The Patterson Foundation’s Janet Coats on Funding Journalism Startups

Earlier this month, the Patterson Foundation’s New Media Journalism Initiative Manager Janet Coats and INN’s CEO Kevin Davis organized a meeting of funders and network organizations to discuss financial sustainability for journalism startups. Read Coats’ full report from the meeting.

In an interview with INN, Coats discusses the impetus behind the meeting, what was learned, and what comes next.

INN: What were you hoping to accomplish with this meeting of funders and publishers?

Coats: At minimum, we saw an opportunity to cross-pollinate the conversation about sustaining independent journalism and I think Kevin and I are uniquely positioned in many respects — we hear from both funders and from publishers about their issues and concerns. But there haven’t been many opportunities for deep conversation between these two constituencies about what publishers really need and what funders are really in a position to provide. I think our most optimistic hope was that we might identify a few concrete proposals worth fleshing out and exploring. I believe we accomplished that, as we identified some key categories of funding that might be developed and some sustainability mentoring and training approaches worth expanding.

INN: Where do you see the biggest need for nonprofits and independent news?

Coats: I think the biggest need is for business capacity. Note that I didn’t say revenue — we know that publishers need reliable and diverse revenue streams. But the problem isn’t one of simply going out and finding the right bucket to dip into that stream. We’ve got to help publishers build capacity — the ability to evaluate their markets and adjust as those markets change, to understand the right metrics to use to track impact, to execute on revenue-generating strategies, and to size up the risks and rewards of potential opportunities.

INN: This meeting has been described as a “first step” — what’s next?

Coats: I want to spend some more time with the survey data we collected from both INN and Block by Block publishers and better understand what they tell us. We intend to follow up with the funders who were represented at this gathering, to talk about how their thinking has evolved based on what they heard here. The funders meet once a year; the next gathering is coming up in May in Oklahoma City, which gives us an opportunity in the immediate future to build on the conversations we started here. And The Patterson Foundation will continue seeking partners to work with us in our Super Camp business mentoring program for independent publishers.

INN: What’s your outlook for the future of nonprofit and independent journalism?

Coats: I’m very bullish on independent journalism, in both its nonprofit and for-profit forms. I think the journalism — both investigative and community — is vibrant and exciting, and I see more and more publishers making that transition into pursuing their sustainability with the same passion and dedication. The key, I think, is broader sharing of what is working and what looks like a dead end. From my perch, I think independent publishers have a tremendous amount in common, no matter what kind of journalism or business model they are pursuing. Finding ways to help them leverage what is working is important, as is giving them a more prominent voice in the conversation about what sustainability means and how best to achieve it. After all, they are the ones who are living it.