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INN Index 2022: Enduring in crisis, surging in local communities

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Audience Growth

Our Index trend set shows that as nonprofit news outlets grow in size and number, nonprofit journalism serves more people. 

A central piece of nonprofit news’ audience and distribution models is encouraging third-party publishers, including digital platforms, broadcasters, newspapers and other news sites, to co-publish, republish or air coverage and stories coming out of the nonprofit news network. This networked content sharing has developed because nonprofit news outlets prioritize journalism impact – making sure their news reaches more people through many channels – over audience totals and click-based ad revenue on their own sites. 

Across the nonprofit sector, more than 7,100 outlets regularly published or aired INN member work in 2021, reflecting growth from the 3,800 publishing or distribution partners counted in the previous year’s survey. The added distribution came mostly from 20 larger outlets that reported a significantly higher number of content publication partners in 2021 compared with 2020. Together, this mix of 20 large state, regional, national and global organizations account for a net of more than 2,700 additional third-party publishers year over year.

Nonprofit news leaders and INN’s knowledge of the field point to a few factors driving third-party distribution growth. Several members launched new products on different platforms in 2021, including podcasts and radio shows, opening up possibilities for new broadcast-based distribution partners. Other outlets participated in editorial collaborations with shared content distribution baked into the process. Other less substantive factors included outlets shifting definitions of which partners qualify as a co-publisher or republisher from 2020 to 2021, including one larger outlet that told the Index team it started counting subsidiaries of the parent media company in its 2021 republishing count. Additional reporting is needed to fully understand changing third-party distribution tactics across the nonprofit news field. 

The Daily Yonder, an outlet focused on covering rural issues across the country, doubled the number of news outlets publishing or broadcasting its coverage from 2020 to 2021. A new radio show and the routine use of a republication tool on its website in 2021 largely drove this year-over-year distribution gain. The Daily Yonder launched a radio program in August 2021 that’s now broadcast by an average of 250 stations per week. Digitally, Daily Yonder continues to use a republication tool developed by INN and managed by NewsPack – a widget that has brought Daily Yonder stories to an additional 480,000 readers each month, a multiplier effect from the outlet’s previous on-site reach.

The field also is seeing long-term growth in direct audiences – or the people who find, use and engage with news on a newsroom’s own platforms, including its website and email newsletters. Building direct audiences is one of the most challenging aspects of media startups, as they must establish a brand and a new consumer habit, and audience development is becoming more challenging for all media as consumer attention is split among many channels. Direct audiences are largely interpreted in this report as a news organization’s web traffic (measured by average monthly uniques) and the total numbers of email newsletter subscribers. 

Nearly two-thirds of the Index trend set increased web traffic from 2018 to 2021 measured by average monthly uniques, with median growth in web audiences of 33% during this timeframe (about 11,500 new users). A big majority of outlets in this cohort – more than 75% – also reported gains in newsletter list size, with a median increase of 54% and adding about 2,700 new subscribers over four years.

From 2018 to 2021, 7 in 10 outlets increased the share of their audience they reach directly, rather than through a third party. More than 80% of local outlets reported shifts toward direct distribution during this timeframe, with half of those doubling the share of audiences they reached directly.  

Many publishers expected audience drop-offs to occur coming out of a crisis year that included a turbulent presidential election, racial justice movement and urgent public health information needs. Direct audience sizes did slightly decline from 2020 through 2021 for all types of nonprofit news outlets. As information demands started to subside and return to pre-pandemic levels, web traffic and email subscribers ticked slightly down, the former returning to 2019 benchmarks. The nonprofit sector’s audience patterns largely resemble broader research by  Axios and the Gallup/Knight Foundation demonstrating news consumption habits and attention to national and local news declining or flatlining since late 2020 and early 2021. 

Average newsletter subscribers20,24924,33114,569
Average monthly unique visitors540,860633,269565,929
Across the network, web is the primary direct distribution platform for 73% of outlets, followed by email (10%). 

Audience size benchmarks and tactics split across the different types of nonprofit outlets (local, state and regional, national and global) will be available in INN’s Index Factsheets, coming early fall 2022.

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