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How WyoFile accelerated growth with community buy-in and grant funding

By Vignesh Ramachandran

July 20, 2023

Journalist Rone Tempest had worked for the Los Angeles Times for 26 years when he retired in 2007 and moved to Wyoming.

One day, Tempest and other recently retired journalists were sitting around a coffee table, enjoying wine and discussing the state of journalism and the news industry of the time. The conversation turned to the potential of digital news, inspiring the creation of WyoFile.

In 2008, recognizing the rapid decline in resources among traditional, local news outlets, a small group of veteran journalists and investors founded WyoFile. 

About WyoFile
Founded in 2008 and incorporated in 2009, WyoFile is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that serves Wyoming, a state home to about 579,000 people. WyoFile is clear about its purpose: “Wyoming deserves the facts and a sustainable means of maintaining everyone’s access to them. WyoFile exists to provide both.” WyoFile is filling a crucial information gap: Wyoming no longer has a daily print newspaper

It was 2008 when Tempest, along with internet entrepreneur Christopher Findlater, transformed that vision into cofounding WyoFile in Wyoming — the scenic Rocky Mountain state with vast open lands, beautiful vistas and no shortage of stories to uncover. Findlater provided the seed funding for WyoFile, which intended to join the local media landscape with a focus on investigative, accountability and deep-dive reporting.

Tempest, who served as editor from 2008 to 2011, kicked off the newsroom with a high-impact investigation that exposed how millions of public dollars were going toward a fraudulent enterprise that had been marketed as a solution to revive Wyoming’s economy. The series established WyoFile in the state, putting the organization on the map for audiences, and alerting public officials that there was a new watchdog in the region.

Initially, WyoFile relied heavily on angel investors and foundation funding. As the organization became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2009, the George B. Storer Foundation stepped in with WyoFile’s first grant, amounting to $100,000 — most of the organization’s annual operating budget for the time. 

There were no full-time staffers back then. Instead, the approach was to hire freelancers, some of whom would serve as part-time editors who helped establish editorial priorities with freelance reporters. In those early days, WyoFile sometimes faced periods of insolvency, forcing the organization to take a hiatus for a few months.

WyoFile’s individual giving revenue comes from a mix of small-dollar donors (39%), mid-range donors (19%) and major donors (41%).

Since then, WyoFile has established itself with solid footing as a nonprofit, pulling in funds to make it sustainable. Today, a staff of 13 pumps out hundreds of stories a year while the outlet brings in about half of its annual revenue from individual giving — with an impressive mix of major, mid-range and small-dollar donors. The organization was able to pursue new sustainable revenue streams through building out its development capacity and garnering more individual support. A $615,000 grant in 2020 gave WyoFile the latitude to make three key development and membership hires that have propelled WyoFile’s growth.

From angel investors to next-door neighbors  

Guy Padgett joined WyoFile in 2011 as its assistant editor, managing freelance reporters, editing copy, publishing stories on the website and managing the subscriber database. The four-person staff (an editor-in-chief, an assistant editor, a development director and a part-time staffer who worked on design, newsletter and web tasks) wore many hats as they managed a cadre of freelancers to fuel the news outlet’s reporting.

By the end of 2012, it was clear to Padgett they were leaving money on the table and needed to host fund drives to garner additional reader support. “It was an untapped revenue stream that as a nonprofit we couldn’t be ignoring,” Padgett explained. “From the very beginning, they went well.”

So around 2012 and 2013, WyoFile began holding about three fund drives a year. These early drives weren’t as sophisticated or bountiful as they are today, Padgett said, but “it was our experience from the very beginning that our readers were here to help support WyoFile [financially].”

“If people believe in your cause, it’s easy to ask people who will step up and give,” added Padgett, who transitioned to WyoFile’s operations director role in 2013.

But even as WyoFile was laying a firmer foundation, the money ebbed and flowed. When WyoFile chief executive and editor Matthew Copeland joined in 2017 (Copeland had a prior stint in 2016 as interim editor), he estimates WyoFile had only about six weeks of budget left in the bank. He was the fourth of a four-person team at the time.

“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. That was beating people over the head in 2017, without me opening my mouth.”

– Matthew Copeland, chief executive & editor

Investing in a new value proposition

Copeland’s leadership came at a fortuitous time for nonprofit news.

As media outlets across the country began to cover the Trump administration, Padgett said, there was new momentum for making the case for solid journalism. He began attending everything from speaking events to Rotary Club meetings to living rooms full of wealthy individuals in 2017.

Anecdotally, he heard from donors who said they appreciated finding truthful reporting, or commented that it was nice to see someone digging into important issues. By that time, Padgett added, readers were used to WyoFile’s fund drives and the requests for financial support.

“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,” Copeland said. “That was beating people over the head in 2017, without me opening my mouth.”

Contributions were coming in, but WyoFile’s method of fundraising was “not a sophisticated or professional program by any means,” Copeland said. “Our major giving program essentially looked like me begging, borrowing and stealing my way into any room full of rich people I could find, giving them the dog and pony show, and then going home and stalking the P.O. Box every day to hope checks came in.”

At that point, the organization’s four yearly membership drives involved emailing WyoFile’s entire contact list with a mass appeal for donations. There was no segmentation or targeted messaging. Copeland said they recognized they could do better if they had the right tools — including a better donor management system and transaction processes — and the people power to make it happen.

So when a grant opportunity from the American Journalism Project (AJP) emerged in 2019, WyoFile jumped in with a proposal to evolve its fundraising program to a more sophisticated approach. “We had a vision for what we wanted to do,” Copeland said. “We didn’t have the resources to implement it. AJP gave us the resources and the runway to be able to do that.”

In late 2019, AJP awarded WyoFile $615,000 to fund its strategy and elevate its revenue-generating infrastructure. “It was an enormous catalyst for us,” Copeland added. It allowed WyoFile to make two instrumental hires in the fall of 2020: Dan Kenah joined as development director and Sophie Komornicki as membership manager. 

“We had built a really good prospective campfire,” Copeland said. “We had a lot of fuel. We had a lot of potential. We needed a spark. So that [AJP] investment allowed us to take all these things that we believed had a lot of potential, and actually invest in them and see whether or not that was true.”

The hypothesis is holding up.

WyoFile leaned into membership: Over the next three years, WyoFile would build out its development capacity, upgrade its donation platform, improve its website infrastructure (via Newspack) and purchase paid promotion on social media platforms.  

In 2022, Kenah and Komornicki were tasked with increasing engagement with readers and winning individual giving support, with Kenah focused on major donors, and Komornicki focused on the small-dollar donor level. Komornicki’s role encompasses “growing the funnel” — bringing more readers into the fold, who can later be converted to subscribers of the newsroom’s weekly news digest, and potentially become donors.

“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.”

In the two years after Kenah and Komornicki joined the team, WyoFile grew the email newsletter from 8,100 subscribers to 14,252 (September 2020 to September 2022). The number of donors increased 65% from 2020 to 2021 and there was a 50% rise in small-dollar and major donor revenue from 2020 to 2021. 

In May 2023, WyoFile brought on a membership manager (Anna Goforth) to focus on building and engaging their member base.  Komornicki now serves in an expanded audience development role – focusing on growing the top of the funnel and attracting new audiences. Today, their newsletter list sits around the 16,500 mark. 

As the organization finishes up the third year of AJP funding, WyoFile is “already significantly revenue positive,” Copeland said. “Those positions and all the investments that we’ve made are already paying for themselves at a between two-to-one to three-to-one [ratio over the initial investment].”

Defining membership

To reach new audiences and encourage reader support, Komornicki has boosted the calls-to-action across the WyoFile website, run paid Facebook ads, harnessed Google Ads’ nonprofit grants and created a more robust onboarding for readers signing up for the newsletter.

The results of better donor appeals and consistent communication about member benefits have been a “tremendous success,” according to Padgett. All donors are now considered members, and the goal is for members to feel like they have a stake in WyoFile’s success.

Komornicki helped launch a monthly members-only newsletter where WyoFile supporters can get a sneak peek behind the stories. “They feel like they have a little bit more buy-in into the newsroom itself and the staff that makes this work possible,” she said.

Komornicki said News Revenue Hub recommended encouraging recurring contributions of $15 a month, based on its experience with other organizations. While donors can choose what amount they donate, the donate page suggests $10, $15, or $25 a month, with $15 as the default recurring donation.

Expanding WyoFile’s reach 

With the membership program defined and the default contribution set, WyoFile has also targeted extending its reach — finding new audiences who could be converted into loyal readers and eventually become small-dollar donors. WyoFile’s strategy is twofold: sharing coverage free of charge with partner newspapers and virtual events.

WyoFile shares its stories for free with upwards of 32 newspapers. There is no direct financial exchange — the partner newsrooms just have a one-day embargo on each other’s stories and must list the source. 

Although digital republication metrics are fuzzy, Padgett said the story-sharing is “very much in line with the founding principles of WyoFile, which is making good news accessible to the most number of people possible.” WyoFile points to their print republication metrics as a sign of impact: In 2022, WyoFile stories were republished 1,539 times in print by 39 Wyoming newspapers. These figures don’t include significant utilization by papers in Idaho and Montana and occasional republications in Utah and Colorado. 

The team says virtual events during the COVID-19 pandemic were successful because they have included far-flung parts of the state, rather than alienating them. They’ve also found resonance with topic-specific events, including energy and 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.

“The trend we’re seeing is just an explosion of individual member support,” Kenah said. “That has helped garner foundational support. So they’ve sort of grown together.”

Turning readers into donating members 

About two years ago the outlet adopted Newspack, a set of tech tools for its website that can help with audience building and revenue generation. 

Komornicki said the calls-to-action on the WyoFile site through Newspack services have been the largest driver of support. She is also weaving in more touchpoints (whether through newsletters, social media or the website) to engage readers of stories that go viral or generate interest outside of Wyoming — most prominently, stories about public lands access and wildlife management.

Kenah and Komornicki emphasized a pivotal lesson about generating support from readers: Just ask. “People are feeling the backslide of news nationally, and very acutely in Wyoming. So I think, 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,’” Kenah said.

“We’ve started to ask a lot more,” Komornicki said. “And kind of trying to figure out 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. And trying to be more mindful of when we plan certain events, and what the kind of overarching theme is going to be for those fund drives.”

Previously, Komornicki said, generic emails about fund drives would be sent to general audiences. Now, the organization is more strategic about using segmentation during fund drives, using tools from News Revenue Hub, as well as Mailchimp and Salesforce. WyoFile sends “soft asks” to people who are members to support during fund drives, and targets readers who are lapsed members with specific messaging.

In 2020, the organization found success positioning itself as an authority for updates on the pandemic, COVID-19 vaccines and PPP loans, with Wyoming-tailored information that was hard to find elsewhere in the state. More recently, Komornicki has experimented more with harnessing the success of viral stories. If a public lands access story hits a nerve with readers, Komornicki might position the messaging as: “It cost $X to produce this story. Can you help make others like this possible?” or “We’re hoping to raise $Y so Z reporter can travel back and forth to report on this story.” The idea is to reach readers right at the moment when they are most engaged and fired up about a topic.

Generally, WyoFile sends six to nine emails during a three-week fund drive, but is considering shortening fund drive sprints to two weeks and four or five emails.

Challenges and opportunities

WyoFile faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities when it comes to sustainable revenue. The state is largely rural, “a small town with long streets,” some say, where there is a sense of community across the state. But the dispersed population also leads to disparities in internet coverage across the vast landscape, as well as differences in socioeconomics; there are pockets of extreme wealth in Wyoming. Strategies that might work in more populated states — or more densely populated ones — might not necessarily work in Wyoming, the staff explained.

Looking ahead

Even as WyoFile has grown its newsroom, Kenah believes there are a lot of stories still going untold. For every one story they publish, he estimated, there might be five left on the table. “There are some dedicated coverage beats that really just demand dedicated personnel. So I can definitely see our newsroom continuing to grow as our revenue does,” Kenah explained. This can be a self-perpetuating cycle of expanding audiences who in turn expand reader contributions. “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.”

As for the outlet’s financial future, Copeland is optimistic. At the three-year mark, WyoFile is reaching its goals for the AJP investment — and in a great position to build revenue sustainability for years to come. “We had to build the plane and get it accelerating. At the end of the runway, you’ve got a bunch of trees … and having not reached the end of the runway, we’re well over the trees now.”

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