By Michele McLellan, Jesse Holcomb and Emily Roseman
Sept. 28, 2021
Definition: Local news organizations are those that cover part or all of a community, municipality or county or a cluster of them, ranging from large metro areas to rural communities. This study includes 92 local outlets, which accounted for more than a third of the nonprofit news field in the United States and Canada in 2020.
TLDR: The local sector of nonprofit news is growing rapidly, with an average of nearly one launch per month for each of the past three years. The number of local organizations has nearly doubled since 2016, and the newcomers often operate on much smaller budgets than their predecessors.
Growth: Local news was once a small segment of nonprofit news. One in six outlets was local prior to 2008. Growth accelerated in 2018 as gaps in local news coverage widened. A total of 33 local outlets launched in 2018-2020, including 11 during the COVID crisis in 2020. Local nonprofit outlets now operate in 28 states and the District of Columbia.
Mission: Local outlets are often generalists in a field that tends to specialize. Local organizations are much more likely to cover a broad range of topics and to focus on current news and events.
Focus on communities of color: Local nonprofit news outlets are more likely to say coverage of a community or communities of color is a primary mission. One in four local organizations have that focus, compared to one in six across all INN members.
Total revenue: Most local nonprofit news outlets sit on the lower end of the revenue scale compared with the rest of the nonprofit news field. Two-thirds generate revenue of less than $500,000 a year. Median revenue was $257,500 in 2020. Local organizations account for 36% of nonprofit outlets, but collectively take in only 13% of nonprofit news revenue.
Revenue gains: More mature local organizations showed significant gains since INN launched the Index. Among 19 local organizations that provided revenue data for 2017 in the first survey and for 2020 in the latest survey, 11 reported increases and five more than doubled their revenue.
Revenue mix: Local nonprofit news organizations match the rest of the field in share of total revenue from foundations. They enjoy above average support from small donors and members but lag in major gifts. Individual giving as a share of total revenue declined from 40% of total revenue in 2019 to 29% last year. One major factor in this decrease is the influx of small startups that have not yet developed significant donor revenue. Meanwhile, the share of earned revenue has risen steadily among local outlets, from 10% of total revenue in2017 to 23% in 2020. The newcomer organizations raised the same share of revenue from earned sources as the established outlets, with about one third of the startups reporting revenue from advertising sales.
Revenue outlook: More local organizations are launching in small communities that may not have large foundations or wealthy donors to tap for revenue. At the same time, local organizations may be able to generate earned revenue from sources such as community-based advertising and sponsorships as well as developing small donations or memberships.
Employees of color make up 37% of local news organizations’ management, staff and significant contractors, somewhat higher than the 32% in the rest of the field.
Most local nonprofit outlets operate with a small staff. The median staff size (full-time equivalents for staff and significant contractors) is 4.5, with the number of paid personnel ranging from 0 to 31.
Local news outlets are well-positioned to build and engage local audiences directly through a variety of platforms. Since they are reaching nearly 90% of their audience directly, as opposed to syndication or partnerships with larger news outlets, efforts to grow web and newsletter audiences could be leveraged to grow earned revenue.