June 10, 2013

Nonprofit Journalism: A Growing but Fragile Part of the U.S. News System

The Road Ahead for Nonprofit Journalism

Despite the challenges, an overwhelming number of the survey respondents are optimistic about their future. Eighty-five percent reported that they are on stable footing now, and about the same proportion said they were either "very" (26%) or "somewhat" (55%) confident that they’ll be financially solvent in five years. Just 14% said they are not too confident they’d be solvent in five years, and 4% were not at all confident. Only 10% thought that they’d be reducing their staff over the coming year, while the rest expected to maintain or even grow their staff.

Some kinds of nonprofits were more optimistic than others. Older outlets, those launched before 2008, expressed stronger confidence in their future. Outlets that are generating bigger revenues are more confident in their future than those with small revenues. And those with diverse revenue streams were more likely to express strong confidence in their future.

But what stands out more than anything is how nearly universal the sense of optimism is among this sector. The optimism is found among outlets with sizeable revenue, as well as small; outlets with substantial foundation support and those with little; outlets with many staff and large operations as well as those that operate mostly with volunteers. In other words, financial stability is not a prerequisite for a sense among editors and directors that their nonprofit news outlet would survive well into the future.  Indeed, there was virtually no difference in optimism between outlets that had their startup grant renewed and those that did not have their grant renewed.

Yet the distance between the present and five years from now seems far in some respects. The majority rely-in some cases, heavily-on foundation grants, even as competition for those grants continues to ratchet upward. Meanwhile, finding the time and making the effort it takes to cultivate additional revenue sources and to build the business is difficult; indeed, for the majority of outlets surveyed, finding such time was perceived to be the single biggest challenge facing their news outlet.

Even some of the outlets that expressed higher degrees of confidence in their future did not see a perfectly clear path forward: "All experimentation welcome," wrote one.  Said another, "It seems to us that sustainability, meaning very little dependence on grant funding, is a long way off."