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Feb. 13, 2014, 12:20 p.m.

The newsonomics of measuring the real impact of news

Can you raise more money for the news by harnessing the power of social sharing — and making the impact of journalism a little more clear?

Hello there! It’s me, your friendly neighborhood Tweet Button. What if you could tap me and unlock a brand new source of funding for startup news sources of all kinds? What if, even better, you the reader could tap that money loose with a single click?

That’s the delightfully simple conceit behind a little widget,, you may have seen popping up as you traverse the news web. It’s social. It’s viral. It uses OPM (Other People’s Money) — and maybe a little bit of your own. It makes a new case to funders and maybe commercial sponsors. And it spits out metrics around the clock. It aims to be a convergence widget, acting on that now-aging idea that our attention is as important as our wallet. Consider it a new digital Swiss Army knife for the attention economy. 

It’s impossible to tell how much of an impact may have. It’s still in its second round of testing at six of the U.S.’s most successful independent nonprofit startups — MinnPost, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, ProPublica, and the Center for Public Integrity — but as in all things digital, timing is everything. And that timing seems right.

First, let’s consider that spate of new news sites that have sprouted with the winter rains — Bill Keller’s and Neil Barsky’s Marshall Project being only the latest. It’s been quite a run — from Ezra Klein’s Project X to Pierre Omidyar’s First Look (and just launched The Intercept) to the reimagining of FiveThirtyEight. While they encompass a broad range of business models and goals (“The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a news site”), they all need two things: money and engagement. Or, maybe better ordered, engagement and money. The dance between the two is still in the early stages of Internet choreography. Get the sequences right and you win.

Second, and related, is the big question of “social” and how our sharing of news is changing the old publishing dynamic of editors deciding what we’re going to read. Just this week, two pieces here at the Lab — one on Upworthy’s influence and one on the social/search tango — highlighted the still-being-understood role of social in our news-reading lives.

Third, funders of news sites, especially Knight and other lead foundations, are looking for harder evidence of the value generated by their early grants. Millions have been poured into creating new news sites. Now they’re asking: What has our funding really done? Within that big question, is only one of several new attempts to demonstrably measure real impact in new ways. We’ll take a brief look at those impact initiatives below. started in September 2012, when Kevin Davis had a dream and got up at 2 a.m. to write it down. The next morning, he looked at his notes and realized the idea was worth pursuing. As luck would have it, Davis is CEO of the Investigative News Network; his day job is figuring out how to grow and sustain 92 independent news startups around the United States, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that his dreams were similarly occupied.

Since then, Davis has gotten funding to develop the idea, built out the first prototype, raised additional money — and signed over the pending patent to INN itself. In total, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation has supported the effort with $200,000 in funding.

“I’m trying to do frictionless support,” says Davis. “Social sharing of stories is meaningful.” He notes that social sharing is much more popular for those under 35, who also have weaker news brand allegiance. That makes this strategy an audience strategy as well as a fundraising one.

In Davis’ dream and in early reality, the widget and program seeks to connect up these three points: generating new revenue for news sites; multiplying and measuring engagement; and harnessing social in new ways to directly make the funding/sharing link. It’s using social to directly generate money — a trick that even Upworthy, with its massive audience, hasn’t yet mastered. (Upworthy is now working on its own content marketing-oriented business model.)

Take a look at the widget, as deployed on the Center for Investigative Reporting site this week:


Its message is clear in the top red banner: “Share and The Woolley Fund Will Donate $1”. (The Woolley name may be familiar; Buzz Woolley has been a founding and continuing supporter of Voice of San Diego.)

Then, if readers use one of the share tools within the red frame, a dollar contribution is added. The widget manages to serve several audiences:

  • The reader. We might have already planned to share the content, but now we see our click rewarded with someone good getting something for almost no effort.
  • The donor. Foundations get a direct, clear return on the projects they’re funding and get recognition for it. Here, The Woolley Fund is getting great recognition — and branding.
  • The news site. In this case, CIR gets the buck and a public service ad for itself. Plus it can go further (the psychology of “Hey, you’re giving, why not give a little more”).

We all like counters, and seeing that $4,984, we feel like we’re pitching in. (The site reached its $5,000 goal last night.)

“Everyone has the same reaction when they see it: ‘Well, that makes sense,'” says Dick McPherson of McPherson has spent decades raising money for public broadcasting, and now works as a fundraising consultant for CIR, through his company McPherson Advisor. For him, is a unique twist on crowdfunding. He believes it could help deliver a new “middle market” of donors — say $1,000 to $10,000 — who may be spurred to donate, given the recognition and the psychological pull of the widget.

Given how new it is, the model offers more questions than answers at this point. Likely the biggest: Is this really new money being generated? Or is it switch money — funds that foundations would have given anyway, only distributed differently?

Davis is acutely aware of that question, of course, and believes will generate new money, as well as additional money from current funders. Why? For one reason, nonprofit news sites might be able to go to commercial sponsors — not just foundations — who want to gain the branding recognition.

In addition, the widget generates sharing data. Funders can actually see how much the stories they’ve funded are being both read (from traditional pageview metrics) and thought valuable enough by readers to be passed along to someone else. That share number is one number that may tell funders that their money is well placed, and that additional funding will be well used.

In fact, in a earlier test of, with nine smaller sites hosted by INN (The Lens, Oklahoma Watch, IowaWatch, C-HIT, Raleigh Public Record, Pine Tree Watchdog, SIRF, Midwest Center, and Aspen Journalism), the number of shares per story increased on all but one site.

The latest round of tests, currently underway at those six larger sites, will yield more data, as each has gotten $5,000 to be earned through shares. Here’s what’s been learned so far:

  • How much money can it raise, how fast? Since experimentation is the name of the game here, ProPublica tried it two ways. It raised $2,500 at $1 per share in about about 9 days and the second $2,500 in less than two days, at $5 per share. The ProPublica experiment, its president Dick Tofel notes, came at a relatively slow traffic time of the year, without a big breaking story to attract attention. It took MinnPost 15 days. It took CIR more than a month to earn its $5,000, at $1 a share; CIR is as much a B2B site as it is a destination.

    If became more easily recognizable, might it generate more money more quickly? What’s the right share price point — $1, $2, or $5? Readers only get one share donation from each IP address for a set time period (monthly or less), so what kind of reader choice of donation may come into play?

  • Can’t anyone do this? Kevin Davis says INN’s patent application is pending for His wider idea: If INN can build out a better and better and find wider adoption, it can generate a new revenue stream for the network, weaning itself from foundation funding. If $20 million could flow through Impaq/me in a year, that would be $1 million, at the five percent fee it charges, for INN.
  • Is it only for nonprofit news sites? It might seem so at first glance, but Davis points to its potential wider utility among non-news companies like the Red Cross. Further, it seems to me that some readers may be willing to give to specific investigative funds set up by for-profit companies to directly fund such journalism. Specific topical coverage support may fit well here, as we see the profound move to single-topic sites like Bill Keller’s.
  • What about follow-on reader giving? So does giving other people’s money make us more individually benevolent? That’s a good question for behavioral economists like Dan Ariely. It makes some intuitive sense that it might. INN’s early experience, off a tiny sample, shows 1 percent of sharers also donated money themselves — and most of them gave more than the minimum $1. uses a quick PayPal process for follow-on giving; I’m wondering whether the text-$5-to-Oxfam model may work with even less friction. Another intriguing notion: how to harness Facebook to magnify the power of the idea.

If is all about impact and money, then it’s got good company. There are at least two other noteworthy impact-measuring projects going on.

  • The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Impact Tracker effort impact-tracking initiative launched last fall. The big idea: getting beyond the traditional metrics like unique visitors and pageviews to track the value of investigative and enterprise work. To that end, CIR has hired Lindsay Green-Barber, a CUNY-trained social scientist, and given her a perhaps first-ever title: media impact analyst.

    We can see the fruits of the work around CIR’s impressive Returning Home to Battle veterans series. On that series, CIR is tracking such impacts as change and rise in the public discourse around veterans’ issues and related allocation of government resources. The notion of good journalism intended to shine a light in dark places has been embedded in the CIR DNA for a long time; this new effort is intended to provide data — and words — to describe progress toward solutions. CIR is working with The Seattle Times on the impact of that paper’s education reporting, and CIR may soon look at more partnerships as well. Related: CIR is holding two “Dissection” events in New York and Washington in April, bringing together journalists, funders, and social scientists to widen the media impact movement.

  • Chalkbeat, a growing national education news site, too, is moving on impact analysis. It’s called MORI (Measures of our Reporting’s Influence), and it’s a WordPress plugin. Says Chalkbeat cofounder Elizabeth Green: “We built MORI to solve for a problem that I guess you could call ‘impact loss.’ We knew that our stories were having all kinds of impacts, but we had no way of keeping track of these impacts or making sense of them. That meant that we couldn’t easily compile what we had done in the last year to share with the outside world (board, donors, foundations, readers, our moms) but also — just as important — we couldn’t look back on what we’d done and learn from it.”

    Sound familiar?

    After much inquiry, Chalkbeat settled on technology. “Within each story’s back end,” Green said, “we can enter inputs — qualitative data about the type of story, topic, and target audience — as well as outcomes — impacts on policy and practice (what we call ‘informed action’) as well as impacts on what we call ‘civic deliberation.'”

Chalkbeat will be rolling out the latest version of MORI next week. While it’s not (yet, at least) available for others, the lessons and intent of it — and of CIR’s Impact Tracker — are clear and useful to anyone in the business of producing meaningful journalism.

Photo of a fresh impact crater on Mars by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2014, 12:20 p.m.
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