Five years ago, when I first started building the news organization that my colleagues and I now call Chalkbeat (then known as GothamSchools), a friend asked me an innocent question. “So you cover education now. But what will your next beat be?”
My prediction for 2014 is that more nonprofit news entrepreneurs will answer that question the way I didn’t yet know how to do five years ago. “Nothing,” we will tell our politely inquiring friends. “We only cover [insert-your-nerdy-public-policy-specialty-here]. That’s it.”
Much has been made of charismatic star reporters becoming brands and then businesses. At Chalkbeat, our story is different. Yes, like The Dish or Deadline Hollywood or TV Newser, we have grown from a small reverse-chron blog to a full-blown news organization with employees and living wages and HR policies.
But in our case, the main currency we are trading is not personality, point of view, or even a particularly distinctive voice. The coin of our realm — the thing that took us from a couple of reporters squatting in somebody else’s basement to a soon-to-be more than $3 million-revenue news organization — is much less sexy: subject matter expertise.
We simply took one topic — in fact, one sliver of one topic: not just K-12 public schools, but K-12 public schools in low-income communities undergoing change efforts — and knew more about it than anyone else in the geographic areas where we work, ditching the political back-and-forth and scandal-driven coverage that would probably would have delivered us more pageviews in favor of context, substance, and analysis. Over time, our expertise grew into a brand. And lately, the brand has become a full-fledged business.
In 2014, my bet is that this same story will unfold with more public-policy topics. (It is already happening with health, transportation, higher education, Syria, and climate change, among other subjects, as this Tow Center report describes.) More niche nonprofit news organizations will be unmistakably good for democracy. The more knowledgeable our news sources, the more knowledgeable we can be as citizens and policymakers.
Even better, subject matter expertise also seems to have a real shot at becoming self-sustaining. Like any single subject in the commercial sector, individual public policy issues comprise their own industries. In our K-12 education universe, that means we don’t just have to rely on the tiny set of usual-suspect journalism supporters to give us grants or on local businesses to buy sponsorships. We have a defined audience that a defined set of foundations, donors, and sponsors want to reach — and so raising money, while always a challenge, is relatively easier.
I began to learn this lesson one night at a fundraising dinner, when a donor told me that monetizing our journalism was as simple as learning to play the piano. The hard part, he said, is building a loyal and targeted audience. After that, a monkey could do the rest. At the time, I restrained myself from punching him in the face. But three months later, we’d raised nearly half that year’s budget in sponsorships.
Good thing I didn’t punch him.