assembled a team that is audience and market focused and that’s what they do all day.”

WyoFile has also made strategic hires. The organization hired Kenah as development director and Komornicki as membership manager in 2020, and is planning to add another member to the development team. “They’ve been able to vastly improve our membership program,” Padgett said. “Our fund drives are much more sophisticated now, in terms of what we target, who we target and when we target them.”

Hiring in the newsroom is also important to WyoFile’s financial future: telling more stories means expanding audiences who, in turn, expand reader contributions. As Kenah said, “Adding new folks to our newsroom is going to vastly expand our coverage areas and hopefully just bring in people who have a wider array of interests.”

Mississippi Free Press is focused on retaining its staff and paying them a living wage; membership represents a steady revenue stream to fulfill that commitment. “My goal is for our membership program to always be able to pay somebody’s salary,” Griffin said. “It mostly is — if it’s not paying the full salary, it’s paying close to somebody’s salary.” Sustaining and growing the team of committed journalists is part of Griffin’s message to readers about the value of membership. In a recent post, she wrote, “We’ve had no staff turnover since we launched in March 2020. That’s big in the very competitive nonprofit landscape and a nation where organizations experience continual turnover.”

This blog post was initially published on INNsights, INN’s Medium publication.

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