Nonprofit newsrooms are keeping their heads above water
By Lauren Harris
Nonprofit news organizations, in their dependence on foundation funding and individual giving, have proven less vulnerable to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic than their for-profit counterparts. The Institute for Nonprofit News indicated in their recent index report that, so far, audiences for many nonprofit news publications are growing and and over half of those surveyed reported that revenues are holding relatively steady amid a crisis.
Most nonprofit news organizations saw increased readership in March and April, INN reported, a trend observed across much of the journalism industry. After the early months of the coronavirus crisis, readership began to decline, according to the report, but audience engagement still remains higher than it was before the pandemic. “Many have been hosting online community groups and video meetups, becoming vital community connectors as well as news reporters,” INN executive director Sue Cross added. Christine Schmidt of the Local News Lab tweeted recently that “heading into a summer of COVID-19 coverage and continued calls for police reform + dismantling of systemic racism, and eyeing the elections of the fall, nonprofit newsrooms are poised to connect with their communities.”
Increased reader engagement, over a period of years, has allowed nonprofits to diversify their revenue streams by gaining reader support and using it as a metric for increased donor investment. Though foundation funding still makes up the largest percentage of nonprofit newsroom revenue across the sector, the INN reported 2020 as the first year foundation funding made up less than half of the total revenues at a majority of nonprofit news organizations. In January, the Tow Center reported on foundation funding for CJR, examining the pressures inherent in depending on foundations to finance newsrooms. Researchers Jacob Nelson and Patrick Ferrucci found—in a study based on forty interviews with journalists at nonprofit newsrooms—that foundation funding was less likely to influence editorial decisions about coverage than it was to influence a newsroom’s methods by prioritizing investment in technology, audience engagement, and non-traditional reporting initiatives. Nelson and Ferrucci did warn that newsrooms typically have more to lose than funders do. “If a foundation funds an initiative that fails, then that foundation can learn from the experience and move on to another innovative approach to journalism,” they wrote. “The same cannot necessarily be said for the journalists who receive the funding.”
Nonprofit newsrooms remain somewhat vulnerable in a pandemic, as events revenues decline at newsrooms that have been unable to smoothly transition to online engagement, foundation funders experience economic instability, and limited reserve funds begin to run dry. “It is too soon to assess the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the nonprofit news field,” INN researchers Jesse Holcomb and Michele McLellan wrote. “As of June 2020, the ground is still shifting.” Still, nonprofit models hold promise for a sustainable and ethical approach to offering readers the information they need in a crisis and beyond.
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The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets, and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you'll join us.
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Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the country:
- METRO MEDIA LAB: Last week, the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism announced the launch of a Metro Media Lab—intended to support local news coverage in Chicago—after receiving a million dollar grant from the McCormick Foundation. This announcement comes at a troubling time for local news and also a troubling time for journalism schools, as they grapple with preparing students for an industry in which jobs and opportunities are fewer and fewer.
- INTERROGATING PAY CUTS AT THE TOP: After the recent layoffs at Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media, Bring Me the News reported a consequent public scrutiny into executive salaries at the company. After examining the organizations’ most recent 990s, Bring Me the News indicated that 20 individuals listed on the document made more than $200,000 in the fiscal year, the highest total compensation belonging to APM CEO Jon McTaggart, who earned $710,214 plus $43,776 in the financial year ending in June of 2019. Though APM has implemented executive pay cuts in response to the pandemic, APM associate producer Alex Baumhardt tweeted in a thread that “A 25% or 35% pay cut doesn’t seem like much when compensation has grown by such a large figure in just the last few years.”
- NEW POSITIONS AT THE POST: The Washington Post announced the creation of twelve new positions, each intended to improve coverage of race, across a variety of beats. “With this expansion, we will be more inclusive in our journalism, providing broader and deeper reporting that today’s social reckoning demands,” Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor said. The Washingtonian reported that the creation of these positions coincides with the implementation of a number of broad reforms at the Post, including changes to Human Resources and employee review systems. The Post guild tweeted on Friday that “These ideas came from many of our members who have been pushing for these substantial changes for years — both in public and in private.” (And yesterday, the LA Times guild’s Black caucus published an open letter calling for changes in hiring practices, pay disparities, and hiring pipelines for Black employees, among other demands. “The Times will not survive without winning over subscribers who are not white, and the only way to do that is to have a diverse and inclusive workforce,” they wrote).
- IF THE NEWS IS FREE, WHY PAY FOR IT: On Friday, PressGazette reported the results of a YouGov poll in which three-quarters of British respondents—who reported reading the news at least once a month—indicated that they do not subscribe to a single news publication. Among survey respondents, the availability of free news was the foremost reason for avoiding subscription, and more than half of survey respondents indicated that they considered paywalls to be either “fairly” or “very” unacceptable.
- UNIONS ENCOUNTER A GLOBAL PANDEMIC: Last Thursday, Pitchfork staffers halted posting on their digital site and social media platforms for a period of four hours, in protest of parent company Conde Nast’s layoff of editor Stacey Anderson, an editorial union leader. Since last year’s unionization, the Daily Beast reported, “the publication has been in contract negotiations with Condé bosses, which have intensified as the publisher has implemented layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts across the company following the spread of the coronavirus and a subsequent economic downturn.” CEO Roger Lynch reportedly told staffers in an email, per the Beast, that “the headwinds that the media industry is experiencing right now, combined with COVID-19, are just too strong for any union.” Union advocates continue to disagree.
- FORMER GOVERNORS CONDEMN NEWSROOM LAYOFFS: Honolulu’s Civil Beat reported last week that three former Hawaii governors were publicly urging the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to rethink its drastic gutting of half its staff in the wake of COVID-19. “As former governors, we know how much democracy depends on a free press,” Civil Beat quoted the former public officials as saying. The Star-Advertiser union reportedly asked leadership to consider a system of rotating furloughs, rather than layoffs. Publisher Dennis Francis replied by saying that the ex-governors should be appealing to local advertisers, rather than the newsroom itself. “We are fighting for our survival,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
- HOW THE TENNESSEAN AD GOT PUBLISHED: On Sunday, a print edition of the Tennessean newspaper published a full-page Islamophobic advertisement announcing a religious group’s self-proclaimed prophecy that “Islam” would attack Nashville with nuclear weapons. Kevin Gentzel, from parent company Gannett, wrote, “We strongly condemn the message and apologize to our readers. We are immediately investigating to determine how this could have happened.” Karen Grigsby, a journalist at the Tennessean, tweeted in a thread that the copy desk at the paper was eliminated years ago, one of the reasons for declining editorial standards. “We never proofed ads, but we did sometimes catch problems with them, such as ones promoting events that had already happened. Or we’d make sure that news stories about a shooting weren’t on the same page as an ad about a gun show” Grigsby wrote. “Editing — and journalism in general — is needed now more than ever. We need more eyeballs on stories, more training, more people asking questions.” The Times reported the results of the internal investigation, which found that “three advertising staff members had the opportunity to review the ad”—a sale valued at $14,000—before publication. After the incident, the newspaper fired an advertising manager and announced plans for “diversity and sensitivity training” for staff.
- MORE LAYOFFS, CUTS: The New York Times has eliminated sixty-eight positions, mostly in advertising—the company's first layoffs in the wake of COVID-19. WBUR radio in Boston announced layoffs of twenty-nine employees in addition to the cut of sports program “Only a Game.” NiemanLab has more on unionizing at WBUR and the outlook for public media. And WBEZ radio in Chicago announced layoffs of twelve employees, the Chicago Tribune reported. In addition, long-running music show “Sound Opinions” has gone independent and will no longer be produced by WBEZ.
JOURNALISM JOBS: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. Last week, Study Hall and Deez Links announced their launch of media classified ads, and Study Hall tweeted that 125 jobs and freelance opportunities are available on their jobs digest page.