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Looking back, looking forward: two INN CEOs discuss the nonprofit news movement

January 8, 2024

By Sharene Azimi

Last week, I felt like I had two bosses: Sue Cross, the outgoing CEO of INN, who hired me at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and has overseen a rapid growth in the nonprofit news field since then, and Karen Rundlet, the incoming CEO, whom I have known as one of INN’s greatest advocates through her role as senior director for the journalism program at Knight Foundation.

I asked each of them to reflect on how far the nonprofit news movement has come and where it’s headed. Excerpts from their responses are below.

Q: You’ve been at your respective positions for about the same amount of time, 8 years. Karen, how has philanthropy changed, from your perspective, in this period? Is it mostly about new funders coming into news, or is the change broader?

Rundlet: Well, there’s certainly been an increase in the number of news organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, approaching foundations for philanthropy over the last eight years. Additionally, more funders are considering journalism for philanthropic investment. So there is more journalism funding and there are more journalism outlets competing for those dollars.

NewsMatch, for instance, was launched in 2016 because audiences were sending unsolicited donations to news organizations. Individual donors were concerned about misinformation; they believed good journalism and accurate reporting were part of the solution. Knight wanted to accelerate that trend, so NewsMatch started as an experiment with just 57 nonprofit news outlets. Today, NewsMatch provides funds, training and resources for 350+ newsrooms across the INN Network.

Karen Rundlet, INN’s new executive director and CEO, speaks on a panel at INN Days 2023. She officially stepped into her new roe on Jan. 8, 2024.

In 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, foundations saw how critical news outlets were in moving accurate information to residents and neighbors. Foundations made the connection between accurate information, healthy communities and a healthy democracy.

Another change is that philanthropy, as a sector, has seen an increase in funder collaboratives. Press Forward is the one journalists are probably most familiar with, but there are other funder collaboratives. I can think of one working to eradicate poverty, for instance. These are campaigns to solve society’s largest problems.

Funders generally (in and outside of journalism) are having more conversations about what “capacity building” means, too. What are the best practices? How involved should foundations be in guiding or prescribing to grantees?

I think it’s important to note that journalism is still relatively new to philanthropy, and foundations are still trying to determine if and how they should invest. Historically, individuals give to religious organizations, schools and hospitals. Journalism really has to demonstrate how the work is connected to solving problems in the world.

Q: Sue, what is the top difference you see in how nonprofit newsrooms operate today compared with when you started at INN? How has the business itself changed?

Cross: I see two profound and positive shifts in the news landscape: National philanthropists a decade ago were funding most of nonprofit news production and hoping their funds could seed a more sustainable revenue mix. They succeeded: through NewsMatch and similar initiatives, what we think of as traditional philanthropy or institutional support has now inspired millions of people and thousands of community groups and businesses to embrace their news media as something they actively want to support. They support nonprofit newsrooms as part of living in a healthy community, as part of following the issues and causes they care about.

In the somewhat wonky language of “sustainability,” here’s what that means: Nonprofit news outlets today have healthy, diverse and varied revenue streams, especially in the local communities where nonprofits have replaced commercial media or are supplementing and supporting local newspapers and broadcasters. Some 70% of INN member newsrooms have three or more revenue streams, and about 40% have at least four regular revenue sources. That’s incredibly promising!

Secondly, we’re realizing that small equals strong. Commercial media chased scale — required it for the ad model. The consolidation that brought about has been devastating to both journalism and our civic life. And there’s been a hangover in redevelopment of media, as many capitalists tried to create chains of new media or digital entities at a national scale, both for- and nonprofit. Some work, some don’t, but in the meantime, thousands of independent media are succeeding at a small scale that works very well — news organizations that fit the size of their communities. They are sound, stable and successful with four to six people, the equivalent of a savvy weekly publication, a trusted newsletter. Their journalism and community engagement are top quality. And innovation just flows out of these small news organizations. They need injections of capital to launch and grow, and we’re learning that investment in small news organizations and their organic growth can often generate great returns.

Sue Cross listens in the crowd at INN Days 2023 in Washington, D.C. She served as executive director and CEO of INN from 2015 until January 2024.

Q: Sue and Karen, what do you each see as the most exciting trend or trends in the remaking of the media industry? To what extent is the nonprofit news sector shifting the norms for traditional outlets?

Rundlet: I remain inspired by the work of City Bureau and Documenters. Digital technology and social media platforms made everyone a publisher but they did not make everyone a journalist. Documenters trains and empowers residents to use civic and journalistic skills to make their communities stronger. More broadly, the nonprofit news sector has led the journalism field (both for profit and nonprofit) to make a stronger case for the work and how it leads to better cities, towns, neighborhoods, communities. I see more for- profit news organizations using similar language about mission these days.

Finally, our national and international reporting members are not only producing excellent investigative journalism but they are sharing the story of what it takes to deliver that work with their audiences. There is an entire generation of people who do not distinguish journalism from media.

Cross: Nonprofit newsrooms are leading the reinvention of journalism in so many ways. It’s way more than a business model. Nonprofits build community support to launch and grow, and that changes the relationship between press and public in a really healthy way — it has rerooted news in community needs. That doesn’t mean it’s soft — quite the opposite. Communities are asking their nonprofit news media to question power, and the level of investigative reporting rooted in community input is impressive and encouraging.

The idea that nonprofits exist to produce a “public good” is much more than a term of art or the language of our tax code. It is re-orienting news from a profit-making business to a public service, and that’s really promising. Also, a new culture of collaboration blossomed within nonprofit journalism. The foundation of INN and the Global Investigative Journalism Network in the early 2000s signaled what we now recognize was a profound shift from purely competitive models to collaborative news coverage. That culture is now spreading through all types of media. New business models are germinating in these “co-opetition” models that mix cooperation and competition in new ways.

Q: Karen, what aspect of this job of leading INN do you think will be the most challenging?

Rundlet: Two points here. INN members are at different stages in their journeys and they serve a wide range of audiences. So a 150-person national news outlet that’s been around for more than a decade is going to have very different needs from a two-person startup that launched 3 months ago. When you have a large membership, you will have a diversity of needs and wants. I know INN members will step up to lead the communities within the larger membership. It’s an organization with many tables now. What started as just 27 news leaders has grown to more than 425 news outlets. The governance is more complex.

Secondly, I’m very concerned about news avoidance. I hear it in my daily life from non-journalists regularly. We know there is a significant population of the audience that finds news to be negative from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report. In their latest survey, 38 percent of U.S. respondents say they sometimes or often avoid news. That’s a customer problem, a product problem. Can you imagine if you were running a sandwich shop and you found out 38% of diners were cutting back on sandwiches because they thought they were negative? You’d adjust your menu, if you wanted to keep serving good food.

Q: Sue, if there is one piece of advice you could give Karen, what would it be? How might she approach this opportunity at this moment?

Cross: Go big and move fast. Not everything will work and that’s OK — experimentation is a feature, not a flaw. What the world needs now is rapid innovation in journalism. Nonprofit models allow for that, nurture innovation in every aspect of news, from local to global coverage. I’m thrilled that someone with Karen’s breadth of understanding and involvement in news is leading this movement!

As a catalyst, INN should avoid taking a prescriptive or proscriptive model to tell member news organizations or even startups what to do and how. That takes a lot of money, and we don’t see it yet working as well as supporting what a news leader and a community want to do. If we can facilitate their success, provide a support structure for their vision, help boost individual newsrooms and the rising leaders with new ideas — INN will continue to make a huge difference.

What is the measure of INN’s success? Growth of the field. Not every member will succeed, but if we watch three things, we’ll know if we’re on track: overall revenue and the diversity and range of revenue support for nonprofit news overall; the impact and quality of news produced; equity both within the field and in civic access to credible information.

Together, these three tell us if we’re moving in the right direction, fast enough.

I’ll end by saying that democracy depends on the success of this movement. I’ve no doubt this transformation in news will continue to be challenging, but I also see this movement driving great positive change. It’s working. Opposition to a free press will grow as authoritarians seek more power and to control the free flow of information. But the speed and momentum behind the growth of the INN Network and similar experiments around the globe cannot be stopped. We are accelerating global change for good. And that is as big an opportunity as it sounds.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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