Knight Foundation Report Looks at Sustainability of Non Profit News

One of the Knight Foundation’s latest reports is “Finding a Foothold,” looking at 18 non-profit news organizations and how they remain sustainable. Some key takeaways from the report show that, luckily, there’s not just one way to survive; both small and larger organizations are experimenting with various strategies and the majority of non-profit news organizations broke even this year.

This study was a follow up to a 2011 report called “Getting Local,” in which they noted that many non-profit startups had yet to find a working business model. Mayur Patel, VP for Strategy and Assessment, told me over the phone that that hasn’t really changed. And that’s OK:

We’ve seen people experiment with  various approaches, but there isnt a clear cut way about how to do this in the long run. We have seen some really interesting progress — a lot of the non profits we looked at in the first study moved much further along reducing their reliance on foundation funding and we see two emerging pathways how people are doing this. On the one side you’re starting to see a lot of local and state based news ventures move away from a reliance on foundation funding and branching out by securing corporate sponsorships. On the other, you have the national investigative news organizations that publish less frequently reduce their reliance on foundation funding by ramping up their individual donor base.

Some other key trends Patel noted:Tailoring the Membership Benefits

[One] nuance that is starting to emerge is some non profits wanting to experiment with how they can actually tailor the kinds of content a member might receive based on their own personal preferences. So using the individual donor data, exploring if there’s a way to give an individual something more tailored moving forward.

Engaging With The Audience

Larger organizations, like the Texas Tribune, have been able to work with the event model — hosting conferences and the like. But what about the smaller, more local organizations? Patel notes that the NJ Spotlight — which is a fraction of the size of the Texas Tribune — has also made the event model work in their favor by, for example, adding a layer of engagement with teachers, parents, and school board members in their education reform reporting.

The successful non-profits organizations, according to Patel, ask

‘As we do out reporting, what’s the next level of community involvement that we can wrap into this?’  It’s a mix between the organizations that see the event side of their work as key to their revenue and others that see the event as part of a community engagement strategy. But in both cases they see them as fundamental to their ability to have an impact.

Knowing Your Audience

Most of the organizations that broke even this year were also the ones that invested in responsive mobile design. Says Patel:

It’s one thing to survive and break even today but another to keep up with how people are consuming news and information…the takeaway there is that mobile doesn’t mean investing in expensive mobile applications and all the resources it takes to do that but looking at what makes your content consumable and shareable.

Other organizations that are successful ask their audiences what they think. It’s sort of about hitting two birds — tailoring the experience and staying profitable — wth one user survey:

We’ve seen the most progress with organizations that have really good balance on between what they spend on editorial and marketing. And those that  distinguish themselves in understanding who their audience is, taking the time and effort to do user surveys, and taking that information and be able to pitch it to corporate sponsors.

You can read the full report here. Can your organization use this data for your business strategy?