This section provides a broad and extensive overview of the nonprofit news landscape, the risks and opportunities, and then offers strategies for assessing the feasibility of your plan. It is adapted from a grant-supported whitepaper INN produced several years ago. The principal author was Elizabeth Osder, who helped launch ProPublica, working with editor Evelyn Larrubia and contributing writer and research analyst Kaizar Campwala.
Technological changes have shifted the media landscape and undercut the tidy economics built on the bundling of content into a limited number of distribution channels. Today journalism has become unbundled from traditional packages, through an endless-channel digital universe. This has fragmented audiences, and created fierce competition for the most precious commodity in the information economy: attention.
A fragmented media market with dwindling audience attention requires product-marketing discipline. You need to listen to the market not only for the stories that can make a difference, but also to identify opportunities for packaging and distributing those stories in the most productive way. In the product-marketing world, good products that are well marketed (delivering the right message, at the right time, in the right channel) to a clear customer often find success.
The forces that destroyed the profits that underwrote great commercial journalism have not gone away. In order to avoid becoming similarly unsustainable financially, nonprofit news sites must confront these market realities and keep their eye on the bottom line.
The other, more hopeful side of the coin is the emergence of a new media ecosystem that allows content creators to publish cost-effectively and find audiences with a degree of efficiency and scale unimaginable in the past.
If you want to be both a content creator and distributor of news, you must ask whether revenue from distribution activities will subsidize the cost of content creation, as it did for newspapers and other traditional media. Since the internet unbundled production of content from distribution, you face a huge number of choices about how and where to find an audience. Just because you can write once and publish across many platforms doesn’t mean you should. Decisions about how to distribute, bundle and productize your journalism require disciplined prioritization and measurement. You need to ask yourself: “Does the value of this channel justify the complexity and cost of delivering it?”
Mass Media is in Decline, Channel Management is on the Rise
The exponential increase in information channels ushered by new technologies has diminished the reach of newsprint and broadcast news. Aided by tools like Google, Twitter, and Facebook, consumers can now find the content they are interested in across thousands of information publishers online. To maintain mass reach, media companies are increasingly forced to package their content and distribute it across a variety of channels, from online to mobile to apps.
Revenue and production management across a growing array of channels will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future. Tried and true time-based broadcast style promotion (using email, social media, events, and partner promotions) is essential to maintaining your audience. Being organized is only the beginning; classic project management skills and frameworks that remind us of the challenges of maintaining quality in the face of increased scope, and limited resources and time can come in handy but are generally applied in a far more agile way. In the example here, the challenge is to maintain an equilateral triangle, so changing one dependent variable (scope, schedule, or resource) requires a change in the others.
Cost Cuts Can Create Opportunity
Failing business models, bankruptcies, consolidation and reorganizations have pressured commercial news organizations to reduce fixed costs across the board. Coverage of public policy issues has been disproportionately affected, due in part to layoffs of older, experienced (and more expensive) journalists who have traditionally covered these complex topics.
As news executives look to continue reducing fixed costs, they are more likely to entertain variable cost solutions like outsourcing and collaborations. There are countless examples, with varying degrees of success.
The Journalism Marketplace: A Colorful Market for Valuing Content
The marketplace for INN member sites and content still resembles a colorful bazaar where it’s often difficult to discern:
• Who is doing the selling and who is doing the buying?
• What are they selling?
• How are they packaging and promoting (a beautiful sign, a pretty bag, or a baker’s dozen)?
• Why buy from one vendor and not another (quality of goods, uniqueness, credibility of the vendor, pre-existing relationship, or the recommendation of a trusted friend)?
Issues of pricing are still immature, and there is not enough combined scale in the market or clear editorial budgets for pricing to become more standardized.
The Risks Are Real
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
• 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.
The National Venture Capital Association estimated that 40% of venture-backed companies fail, 40% return moderate amounts of capital, and 20% or less produce high returns. In his blog post titled “Why Early Stage Venture Investments Fail,” Fred Wilson, founder of Union Square Ventures in New York writes, “Most venture backed investments fail because the venture capital is used to scale the business before the correct business plan is discovered. That scale/ burn rate becomes the cancer that kills the business… capital efficiency and bootstrapping are critical values. You must keep your burn rate low until you can show without a shadow of a doubt that you have a business model that works, can be operated profitably, and is ready to be scaled. Then and only then should you step on the gas.” (Source.)
Market Driven Products Require Ongoing Conversations with Customers
Despite all the talk about entrepreneurship and innovations, the journalism business still seems largely trapped in a 19th century factory production model. Just as good journalism requires a variety of sources and rigorous fact checking, the organizations working to bring a journalism product to market must have an ongoing conversation with that market about its needs (not for the journalism itself but for how it is packaged) and align their products with those opportunities. What we learn from startups and product companies is that flexibility in how products are packaged, deals are made, and customers are acquired are the ingredients of successful organizations. That knowledge and feedback come from ongoing customer conversations.
In a Sea of Commodity Content, Craft Matters
One of the most encouraging things we heard repeatedly is that the fundamentals of the craft still matter greatly. It’s not only the quality of the investigations that matters, but also the quality of the writing and copy-editing, the production value of related materials, the documentation, and the fact checking and sourcing. A well-written, well-researched, well-executed (balanced, accurate and fair) piece still matters to partners and the people who care enough about news to be your consumers. To that same end, craft and experience matter in all of your hiring including the related functions of business, technology, marketing, and social media.
Credibility is King, Relationships Matter
It matters by whom and where investigative journalism is done. Credibility is built over time and founded in trust. Opportunities to deliver impact continue to be bolstered by standing relationships with trusted sources, and influencers, and career-long relationships with decision makers at potential partner sites. In building a new news brand, success comes from building relationships with not only your audience but also all of the stakeholders your news product will serve.
Story Selection is Fundamental
Story selection is perhaps the most obvious, but largely overlooked key attribute of nonprofit investigative news. The stories these organizations choose to pursue and how closely those stories align with their stated mission is core to INN members defining and achieving success. Selecting the right story and managing the correct resources to deliver it remain key. If a story is unique, finds an audience, goes viral, and activates public or key figure influence, it is successful.
Which Trends to Follow?
It takes time for definitive trends to emerge from a disrupted market. What follows is a short list of those that seem most relevant:
Crowd-sourcing: Where once hard lines were drawn between journalists, media companies, sources, and citizens, today’s collaborative opportunities include media working with the public.
Unlocking the value of data: No longer the domain of “computer-assisted reporting” specialists, collecting, analyzing and providing access to large datasets has become easier.
Selling subject expertise: Consumers looking for consistently reliable information on topics important to them have shown a willingness to pay for it.
Freemium model: In a “freemium” model, a product or service is given away for free to the majority of users. A small minority sustains the business by paying for enhanced services that are of value to them.
Packaging and Bundling: 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 an investigative piece, repackaging or customizing can be a value-add for distribution partners, allowing a story to achieve an audience of scale and resulting impact.
The basis of a market view lays in an understanding of stakeholder needs and motivations. The group as a whole represents the people, groups, and organizations that make up the commercial market and form the foundation of our civic life, the ultimate customers of nonprofit public-interest journalism.
Feasibility: Mitigating Risk and Optimizing Your Market Position
There are two quick frameworks that can be helpful for assessing the feasibility of your idea.
The first is the well-known “Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threat,” or SWOT, analysis. Usually workshopped using a two-by-two grid similar to this and forcing the following questions for the project team:
Another lesser-known framework, called “Porter’s Six Forces Structural Analysis of a Non-profit Industry,” expands upon traditional competitive assessments by providing a more comprehensive perspective of all of the actors impacting a marketplace.
The framework addresses critical marketplace components including: competitors, funders, audience, suppliers/journalists, barriers to entry, and possible substitutes.
As a tool, the framework is very easy to use and can facilitate a level of specificity that can focus the best of plans.
Try talking through your product and its operations from the perspective of each of these categories, starting from top to bottom, then left to right.
Existing Organizations: Are there few or many in this space? Can you name each of them and begin to think about how your product will exist in the marketplace with them? Will you compete or collaborate?
Barriers to Entry: How hard is it to do what you are doing and what will stop others from entering the market and competing with you? What can you do to raise the barriers to entry and make your product more competitive?
Substitutes: Are there other products that are reasonable substitutes for your product? Is other media doing this work “well enough?” Could another media company invest in its investigative unit and quickly supplant your product?
Audience/Customers: Is your audience concentrated or fragmented? Will it be easy or hard to reach, and how will its concentration impact your product and marketing requirements?
Funders: For nonprofits this framework has regularly been adjusted to address the availability of funding. Are funding sources abundant or scarce for your effort? Have you analyzed your topic and community to understand what funding could be available and sought to expand the pool of possible funders?
Suppliers/Journalists: This input generally addresses your labor pool and whether it is exclusive or non-exclusive. For many investigative journalism shops this is where the market gets made. The number of journalists with the skills to do meaningful investigative work is limited; therefore a “lockup” on suppliers can create additional opportunities in the market.
Whatever approach you use for your competitive analysis, what’s important is that you spend time aligning your mission with the right product and operating tactics to deliver the impact that got you in this business in the first place.