Pressing Issues

To Save Journalism, We Must Pay For It


Trump outrage has been good for independent media. But can they turn that into a sustainable new business model?



Several independent, progressive, and nonprofit news organizations have experienced a “Trump bump” in recent years, but he doesn’t get all the credit for a spike in media engagement. In reaction to Trump’s election, people have become more aware of the role that independent media must play in a democracy, and increasingly willing to pay for that service.

In the past year, millions of dollars have been donated to both progressive and investigative news organizations like Mother Jones and ProPublica, as well as national news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. In 2017 ProPublica opened up its first regional reporting office (in Illinois), launched a local reporting network that’s supporting the work of five journalists in mid-size markets throughout the country, and even partnered with a theater group to figure out new ways to tell stories. Both MoJo and ProPublica are nonprofits, which means they can function slightly differently than for-profit outlets. They can qualify for grants, and they also have to spend a certain amount of the grant money they get, usually doing things that show their donors that they are making good use of donations to reach more readers and have an impact. According to Jason Alcorn, a nonprofit news consultant and board member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, nonprofits also can’t get too partisan. “News nonprofits are allowed some amount of politically affiliated work but it’s pretty narrow and the option most people take is just to avoid it so they don’t cross a line and lose 501c3 status,” he says.

Celeste LeCompte, vice-president of business development for ProPublica says the organization is very cognizant of wanting to avoid partisanship in its coverage. “I think a lot of the work we’re doing to push into local and regional markets is a big piece of divorcing from partisanship,” she says. “Even when we have a story that I think will resonate with conservative readers, or with one of our more conservative content partners, they’re not into it; not because of anything obvious with the slant, but the framing—urban, national, and sometimes the reporter has asked questions or taken a perspective that’s just more familiar to people on the left.”

Alcorn says nonprofit news donors tend to fund reporting on issues they care about more than particular outlets they like. “The Arnold Foundation, in Texas, is a good example—most of their policy positions are conservative, but they’ve put some money into criminal justice journalism (The Marshall Project and a few other places). So on specific topics, you see some mainstream conservative philanthropy, which is not the same as political conservative philanthropy.”

And it goes the other way too. The Broad Foundation, for example, tends to take liberal political stances on most things, “but has charter school interests so ends up overlapping more with Republican positions on education,” Alcorn says.

He says based on everything he saw last year, the “Trump bump” is more than just a one-time bonus. “The Trump bump brought an increase in subscriptions as well as philanthropic support with both small and major donors to nonprofit news, and it is sustainable—it happened during the election but it also coincided with a time when all these news organizations were in the midst of seriously focusing on funding by readers,” he says. “So they were in a position to accept and activize the money in professional ways, which they weren’t set up for before. Money went to organizations that had a professional fund-raising arm in place. That’s not going away, so I’m not worried that a change in political climate will lead to lower donations. You’ll always see a bump when people are outraged; you know, the ACLU is having a banner year, but on the other side the NRA has banner years too. But the overall trend won’t turn down for nonprofit journalism.”

Finding the profit in progressive journalism

For-profit outlets are focusing on readers, too, creating multi-faceted membership programs that treat readers a bit how nonprofit news organizations treat foundations—it turns out whether you’re an organization or an individual, you want to know how your money is being used and that it’s having an impact. “At the heart of it is this social contract between the organization and its members,” explains Emily Goligoski, research director for The Membership Puzzle, a collaborative study between Dutch reader-funded newspaper De Correspondent and the New York University School of Journalism. If you’re not a giant media nerd, you may not have heard of De Correspondent, which launched in 2013 after raising $1.7 million from some 20,000 backers. The site now boasts more than 60,000 members and is, as its website puts it “fiercely ad-free,” so you can see why other media organizations might be interested in learning how they’ve managed that.

“We’re looking at ways to optimize journalism for trust, and build relationships with readers that go way beyond the transactional nature of ‘I give you $5 and you give me a magazine,'” Goligoski says.

Under the direction of famed NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, Goligoski and her team are working with a variety of sites ranging from small, hyperlocal sites like The Ferret, an investigative news site in Scotland, to The Guardian, Mother Jones, and De Correspondent, to pinpoint what does and doesn’t work for membership programs. The Ferret, for example, has experimented with getting readers to help with fact-checking, which was not only helpful for the site and enjoyable for readers, but also helped create new and educational content. “At Mother Jones, De Correspondent, and The Guardian, membership and reader funding seems to work well when they can say ‘here’s a reporting project we want to undertake with member support, we won’t be able to do it otherwise, so come join us. Be part of this cause.'” Goligoski says. “The other thing that we are hearing members be excited about is a lot of financial transparency. Down to the dollar or euro cent, here’s how we spent your money. It goes well beyond a normal nonprofit annual report, and if we’re talking about optimizing for trust that’s a great way to get there.”

Of course, reader engagement is anything but a quick fix to publishing’s money woes. We know from decades of public radio pledge drives that it can take, on average, five years for someone to go from their first listen to an actual donation and Goligoski expects similar returns for other forms of media. “We tell sites that they should expect audience funding to account for less than 10 percent of funding in the first year of offering chances to subscribe, donate, and/or become a member, if not longer,” she says.

Still, it’s a start, and at least sets publishers on the road to a more sustainable business model. In a lot of ways, what’s happening with media is similar to what’s happening with politics—the extreme right is largely focused on big donors and the issues they care about, while moderates and the left seem to be getting back to a grassroots approach, focusing on local issues and elections and engaging voters. Just as some politicians are getting back to the idea of public service and meeting one voter at a time, news organizations are remembering what they’re here for—to inform and serve readers, to, in many ways, perform a public service—and they’re figuring out how best to do that, one reader at a time.

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