Kevin Davis: Five trends for nonprofit news in 2015

Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis

It was a weird year in media, 2014. Vox and Vice got billion-dollar valuations. The New Republic and First Look Media publicly imploded. Sony allowed cyber-terrorists to impact what films we get to see and how. And probably the biggest story of the year was not Net Neutrality, but rather a whodunnit podcast called Serial.

While I cannot begin to predict what comes next in the spin cycle, there continues to be good news coming out of one of the fastest-growing sectors in the American media landscape: nonprofit news organizations. In fact, I am so bullish on the nonprofit news model that I am predicting that 2015 will be the year of nonprofit news.

Here’s why:

1. There is a much brighter light at the end of the tunnel: Five years ago, when the organization that I run, the Investigative News Network, was formed, the need for nonprofit public interest journalism was acute, but the funding and business models were far from clear.

There are now enough examples of long-term success in revenue diversification and generation that we have a good sense of what can and will support mission-driven organizations.

We know that there is no “revenue black box” that is yet to be discovered. We know that sustainability — or at least the ability to have sufficient resources not just to do the journalism, but maintain a healthy business — is comprised of multiple revenue streams that primarily draw their value from the communities and people served (not third-party advertisers).

2. Low cost/Ease of use: It has never been easier or faster to establish a nonprofit news organization.

Today, start-up nonprofit newsrooms have the ability to get a free mobile-ready website, training on how to run and grow a successful nonprofit business and gain direct and practical knowledge of leading-edge techniques on business development.

Most importantly, there is no longer the need to reinvent the wheel. There are now literally hundreds of nonprofit and mission-driven organizations in the U.S. and even across the globe that have spent years in the trenches clawing their way forward.

3. Money attracts more money: What we have also learned from the past few years is that organizations that start underfunded often stay underfunded, while organizations that were able to secure sufficient funding for both the editorial and business side of the house tend to do much better in the near and long-term.

One only need to take a look at the most successful organizations in the nonprofit public interest media space to see this trend. ProPublica, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and, most recently, The Marshall Project not only were able to secure funding from angel investors, but also were able to parlay that base into additional funding from foundations as well.

And is it any wonder? Foundations, like other types of investors, are looking for organizations to invest in that have the wherewithal to succeed and who are not wholly dependent on their investments to keep the lights on. I predict that this trend will continue into 2015, but, as a result, there will be further decline in foundation funding for start-up nonprofit newsrooms.

4. More mergers and acquisitions: In 2013, two leading members of the Investigative News Network, the St. Louis Beacon and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News organization, pioneered a way forward by merging with local public media organizations. We see the trend of independent and public media nonprofit news organizations coming together to jointly meet the needs of the communities that they serve continuing and accelerating in 2015.

The reasons are both being driven by market realities and the need for greater reach and scale. From a market perspective, there are only so many nonprofit newsrooms that a particular market can sustain. Instead of competing against each other, nonprofit newsrooms (which are inherently predisposed to collaboration) are often better-off working together on fund raising.

Likewise, by reducing fragmentation, these organizations have a better shot of cultivating a dedicated audience — and a membership revenue stream as a result — by combining forces and working across multiple media platforms including radio, broadcast and digital.

5. Becoming a hits-driven business: While there was much discussion in media circles in 2014 about the need to come up with metrics to quantify the impact of journalism, no verifiable metric came close to the 40 million downloads and unprecedented success of Serial, a podcast by the team that produces This American Life.

The implications of this success go far beyond the resurrection of the podcast as a medium and business model. What Serial proves is that people will go out of their way for good stories that they can discover and share.

While there are many good stories being produced on an ongoing basis by many nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms, it is the discovery and sharing parts that are essential in breaking-out in today’s media maelstrom.

Successful commercial producers of entertainment and news know that in media marketing, nothing is left up to chance and that a lot of planning, resources and work go into the process.

Just as money begets money, so do hits beget hits. Would Serial have been as popular if it hadn’t been produced by the This American Life team? Maybe so. But I do believe that Serial most definitely got noticed, written-about and promoted because of its pedigree.

I predict that the implications of this move — focusing on hits for nonprofit newsrooms — will be profound. Attention, and therefore funding, will most certainly go to those organizations that can break through, rather than organizations covering beats regardless of how socially important the topic.

In my opinion, nonprofit organizations that ramp up, break through and get their content noticed will continue to lead the way into what promises to be a very important year for nonprofit news.


This column originally appeared on NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.