INN Index 2021 shows broad and sustained growth across nonprofit news
June 15, 2021
Today the Institute for Nonprofit News publishes its latest Index report, capturing the state of nonprofit news in 2021.
During a year of crises and intensified demands for high-quality news, nonprofits rose to the challenge. Community-centered media rapidly read the public’s needs and ramped up coverage to provide information and connections that people couldn’t find anywhere else. Journalists tackled their own field’s racism as they covered a national racial reckoning. And in a polarizing election year, they provided nonpartisan voting guides and fact-based coverage.
Through it all, more and more people turned to nonprofit news providers. Audiences swelled. So did community support for this journalism. More individuals donated to newsrooms, and they donated more. Foundations also pumped funding to the field to help with emergency coverage.
This tumultuous year generated the fastest growth in nonprofit news media since the financial crisis of 2008, when many journalists left legacy media to create nonprofit newsrooms, with the aim of saving accountability and investigative reporting considered essential to democracy.
The remarkable thing about the field’s growth in 2020 is that it spans almost every measure. INN has been studying the field since 2009, and with Index and NewsMatch data trends now going back to 2018, we also are able to see that the breadth of growth in 2020 is part of a pattern – a steady, broad sustained growth, based on a healthy mix of revenue sources coupled with experimentation and entrepreneurship to build more.
The breadth of growth in 2020 accelerates the establishment of this new kind of media across the U.S.
Here’s what INN’s Index data tells us about the state of the field:
News nonprofits produce in-depth, specialized coverage. One third of the field focuses on investigative reporting, and close to 40% primarily provide deep explanatory coverage. Specialized reporting has migrated to nonprofits, many of which have become the “beat reporters” for other media. Most nonprofit newsrooms focus on one or a few related topics. This in-depth coverage is generally not paywalled, but provided as a public good.
Audiences grew and the journalism served more people. Web traffic to nonprofit news sites grew by 43%, newsletter lists by 36%. Direct audiences remain small and targeted compared with broad commercial media, but nonprofits also collaborate to provide coverage to millions through partners: More than 3,800 third-party outlets regularly published or aired the work of nonprofit news organizations in 2020, according to publisher estimates.
Revenue grew for most outlets. Individual giving and foundation funding increases drove overall revenue growth. Nearly two-thirds of sites with comparable data saw individual giving grow, and 60% saw grant funding gains. These increases weren’t minor. More than half of organizations with individual donation growth saw it increase by more than 50%.
Diverse revenue builds a stable base. More than 70% of INN member news organizations have three or more revenue streams. Only 10% are reliant on a single revenue stream, typically grants. Earned revenue was the only source that dipped in 2020.
Staffing held steady, and even expanded by some measures. Among established, primarily digital publications, total staffing was estimated at 2,700, including nearly 2,000 journalists. This represents a 17% increase in total staffing from the year before. Current staffing figures are higher, as 2020 totals do not include recent startups nor hundreds of staffers at two dozen public media INN members.
Staff diversity appears to be growing. In 2020, over a third of outlets had a staff where people of color made up 40% or more of total personnel, representative of the U.S. population. Across the field people of color were in 31% percent of management positions and 24% of top executive leadership roles, pointing toward needs to focus on retention, promotion and leadership recruitment.
The startup pace is accelerating again. A third of the nonprofit news outlets publishing today did not exist five years ago. Since 2008, nonprofit outlets have launched at an average pace of a dozen or more a year; more than 20 launched in 2020. INN’s membership grew 27% from 2019 to 2020.