Twitter  "It's clear that Coleman sees video as an important part of BuzzFeed's future."  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

How two nonprofits saw the path to sustainability in 2009

It’s annual report time, and our friends Joel Kramer at MinnPost and John Thornton at Texas Tribune each put out their year-in-review posts this afternoon. (Thornton, who launched in November, called it his 12-week report, but whatever.) There’s a lot to consider beyond just numbers.

While each has had to focus on his own shop’s finances in a tight economy, each also has done a service in showing what a path to sustainability looks like — the hard work of building an advertising base, corporate sponsorships and grassroots support.

Just as importantly, each has explained his publication’s progress in a way that funders and readers can understand. There’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding out there, but Joel and John show how the nonprofit model is well suited to foster the kind of financial stability and support for newsrooms that we once took for granted at newspapers.

Thornton, a venture capitalist, put it this way:

You may be thinking: “A business? I thought the Tribune was a non-profit.” True enough. But we must behave like a business if we hope to achieve our mission of maximizing the public good we produce. … We will continue to seek large contributions from wealthy families and foundations, but the right way to think of this is truly as equity capital rather than revenue. In that sense, we’re no different than a startup that my firm would fund. Such a venture seeks to raise enough equity capital to sustain it until its revenue and expense lines cross. The more we raise, the longer we have to establish a sustainable business model.

Kramer offered a similar view in his post:

[We] generated a substantial increase in our revenues, a truly impressive result in light of economic conditions:

— Revenue from advertising and sponsorship rose from $160,000 in 2008 to $217,000 in 2009.

— Revenue from individual donors and from MinnRoast rose from $356,000 to $458,000. (This excludes from the 2008 total the last payment on one of our 2007 founder gifts.)

These two revenue streams are the key to long-term sustainability. Based on these results, I am confident that we can fulfill our goal to be sustainable by 2012, relying on foundation grants only for special projects but not to keep the lights on.

In his book, Leading Quietly, Joseph Badaracco makes the case that leadership is made of “patient, unglamorous, everyday efforts.” And leaders, he writes, “don’t spearhead ethical crusades. They move patiently, carefully, and incrementally. They do what is right — for their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselves — inconspicuously and without casualties.”

This is the kind of leadership that Kramer and Thornton are showing.

What to read next
Police Shooting Missouri
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 22, 2014
Local meets global: The papers are jointly seeking reader-submitted stories of racial profiling and are cross-publishing each other’s work.
  • cas127

    re: “Leading Quietly…by not spearheading ethical crusades”

    But isn’t spearingheading (allegedly) ethical crusades *exactly* why all-too-many “journalists” practice “journalism” (as opposed to “mere” reportage).

    We’ll see, but the nonprofit movement strikes me as an attempt to re-insulate MSM “journalists” from the economic realities that *everyone else* has to deal with and, if successful, will simply recreate the assymetric attention paid to societal inequities (which led to the ongoing collapse of the MSM).

    Examples of assymetric attention:

    1) How many MSM stories have highlighted that public sector workers have vastly better pay, benefits, and retirement pensions then the public whose “servants” they are?

    Contrast that number with the number of stories that have regurgitated the union myth that government workers are somehow “underpaid”. (Especially in $ per hour worked – look at teachers whose contractual annual hours are about 65% of those in the free market).

    How many MSM stories exclusively use words like “slashed”/”hacked”/”gutted” when simply referring to *any* reduction in public sector compensation (while the private economy that *funds it* is comatose or dying).

    2) How many MSM stories have focused on the inequity of lower-paid taxpayers bailing out higher paid private sector workers in the auto unions?

    Banks have been properly villified as “banksters” by the MSM – why haven’t unions been properly vilified as political “mobsters”? Selling the votes of its members in exchange for political favors.

    In both cases, wealth is being politically redistributed from the poorer to the richer.

    Where is the “journalistic” obsession with *these* longstanding, pervasive inequities?

  • Dylan Smith


    Back in the real world, show me a teacher who works her “contractual hours.”

    My wife teaches high school, and she puts in a 12-14 hour day on weekdays, and 8-10 both Saturdays and Sundays. Most teachers I know work just as hard.

    If you’re going to pick on public sector workers, going after the hours of teachers isn’t the way to go. That argument doesn’t hold up.

  • Pingback: Operators are standing by to take your call. « The Hyperlocalist

  • Pingback: MinnPost, The UpTake try to raise funds for their coverage of the Minnesota gubernatorial race » Nieman Journalism Lab