Take these steps to plan, launch and operate a nonprofit news organization
The journey from editor or reporter to founder of a nonprofit news operation is an exciting one filled with many unknowns and lots of opportunity.
At INN we field numerous questions from individuals who want to embark on this journey: How do I assess the need for my brand of journalism? How do I find funding for my concept? How do I decide between fiscal sponsorship vs. filing for 501(c)(3) status?
We certainly provide answers to the questions, but we realize answering questions or directing people to the INN website and other industry resources doesn’t necessarily provide a comprehensive view of what is entailed in getting a sustainable independent newsroom off the ground.
The Startup Guide is our attempt to curate the information and tools we think are essential to launch an independent newsroom and leading a successful enterprise well beyond startup.
The areas of focus include business planning, audience development, revenue generation and nonprofit management. All to support those who want to start a sustainable nonprofit news organization.
This Startup Guide is intended to help those planning to launch news websites walk through planning and operational issues they will encounter. It is designed as a primer, roughly in order of things that nonprofit news site founders need to think about. INN’s website provides many related resources organized by topic. Only those resources of special interest to startups are linked from this guide.
How-tos have been edited/curated by INN. Links and sample documents are contributed by the INN member community and partners and may not have been edited by INN. Use your own judgment in assessing any of this material.
The Startup Guide is organized in chapters and throughout each chapter are links to resources that expand on the topic to deepen the reader’s understanding. Although each chapter stands alone, the Guide follows the path from ideation to launch and beyond.
We hope you find the Guide useful and welcome suggestions for additional tools and resources to help those on the journey. You’ll find a suggestion link on each page.
If you see something you believe is incorrect or misdirects people, please email INN’s research director Emily Roseman. We take down really outdated content, but do leave up evergreen material that may include some outdated reference point but is still useful. Our latest perspective on trends in the nonprofit news sector is updated periodically on our INN Index page.
Chapter 1: Where to Start introduces readers to the business model canvas and the vocabulary of running a nonprofit news business used throughout the rest of the guide. It explains the qualities of entrepreneurship and the demands upon an entrepreneur. It explains the need for market research and having a truly user-centered business.
Chapter 2: Nonprofit News Mission addresses what needs to be in a mission statement, with examples, and how to develop a brand. It explains what an impact model is and how to measure output, outcomes, and ultimately impact. It explains how and why to do a competitive analysis.
Chapter 3: Audience Strategy and Development covers market assessment and what it takes to fulfill a nonprofit’s mission. It discusses strategies for building both a direct audience and distributed audiences, which are reached through syndication and redistribution of content. It offers resources on building an email list and creating newsletters to develop an audience willing to support the organization.
Chapter 4: Revenue Models for Nonprofit News introduces the most common revenue streams for nonprofit news, with examples. It offers templates for forecasting revenue based on the kind of revenue a news organization chooses to pursue.
Chapter 5: Fundraising and Partnerships explains how and why journalists need to be asking for money in an ethical and transparent way, the benefit of up-front fundraising, and the role and limits of grants. It introduces the basic tools and tracking used in fundraising.
Chapter 6: The Business Plan covers the basics of forecasting revenue and costs, management and board structure, building a budget, and how to align costs with projected revenue to make sure cash flow will cover expenses.
Chapter 7: Making the Go/No-Go Decision presents a cost-benefit analysis of starting a nonprofit news organization, and helps readers decide whether they are prepared to do so.
Chapter 8: The Board Is Your Strategic Partner explains how governance is a pillar of success and the community connector for a nonprofit operation. It provides advice on building a strong board of directors.
Chapter 9: Setting up Operations offers practical information about incorporating, charity registration and taxes, the fiscal sponsorship option, financial controls, insurance, legal support, and human resources and employment issues.
Chapter 10: Trust and Ethics briefly recaps the crucial role nonprofits play in restoring public trust in news media.
The Startup Guide was an INN team project led by Sue Cross, Fran Scarlett, Jules Shapiro and Miranda Krapf. The guide was edited primarily by Howard Goldberg, with assistance from Beverly Young and Heidi Carreon.
Work on the Startup Guide began in 2016 under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and has continued with support from funders including the Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.
Before starting into the how-to guide, you may want to read this June 2021 article from Columbia Journalism Review. Richard J. Tofel, stepping down as president of INN member ProPublica, tells What I Learned from the Nonprofit News Revolution. He focuses on practical issues such as, “How much money do you need to start?” and “Who donates to nonprofit journalism?” INN offers more resources on the same questions in the Startup Guide and in case studies on our website.