News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Sustainability

February 24, 2012

A few lessons for foundations as the Chicago News Coop hits the pause button

Chicago News Coop, a two-year old nonprofit news site, has announced it is suspending publication Sunday and reevaluating its future.

While some of the factors in play are complex and not particularly well explained by the CNC (read editor James O’Shea’s letter to readers), what we know so far about the suspension does appear to put into focus some key lessons for funders who are stepping up and into the news and information space:

Lesson One: Demand a significant focus on revenue development from day one.

Funders need to insist on a business development plan as a condition of funding and set aggressive benchmarks for progress in diversifying revenue. Make sure business development is in the budget and a development expert is retained.

One rule of thumb is that a news site should be spending equal amounts on content and on revenue development. Many journalist-led sites are skewed heavily toward spending on content.

But that is changing across the field. MinnPost and The Texas Tribune, for example, are among those that have invested heavily in revenue development and are showing results.

In his letter, O’Shea said the “CNC never raised the resources to make investments in the business side of our operation that would have generated the revenue we needed to achieve our original goal - a self-sustaining news operation within 5 years.”

That’s a choice. With over $1 million investment from the MacArthur Foundation alone, certainly CNC had the option of investing more in revenue development and less in content.

Lesson Two: Experiment with revenue diversification.

News startups do need a runway of at least several years to stabilize and foundation support is critical in the early going.

But they must also expect to create multiple revenue streams that enable a reduction of foundation funding.

Donors large and small are one source. Sites that are successful in engaging their communities in ways that include and go beyond traditional journalism may have an edge in raising donations. That seems to be the case for the St. Louis Beacon.

Don’t overlook earned revenue. New Jersey Spotlight, also about two years old, focuses public affairs reporting in state government. It is raising nearly a third of its $600,000 annual budget from earned sources - mostly by staging conferences about important topics it covers—according to Hans Dekker, CEO of the Community Foundation of New Jersey. Unlike the News Coop, this site is not a nonprofit. It is an LLC owned by the foundation, and Dekker says that helps underscore the importance of it acting like a business.

That foundation, with matching funds from the Knight Community Information Challenge, provided seed funding. And the New Jersey foundation has insisted from the outset that the staff focus on revenue.

Dekker is quick to note that the Spotlight isn’t yet financially stable or sustainable. But its progress suggests one blueprint for other public affairs journalism sites.

Getting Local,” a recent report from the Knight Foundation (I co-authored it), underscores the need for sites to wean themselves from foundation funding.

“Most sites relied heavily on foundations or large donors or both to get started, but have since experimented, with varying degrees of success, with multiple revenue streams, including membership, advertising, events and sponsorships.”

In addition to its foundation funding, the CNC was deriving revenue from a content partnership with The New York Times. On Monday and again on Thursday, I asked O’Shea how much revenue derived from that and other sources but I did not receive a response.

It is safe to say the content partnership is a small amount - The Texas Tribune and The Bay Citizen have similar agreements and they reported less than one percent of total revenue from the Times in 2010.

Lesson 3: Understand that failed experiments have value and require documentation.

The McArthur Foundation stepped up in a big way to support CNC and I commend that.

We all knew a lot less about what would work just a few years ago, when McArthur and other foundations decided to place big bets on experiments in public service journalism.

Even when individual projects don’t succeed, we learn more about what won’t work and what might. That’s an important contribution to the field. Making detailed documentation a grant requirement may be in order.

MacArthur has been a significant funder of journalism and it may well have imposed some of the requirements I suggest here in funding the CNC.

Despite CNC’s problems, Elspeth Revere, Vice President, Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives at MacArthur says the foundation “is committed to continuing our 30-year history of support for non-profit journalism because informing the American public matters as much now as it ever has.”

Another factor for the CNC was questions about its status as a 501c3 nonprofit institution. The IRS has been scrutinizing applications for nonprofit status for some news start ups.

O’Shea cited this factor in his letter to readers but did not explain it.

“The decision to suspend operations was motivated by some complex factors and unresolved questions regarding our tax status and a change in circumstances that triggered questions about the economic wisdom of commitments between the CNC and the New York Times. Frankly, the situation is too complex to discuss in any detail in a note like this,” he said.

Be that as it may, the tax status problem and any issue with the content partnership may simply have precipitated the inevitable.

A two-year-old site that is still highly dependent on a single funder probably isn’t destined to grow legs and march into sustainability.

It’s important to remember that the start up sector has a high failure rate - the demise or downsizing of a site does not mean the broader field is failing. The timing could be poor. It might be the wrong market, it might be a failure of execution rather than of an idea. It helps the field comes when failure is turned into learning.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

March 14, 2012

Public interest news start ups: Few answers but the right questions are coming into focus

In experimentation with online public service journalism, there are few set answers about how news providers can be sustained. But a new report from the Investigative News Network goes a long way in detailing what we have learned and in defining the questions that start ups - and funders - need to ask as they shape and launch their ventures.

Audience Development and Distribution Strategies,” is a rich source of information about engagement, distribution and revenue tactics of INN member sites. (Read the section titled “What will you find? on pages 9-10 of the pdf for a summary.)

The report describes a highly challenging environment: “Our movement has become a viable force in the production of independent reporting focused on the important stories that commercial media cannot. In fact, INN members are 100% focused on consistently producing this important and expensive content. That said, these are tough economic times and the models to support journalism - in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors - are in flux.”

Against the backdrop of flux, hundreds of news innovators are trying to figure out how to marry a mission of public service news and information with a business model. I encourage anyone who is operating, thinking of operating or considering funding a news start up to read this report. For a more general understanding of the landscape, I highlight these points:

- While foundations have contributed heavily to launching many of these experiments, continued foundation funding is far from likely, at least not in the amounts that will be needed to assure a robust public watchdog function. I think we may see increasing definition and understanding of what types of news operations the market will support - small, local, advertising based news sites, for example - and what types will need continued foundation support - probably the high-end investigative sites whose work generally is highly consistent with the work of foundations in driving civic improvement. image

- From the outset, it is critical to assess different revenue streams and funding models. The report describes four types of sites (Start-Up Shop, Topic Specialist, $ Million Plus, and Community Driven) and how they might tap into funding streams including distribution deals, donations, membership programs, education programs and advertising or underwriting. See pages 29-32 of the pdf. The graphic shows   how the “Community-Driven News” model starts, like most others, with heavy foundation support and then grows revenue from memberships and donations with smaller streams from underwriting and distribution deals. (I am very skeptical about the potential for significant revenue streams from membership for most sites, even in five years.)

- Data and topic expertise may pose revenue opportunities for news organizations. As well, organizations may be able to do a better job of packaging their content for wider distribution. “The next phase of report once, publish everywhere is optimizing your content for the right distribution channel. Whether that means localizing a national story to a region or creating a video presentation of a 3,000-word investigative piece, journalists need to become more willing to take charge of the packaging and bundling of their content for different channels.”

- People who are planning a site need to look beyond producing journalism, starting with an assessment of the marketplace. “You shouldn’t start one of these if you are just a journalist looking for a job,” one interviewee told the report’s authors. Steps include identifying stakeholders, defining audience and developing a value proposition. “In consulting with journalists looking to build new news organizations, we often try to pull back the lens, coax out the distractions of important stories and product features, and instead focus on the broader mission of the journalism they do and its desired impact,” the report states.

This report makes a significant contribution to understanding in a highly dynamic and confusing field. At the same time, it underscores a key challenge: There are numerous, highly diffuse models and missions being tested each with different implications for revenue strategy and tactics. My own list of promising news sites (currently off-line for a site rebuild) started two years ago with four admittedly broad categories of independent online start ups (New Traditional, Community, Micro and Niche) and I’m adding at least three more, including Investigative, as the field grows and becomes more diverse.

The report also offers sobering context about the fragility of any new ventures, including the emerging news organizations:

The explosion of nonprofit news sites bodes well for innovation in the industry. But it’s unlikely that all of these organizations will find a path to sustainability. For some perspective, approximately 75% of nonprofits registered in the United States fail in the first year. Although many reasons are cited, some of the most common include: * Lack of planning * Over-expansion * Poor management * Insufficient capital * Poor diversification of funding These factors are similar to new small businesses, 50% of which fail in the first five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Association.
This blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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