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June 12, 2018, 11:10 a.m.
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LINK: shorensteincenter.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Christine Schmidt   |   June 12, 2018

A decade ago, if you decided to create your own nonprofit news outlet to focus on local issues, you were largely operating without a playbook as an early entrant to the local nonprofit news scene. Now, with dozens and dozens of local nonprofit outlets across the U.S., there actually is a playbook, developed by the Harvard Kennedy School with the News Revenue Hub.

Nonprofit sites have been trying to suss out a sustainable path for years, often relying on foundations or well-ish-off news consumers who can afford to become members or even sit on boards of directors. The No. 1 hurdle for many getting started is figuring out a business plan — but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Looking at the example of Mississippi Today, which had only 10 months between the initial idea and launch, and other outlets like Voice of San Diego, Honolulu Civil Beat, and more, the playbook walks potential founders through the weeds of kicking off your own news org.

The basic framework:

1. Define the vision. This is a who-what-where-when-why-how situation, and the what and how can be the trickiest. According to the playbook:

The task here goes beyond why you’re starting a local, nonprofit news outlet. You also need to think about what your outlet’s niche will be, and, how your audience will receive what you create.

Regarding the what: focus on what you plan to offer. Most organizations, when starting out, do not have the resources to host as much content, hire as many staff, or cover as many beats as traditional newspapers. Chances are your outlet has to focus on a comparative strength — a single department of a paper so to speak — whether statehouse politics, long-form investigations, watchdog reporting, or something else.

2. Determine where coverage is needed, and then research that market. Fledgling outlets can partner with nearby journalism schools, foundations, and other community-ingrained organizations to assess the local journalism landscape and gaps. For example, the Foothills Forum in northern Virginia worked with the University of Virginia to conduct a countywide survey on the audience’s interests — and got a 42 percent response rate. Here are some questions for thinking about market research:

Who are your readers and supporters? (audience demographics)

How many of them are there? (market size and scope)

What’s their propensity for giving? Does this community have sufficient income to give to support your operation?

Is the audience big enough to support your organization? If it’s not big enough to support your ideal budget, what’s a realistic budget the audience could support?

What kind of coverage do they want? (customer wants and needs)

Why is this coverage important to them? (customer values and priorities)

Where are they getting news and information from now? (competitive landscape)

3. Business plan. No, really. This is the meatiest part of the playbook, focusing on content strategy, user experience, technology (for managing that content and building a relationship with those users), talent and personnel, organizational culture, aaaand the budget.

4. Get off the ground: Building an audience and multiple revenue streams.

While your outlet may be a nonprofit in terms of tax status, you should think of your venture and its day-to-day operations as a business. Every step in this playbook has reinforced that mindset, from defining your vision, to knowing and serving your customers, to having a solid business plan. Now, you need to equip your outlet with a strong financial foundation.

Read the playbook in full, with more examples and resources, here. If you just can’t get enough of local nonprofit news how-to’s, the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School also released a case study on the local nonprofit news outlet VT Digger last month.

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