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Nov. 8, 2010, 10 a.m.

Center for Public Integrity changes up its audience strategy to build a new revenue stream from readers

Nonprofit news outlets reach an audience in different ways. To borrow an analogy, imagine that there are two camps: wholesalers and retailers. Under the wholesale umbrella, we find organizations like ProPublica that primarily reach their audience through partnerships with established news organizations. Retailers, meanwhile, reach an audience directly, like Voice of San Diego or MinnPost.

Both strategies can make sense. But as journalism fundraising becomes increasingly competitive, that audience distinction is blurring. ProPublica, for one, is investing more resources into its website. And the Center for Public Integrity, a longtime wholesaler known for projects that appear in newspapers like the Washington Post or The New York Times, is now rethinking its digital strategy and wading into retailing, too. “It’s not an either or proposition,” the Center’s new executive editor John Solomon told me recently. With a $1.95 million* investment from the Knight Foundation, they’re working on revamping their digital strategy to reach readers directly, via the web and mobile products. The strategy isn’t just about distribution for distribution’s sake — it’s about the bottom line.

“The Center had a different challenge than the rest of the journalism industry,” Solomon told me, referring to the for-profit world. “When the Center started, it was the center of the nonprofit world. Today there are 70, 80, 90, 100 groups all competing for the same limited pool of nonprofit dollars — the Knights, the Fords, the Carnegies, all these gracious funders of nonprofit journalism. So the Center has decided to take the leap aggressively and listen to funders and try to create earned revenue that augments our donations, that creates a sustainable model.”

Solomon’s goal is to produce $2 worth of journalism for every $1 a foundation donates. To do that, he’s looking beyond foundations to readers. That’s akin to a model very familiar to the Center’s executive director, Bill Buzenberg, who spent almost 30 years in public radio (supported by listeners, like you!) at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. The Center isn’t alone in trying to rethink its nonprofit model. Knight recently announced a $15 million grant project to help figure out longterm funding solutions for journalism.

The first step toward that new revenue stream is pulling in a new audience. Since Solomon started on new digital projects a few months ago, including making its website more SEO friendly, time on the Center’s site is up dramatically, to a remarkable 12 minutes per user. (He showed me the Google Analytics chart for proof.) Pageviews have skyrocketed too. The site is in the midst of a complete redesign, which will make it feel more like a news site and less like a think tank’s. We recently wrote about a new HTML5 product that makes reading long-form journalism pleasant on any device and without an app.

I asked Solomon how he plans to round up these new, engaged readers. He pointed to some of the successes he pulled off in widening the audience both online and in print at the Washington Times, where he had been executive editor for a little less than two years. “One of the little dirty secrets in my last eight months at the Washington Times before the Moon family erupted and the paper fell apart, web traffic was up 500 percent,” he told me. “Digital revenues were up 360 percent and our national print publication grew circulation by 25 percent. There is no other print publication, that I can think of, in the middle of a recession that had that kind of double-digit gains.” (Although, to be fair, many conservative outlets saw increases in audience pegged to the election and administration of Barack Obama.)

Washington journalism is in a time of significant revenue rethinking — from the paywall-only National Journal opening up a free version of its site, to free Politico launching paid products, the movement toward multiple revenue streams is afoot. General manager of the Allbritton-backed startup TBD, Jim Brady, recently said at a Online News Association panel that his business model is “shrapnel” — “there isn’t one stream that’s going to make us successful.”

If the Center can figure out a way to monetize a new audience, there will likely be an eager audience watching that success. “I really believe the nonprofit journalism world can be the innovation lab where the business models change,” Solomon said.

Correction: Center for Public Integrity received $1.95 million from Knight, not $1.5 million. I regret the error.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2010, 10 a.m.
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