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April 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Business Models

INNovation fund backs eight projects from news nonprofits with an eye towards sustainability

Chalkbeat, Southern California Public Radio, InvestigateWest and others are awarded over $236,000 in micro-grants to support events programming, collaborative reporting, and a “native underwriting” pilot program.

INNlogo_blueA public radio app that aggregates user-generated content, a food education night with a tasting menu, and a WordPress tool that helps track the influence of stories. Those are just a few of the projects receiving funding from the INNovation Fund, a collaboration between Knight Foundation and the Investigative News Network to support make nonprofit and public media more sustainable.

Eight projects will receive a total of $236,280 in funding for ideas designed to improve technology, diversify revenue streams, or develop new audiences. Most of the projects received $35,000 or less.

The winners include Chalkbeat, InvestigateWest, the Food & Environment Reporting Network, the Iowa Center for Public Interest Journalism, Public Herald, San Francisco Public Press, WXXI Public Radio, and Southern California Public Radio. (The full list of winners is below.)

According to Kevin Davis, CEO and executive director of INN, the fund received 118 applications. Knight launched the fund with $1 million to support projects over a two year period, with three more rounds of funding. As is the case with most Knight projects, the winners will have to share their work and any code with the public. (This is a good place to note that Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)

Davis said the purpose of the fund is to give smaller outlets the ability to experiment with ideas they would not otherwise have the time or resources to pursue. “One of the underlying assumptions here is, no matter how small or large your nonprofit, there isn’t $25,000 or $35,000 lying around for an experiment,” Davis said. Because the funding amounts are relatively modest, the judges were looking for projects that expand on existing work rather than building from scratch.

“The organizations we ended up funding clearly have been working on some of these concepts for a while and were looking for an opportunity to experiment and ways to invest,” Davis said.

That includes MORI, a tool developed by Chalkbeat to measure the influence and reach of their stories. The $28,280 in funding they’ll receive will go towards building a new feature that will help Chalkbeat target specific audiences for their work.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism will use its $25,000 in funding to launch a weekly radio program and a series of public forums based around the center’s reporting. Covering topics like farm safety, migrant labor, and meth addiction, the Center will create 13 23-minute shows that will air on commercial radio stations.

Overall the projects echo some of the ideas and experiments seen elsewhere in the journalism world, like event programming, native advertising, and cross-media collaboration.

Seattle-based InvestigateWest plans to use its $15,000 in funding to partner with public radio station KUOW on radio series grounded in the site’s investigative reporting. Jason Alcorn, associate director of InvestigateWest, said the site regularly collaborates with other local news outlets like King 5, The News Tribune, and KUOW.

Alcorn said the funding will be used to figure out the right format for the program and to perform some market research. Ideally, the program would combine the investigative work and data-backed analysis of InvestigateWest with the audio-friendly narrative storytelling of KUOW, Alcorn said.

The plan is to find underwriting specific to the program, along with individual support from KUOW members and revenue from events tied to the show. “The idea is its revenue positive and self-sustaining going forward, Alcorn said.

The Food & Environment Reporting Network will use its $35,000 in funding to launch an series of events called FERN Talks & Eats, that combines live stories about food with dishes prepared by a chef. Tom Laskawy, cofounder and executive director of FERN, said over email: “Our primary hope is that the event is an entertaining and delicious experience attractive to a paying audience as well as to corporate sponsors. The ultimate goal is to repeat and replicate our initial event in different cities and generate an on-going revenue stream.”

Southern California Public Radio, which is receiving $35,000 in funding, is developing a native advertising program for its desktop and mobile products. According to their application, they plan to run a pilot program for “native underwriting” over the course of six months. “Usually the focus is on innovation in the newsroom and around the editorial product,” said Alex Schaffert-Callaghan, digital media director for SCPR. “But now the time has come and we have to stop complaining about the lack of new revenue and innovate.”

Schaffert-Callaghan said their goal is to create native underwriting that is on par with commercial media companies, but meets the ethical and journalistic standards of public radio. That means crafting a design and messaging that draws clear lines between sponsored underwriting and editorial content.

For a project to be successful, it’ll need to have a system in place that makes creating native underwriting an easy process but also has support from the sales team and the newsroom. “We have every incentive to do this well, because anything less would hurt our brand. And frankly, we can’t afford that,” she said.

One thing all of the projects share is a focus on growing audience, either for the purpose of raising revenue or simply to attract a larger readership. Davis said the idea of user acquisition, and devising strategies for growing an audience, is a relatively new concept for parts of the news business, and one that’s especially important for nonprofits, many of which have small audiences. “If your mission is to inform the public, you have to experiment with different media and partners to reach those folks,” Davis said. “It’s about informing them where they are, not bringing them to where you are.”

Knight Foundation has long been in the business of supporting media, especially the growing sector of nonprofit online news, and its efforts of late in the local space have focused on helping media organizations reach a level of financial stability outside of foundation support.

Davis said the winning projects, and those to come in subsequent rounds, need to be able to show they can live on without continued support of grant funding. The point of the the INNovation fund is to move organizations along the chain towards sustainability, not to experiment just for the sake of experimenting.

“If the projects themselves don’t have an expectation of breaking even then we have a hard time looking at them as helping sustainability,” Davis said.


Award: $28,280
Twitter: @chalkbeat

Description: Chalkbeat has developed a tool called MORI (Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence), a WordPress plug-in developed last year and launched this past February. This project will add a new feature to MORI to help Chalkbeat plan their stories for maximum impact, and then track the influence they have in the real world. It is a CRM (constituent relationship management) tool linking MORI’s database of metadata on individual stories’ target audiences, types and topics to Chalkbeat’s efforts to distribute stories to readers or groups of readers directly and through the network of distribution partners in each bureau. It will streamline their systems for getting stories directly into the hands of people most likely to be interested in them. The goals of this project are to boost the ability to attract paid sponsorships, increasing their appeal to national/local sponsors, and helping to retain and grow philanthropic revenue.

Food & Environment Reporting Network

Award: $35,000
Twitter: @fernnews

Description: FERN project is an event called “FERN Talks & Eats.” It will feature up to three FERN reporters live on stage, sharing and presenting dramatic episodes about food and food issues, working with a stage director to craft a dynamic, engaging and entertaining experience that draws a wide audience. This will be paired with a high profile chef who will interpret the foods at the center of each story, producing various dishes for participants to eat. FERN plans to present the first event in New York in late 2014. They will charge a minimum of $60 per person and accommodate up to 250 guests, with additional revenue from corporate sponsors. This will lay the groundwork for future similar events in NY and other communities. FERN has done this once before on a smaller scale. Its success is why they feel they can produce a larger prototype event to eventually become a series of events in other communities, and which will increase audience and revenue.


Award: $15,000
Twitter: @invw

Description: This grant will support a collaborative project with Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW to launch a new branded radio series, coupling IW’s investigative know-how with KUOW’s audience reach. This series will allow listeners to look forward to broadcasts, find related material online, and support the series financially. Investigate West will provide the foundation of a story through data analysis, public records and traditional reporting, and KUOW will add the narrative storytelling to make for must-listen radio. The unbundled pieces will air during drive time. Both organizations will benefit from opportunities to increase audience engagement generated: in-studio interviews, public conversations with sources and experts, a podcast, and documentary photography exhibitions. While an ambitious project, both organizations expect to create several paths to sustainability and ultimately cover 100% of total operating costs going forward.

Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism

Award: $25,000
Twitter: @iowawatch

Description: The Iowa Center will develop a statewide audience engagement program that takes its reporting to new audiences via two methods: a weekly statewide radio program, and IowaWatch-based public forums in cities where the program is aired. The goal is to expand audience and reach more potential personal and corporate funders through donations, underwriting and advertising than is now done through heavy reliance on newspapers. IowaWatch will hire a consultant who is an experienced broadcaster with a deep background in, and connections to, Iowa media. He will also act as producer and host of the radio programs. Commercial radio stations will be selected based on their location, signal strength, and commitment to community-based programming and service. Ten stations are targeted for placement of a 23-minute program, with plans for 13 shows in the first and second phases of the project. These airings will be followed up with community forums in those areas where the issue is resonating. Video will also be created. Topics to be covered will include farm safety, working conditions for seasonal migrant farm workers, meth addiction among mothers, and narrowing the opportunity gaps that exist among white, black and Latino residents. Many of these topics are critical during upcoming political campaigns. Staffing for the project will include student journalists.

Public Herald

Award: $35,000
Twitter: @publicherald

Description: Public Herald will undertake a screening and discussion tour of its investigative documentary ‘Triple Divide’ through several key areas where hydrofracking is proposed across the US – Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, New Mexico, California, Michigan and key areas in between where onshore unconventional oil and gas development via fracking is being planned or is in initial stages. Triple Divide, narrated by actor Mark Ruffalo, is the result of an 18-month investigation into negative impacts from fracking in Pennsylvania since 2008 and how those impacts are handled by regulators and industry. These tours have increased Public Herald’s member base by over 220% in just 11 months. Each event will consist of a screening of the film and discussion with local groups, elected officials, media and the public. Also, each community will be introduced to Public Herald’s new open source #Fileroom project, making otherwise invisible data about citizen reports of fracking impacts available to the public as digital files organized by state, country and township. They also plan to cross the nation in a zero emissions vehicle and share the experience as a test drive and rolling review on their website. Each forum will also provide information on Public Herald membership to attendees. It includes monthly updates and exclusive benefits.

San Francisco Public Press

Award: $35,000
Twitter: @sfpublicpress

Description: SF Public Press plans to launch a street mobilization program to increase visibility of the organization, expand audience and grow readers who are most likely to become paid member-subscribers. They will deploy a crew of 4 street hawker-canvassers to participate in and track public-facing activities, including: selling the quarterly ad-free paper for $1/copy; offering free papers in exchange for signing up for the weekly email newsletter; surveying people about their interest in supporting public media; and soliciting donations. Hawkers will be equipped with I-pad Minis to demonstrate the news site and to gather email addresses, collect responses and process donations. This program will enhance their upcoming Pedal-Powered News initiative, an effort to expand distribution and increase engagement using bicycles to deliver the newspaper to nearly 100 retail locations and community centers and to members’ homes across San Francisco. This is hopefully to be funded by a Kickstarter campaign being launched this month, with matching funds from the Knight Foundation. Ultimate goals of the street hawker program are projected to be an increase in the newsletter mailing list to 4,000 (currently 1,400); income from newspaper sales to double the current six-month sales income; and growing six-month paid revenue from memberships by 75%. Very ambitious, but because of the density in San Francisco which is conducive to grassroots marketing and numerous community events and seasonal public gatherings, SF Public Press is in a good position to succeed.

Southern California Public Radio

Award: $35,000
Twitter: @KPCC

Description: SCPR hopes to solve the riddle of native advertising for nonprofit news organizations. They will create, within the legal limitations placed on public media, a scalable native underwriting convention that delivers value to both audience and the underwriter. The end framework would preserve public media’s common mission and values, while driving digital revenue growth. The grant will enable SCPR to contract with a strategist for six months to design and implement a pilot native underwriting campaign. Sponsored content will appear in contextually relevant placements across SCPR’s digital products for both listeners and readers on mobile/desktop platforms. They will commit to beginning one sold campaign before the conclusion of the pilot program, although it may last longer. SCPR feels that offering sponsored content packages to SCPR’s funders is the logical next step for monetizing its digital products, while keeping pace with private-market competitors. An outside digital marketing firm will work with SCPR staff and also a native sales consultant to develop the campaign, which will be with one sponsor. Key concepts will include taking care that sponsor content is distinctly different visually from editorial content and that it is clearly identified as sponsor messaging. In details of design and execution, SCPR intends to follow the most explicit precedents set by other news organizations, including clear sponsorship marks in the URL, header and footer, overall design aesthetic, and body copy.


Award: $28,000
Twitter: @WXXIrochester

Description: This grant will help develop and roll out a mobile app to encourage and streamline aggregation of user-generated content. The goal is to broaden audience engagement, primarily with younger, mobile and under-represented community members. The initial phase will focus on adolescents. The app will be available in English and Spanish, and its design will emphasize visual and intuitive prompts, accessibility and whole platform will bridge smartphone, SMS and web platforms. A consortium of community media and educational partners will collaborate to promote the technology, encourage participation and exchange and collaborate on the resulting content. These partners include the legacy African-American community station in Rochester, Hacks and Hackers, a local college’s department of adolescent education, and the journalism school at Rochester Institute of Technology. A pool of shared content would be available to support broadcast content including news coverage, informing community discussions within under-represented audiences, and in existing WXXI outreach programming, including a voter empowerment and information initiative, a media literacy program for ages 12-24, and a community engagement project around accessibility issues. A media campaign to build awareness will be rolled out online and via broadcast and social media around a working theme of “Share Your Story.” Working with Action for a Better Community, a local Rochester nonprofit assisting low-income families, the project will help partners provide informational events to: neighborhood meetings in low-income areas; inner city neighborhood centers and YMCAs; refugee community groups and support agencies; agencies that comprise the Center for Community Health; and the Al Sigl Community of Agencies which promotes inclusion for the disabled. There will also be a mobile kiosk presence in public markets and the new bus interchange. RIT students will build their own content using the app to share and also engage in hands-on demonstrations to support capacity among the focus demographic.

POSTED     April 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
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