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Feb. 7, 2024, 2:56 p.m.
Business Models

Many small news nonprofits feel overlooked by funders. A new coalition is giving them a voice

“There are haves and have-nots in the nonprofit journalism space. And this isn’t right.”

This is Part I of a two-part series, “‘Haves and have-nots’ in nonprofit news? The view from small news outlets.” Update: You can read Part II here.

Here’s a question I bet you can’t answer without Googling: What’s Didelphis virginiana? And what does Didelphis virginiana have to do with local news?

I couldn’t have answered either question five months ago. But last fall, when I interviewed Corinne Colbert, she introduced me to her publication, the Athens County Independent. That’s how I learned that Didelphis virginiana is an opossum — “America’s only native marsupial.” It’s also the species of the Independent’s mascot, Scoop, “because its characteristics are a good match for ours,” as the Independent’s website explains:

Scoop, like any good character, has a dramatic origin story. The Independent is the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Colbert being fired as editor of The Athens News in early 2022 after reporting on the publication’s own suspect advertising practices. Through a crowdfunding campaign, she raised about $18,000 to start a nonprofit news outlet; by “late spring,” community foundation grants had brought Colbert and her founding team up to nearly $50,000. The Independent, where Colbert is editor-in-chief, published its first story in August 2022.

Athens County, Ohio, where Colbert has lived for decades, is home to Ohio University and has a total population around 60,000. The Independent covers issues that affect residents’ day-to-day lives, such as efforts to revamp a community park and local restaurant reviews. It publishes who made honor roll (as community-submitted content) and a calendar of community events. But it also acts as a watchdog on different levels, reporting on candidates for office and keeping an eye on OU and other local institutions. The digital nonprofit newsroom recently covered developments in a case about university liability for its former police officer’s abuse of a minor, and, in some of the Independent’s most-read early coverage, tracked controversies at Hocking College, a local community college. All of its reporting is free to read.

The Independent is young, but its 2022 impact report makes a compelling case for the publication’s community and civic value. Per that report, because of its news coverage, 20% of readers reported attending a public meeting, 26% voted in an election, and 46% attended a community event. More than 80% of readers said it was extremely or very important that the Independent’s coverage is “free to all”; more than 90% reported high levels of trust in its reporting; and close to 100% said they prioritized the publication being “locally owned and operated.”

Despite the community support Colbert and the Independent team have generated, with a gross revenue of about $139,000 for 2023, they’re still far from where they want to be. The outlet’s staff currently comprises Colbert, two staff writers, and a creative director, plus two interns. Paying a roughly five-person staff full-time plus benefits (the Independent doesn’t currently offer health benefits), and adding development and sales staff, would cost “upwards of $450,000 per year,” per the 2022 impact report. That’s a scale Colbert hopes to achieve within the next year or two; eventually, she wants to “hit a staff of 10,” she told me, which “would bring our payroll line alone to about $600k” with a salary floor of $35,000.

The challenge? Not only is Athens County small; it’s not particularly affluent. The median household income is about $49,000. So the Independent has looked to the national level for additional support, applying for grants and reaching out to “big players” like the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project.

That hasn’t worked out so far: “Basically the message we get is that we are too new and too small,” Colbert told me.

That anecdotal experience speaks to a fundamental challenge for small community news outlets well beyond the Independent. Research on the nonprofit news sector suggests that smaller outlets get less money from foundations than larger ones. “Foundations are funneling more donations to larger, more established state and regional outlets,” according to the Institute for Nonprofit News’ 2023 Index survey. The same survey found local outlets see few foundation dollars compared to the funding received by national or global news organizations. (As Colbert put it, “we get proportionately less major philanthropy than the Texas Tribunes and ProPublicas of the world.”) But foundation revenue is still a key part of these small outlets’ lifeblood — INN also found that “local outlets derive 45% of their total revenue from foundation grants,” including locally based philanthropy.

Scrappy labors of civic love like the Independent are, increasingly, popping up in communities across the country. Colbert is part of a wave of journalists and citizens trying to rebuild local news as a community-supported public resource by launching nonprofit news outlets, especially as many for-profit legacy news outlets have been squeezed and decimated by their owners. For a sense of scale: INN found that the number of local nonprofits “more than doubled in six years,” with 81 outlets launching “since rapid growth began in 2017” (that’s more than one per month). Medill’s 2023 State of Local News report said that 33% of digital local news sites are nonprofit, as well as 80% of state and regional sites; 40% of sites that are five years old or older are nonprofits.1

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Some of these nonprofits, like The Texas Tribune (launched in 2009) and The Baltimore Banner (launched in 2022), are backed by millions of dollars and big names; others are one-woman or one-man shows. But for large and small nonprofits alike, INN has been a key supporter of growth and momentum, especially through NewsMatch, its marathon two-month annual national matching campaign to support nonprofit news.

Despite this explosive growth, it’s a tough road for even the most successful nonprofits (as the Texas Tribune’s first-ever layoffs last summer demonstrate). Reporters and publishers I talked to from eight different newsrooms founded between 2009 and 2022 — based in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Rhode Island, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Ohio, in rural, urban, and small-town communities alike — described similar challenges securing funding and attention from national funders, which compound the physical and psychological burden of being perpetually overworked and underpaid. Most of these eight nonprofits have annual budgets under $200,000 (and one true shoestring publication reported revenue and expenses under $10,000 for 2022); all have budgets under $500,000.

These journalists say that more foundation money should flow directly to newsrooms — especially the smallest, community-based, homegrown newsrooms — in the form of direct, unrestricted operating funding. That’s why they’ve joined the new Alliance of Nonprofit News Outlets (ANNO), a “no dues, no staff, no board, and no office” association launched last August with 17 founding member outlets. More newsrooms, including the Athens County Independent, have signed on since; as of this month, ANNO’s member ranks have climbed to 32 publications, founded anywhere from the aughts to last year.2

ANNO newsrooms have found that they have more of a voice by banding together: Since last summer, before officially launching, publishers from ANNO newsrooms have held conversations with multiple large journalism funders to give their perspective on what they need in the trenches of keeping their outlets alive — and how philanthropy can better, and more equitably, support them.

It’s an especially timely effort because funders say now is the moment to pull out all the stops to attempt to save local news. Through the Press Forward initiative announced last fall, a coalition of big and small players in American philanthropy led by the MacArthur Foundation are attempting to inject at least $500 million into revitalizing local news over the next five years, with some making their first-ever foray into funding journalism (though Press Forward aims to support “nonprofit, public, and for-profit news” alike).

EcoRI News publisher and founding ANNO member Joanna Detz told me that ANNO’s goal, as much as anything, is for members “to be seen as a legitimate part of the nonprofit news sector, worthy of direct support, which we desperately need.”

“No dues, no staff, no board, and no office”

When Jason Pramas began the outreach to newsrooms that would form the foundation for ANNO, he was coming from a place of desperation and frustration after facing crushing financial pressure during the pandemic.

Pramas has run multiple news organizations. In 2022, he was executive editor of the commercial alt-weekly DigBoston and the executive director of the Boston Institute of Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ). COVID hit both outlets hard; Pramas told me DigBoston lost all of its advertising support twice during the pandemic, in March 2020 and April 2022. Barely two months after the second loss, a key funder of BINJ delayed its grant distribution by six months, from June to December, forcing Pramas and two colleagues off-salary for some of that interim. (Pramas still runs BINJ; DigBoston shut down in June 2023.)

During that grim summer, Pramas resorted to what he called a “Hail Mary.” In July 2022, he published an essay titled “Share and Share Alike” calling for major funders to distribute money equally to all nonprofit news outlets.

“I’m basically saying, there are haves and have-nots in the nonprofit journalism space. And this isn’t right,” said Pramas, who has worked in nonprofit journalism for more than 15 years. While he believes funders have good intentions, in his view, larger nonprofit outlets like ProPublica are more appealing to funders and, in addition to receiving more money from them directly, get “the better deals” from funding available through membership in journalism support groups (sometimes called intermediaries) like INN and the Local Independent Online News Publishers (LION). Meanwhile, “the rest of us are sort of…made to engage in gladiatorial combat with each other for the scarce resources on offer, which are the crumbs from the table of these funders,” he told me.

Pramas organized an email listserv and invited thousands of nonprofit publishers to join to discuss these issues; by early September, the listserv had about 140 members, he said. (Disclosure: I first met Pramas on a Google Meet call that fall, when I was the only full-time reporter for the nonprofit Lexington Observer — I did not join this listserv, and LexObserver is not an ANNO member.) About 30 of the most active members met in smaller groups via Zoom and agreed on two points: a need for more journalism funding (they were already hearing rumblings of Press Forward), and a need for, specifically, general operating funding — not just project-based funding — that they said should be distributed directly to newsrooms, instead of filtering down through intermediaries.

Twenty-three of these organizations ultimately signed an open letter that they sent to 17 medium and large funders in May 2023. “We note with alarm the fact that the funding on offer for outlets like ours — already established and actively publishing in news deserts or incipient news deserts — is woefully insufficient for the task at hand,” they wrote. “And we believe that one important reason for that growing problem is because of the received wisdom in the foundation world over the last 15+ years that providing direct operational support to nonprofit news outlets is bad practice.” They invited each foundation to join a conversation about how funding systems could better sustain smaller, mostly local outlets like theirs.

By July, some of the newsrooms had met with about five funders, including the MacArthur Foundation and the American Journalism Project, both organizations confirmed to me separately. (Karen Rundlet, the new CEO and executive director of INN as of January and previously senior director of the Knight Foundation’s journalism program, also confirmed to me that she met with ANNO members while at Knight.) These conversations were “very cordial, very good,” Pramas said. The nonprofit outlets, he said, started to feel as if their concerns were truly being heard; they also learned more about the very real limitations smaller funders faced in funding newsrooms directly.

ANNO officially launched the following month. “It was evident that we needed an organization to represent the interests of nonprofit news outlets by continuing to apply pressure on funders for the long haul,” Pramas wrote in a statement in August.

ANNO’s 32 current members are a varied bunch. While most are digital-only or digital-focused, they include a handful of print publications. Reporting-wise, a couple have more of an alt-weekly, alternative spirit, but the majority focus on local or community journalism, whether on the town, city, county, regional, or state level.

Geographically, ANNO members hail from 15 different states, but more than a third (11) are based in either Massachusetts or Rhode Island. Those organizations included, more than half (17) of ANNO outlets are based in the Northeast, but the alliance does comprise outlets from across the country — other member organizations are based in the West and Midwest, with just two from the South. Though the majority of ANNO’s members are smaller, local newsrooms, a few are national and international nonprofits. Pramas said that what unites most of these newsrooms is a sense that they are “out groups,” which are further removed from “big money and elite networks” than the outlets they see as “in groups.”

Dana Amihere is the founder and executive director of AfroLA, one of the only Black-led newsrooms to join ANNO. Amihere decided to join after hearing about the coalition in a newsletter and having a virtual conversation with Pramas in November. “I joined because I thought it was a group of people who were like-minded in how we perceive industry organizations,” she told me. “We weren’t afraid to really confront some of the deficiencies and the issues that we see as problematic within these industries. And I saw them going about it in a very targeted way. And I think that was appealing to me.”

That being said, in some ways, Amihere wryly observed that ANNO borders on too scrappy, out of its (in her view, admirable) commitment to the “no dues, no staff, no board, and no office” purity. “They have this feistiness; they have some fight,” she reflected. “But I feel like it’s more like a scrappy militia than a full-fledged army. And I don’t know that that’s enough to win the war here.”

Colbert told me that more than anything, ANNO has given her a new level of voice. “It’s one thing for the American Journalism Project, or Report for America, or whatever, to talk to Corinne Colbert at the Athens County Independent — one outlet that serves 53,000 people,3” she said. “It’s another thing for them to talk with members of an organization who represent many outlets that serve many people…Some of the ideas, some of the ways that people talk about funding news aren’t necessarily going to work in small markets.”

ANNO has also become a place for these newsrooms to have candid conversations among themselves, especially via their “very lively” Google group, Colbert added.

“The ANNO discussion has been really robust and interesting, and much more real than I’ve gotten anywhere else,” said Dr. Alice Dreger, a historian and the founder of member-outlet East Lansing Info (she’s also an advisory board member at The Shoestring, another Massachusetts-based ANNO member). “It’s places like the ANNO list where I’m hearing the real stories, because nobody’s afraid of offending the funders.”

Last fall, Dreger stepped away from the outlet she’d poured her life into for a decade. She has not, however, left local news behind. She’s working on a book about local news, and in January, she launched a newsletter called “Local News Blues” that brings some of the frank conversations she’s having with local journalists for her research into the open — in some ways, in a very similar spirit to ANNO (Colbert is among the early contributors, and Dreger references other ANNO members in some of her pieces).

Now that Dreger has left East Lansing Info, she feels more at liberty to candidly critique “the big powers in local news,” she told me.

“It’s become clear to me over the last five years that local news producers are often worried about publicly speaking the truth about the industry itself,” she wrote in the first newsletter edition. “Part of that comes from being unsure that anyone cares what they have to say or that their own experiences are anything like others’. But part of it comes from the fear of biting the hands that feed us with grants and moral support.”

“Philanthropy for journalism has become an increasingly competitive space”

Membership in ANNO doesn’t at all preclude membership in other, much bigger journalism networks. About three-quarters of ANNO members are also INN members, and slightly fewer are also LION members. ANNO explicitly emphasizes that it does not exist to compete with INN or LION; “We just feel that those groups lack a core mandate to ensure that as much funder money as possible is flowing to the huge number of smaller news organizations that need it most.”

All eight members of ANNO that I interviewed are INN members. Almost across the board, these newsrooms have benefited from resources offered by the Institute for Nonprofit News — especially NewsMatch, INN’s matching program born in the aftermath of the 2016 election. But some publishers feel that INN can make it harder to have direct conversations with funders, and for funders’ dollars to reach their newsrooms, because they say funders default to working through INN instead of going directly to their outlets.

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Joe McCarthy, the publisher and chief revenue officer of the Sierra Nevada Ally and an ANNO member, is grateful to INN — “all the work they do, their heart’s in the right place,” he said. In his experience meeting with funders through ANNO, he reflected, “those organizations are very comfortable giving to third-party organizations that provide services — taking nothing away from those organizations, which do a fabulous job for all of us.”

“But,” McCarthy added, “if that’s their traditional way of giving or allocating a lot of [their] funds…it’s still going to be hard for us to survive.”

While some ANNO members perceive INN as a kind of gatekeeper, separating them from funders, INN sees itself as a crucial link between funders and newsrooms.

In one conspicuous way, INN helps bring its member newsrooms some direct unrestricted operating funds each year. In fact, for many nonprofit newsrooms, NewsMatch is the single most important fundraiser of the year. And, as former INN executive director and CEO Sue Cross sees it, INN actually helps direct funder dollars to small newsrooms that funders wouldn’t individually have the bandwidth to vet and award grants otherwise. (I interviewed Cross for this story in December 2023: Cross had served as INN’s executive director since 2015, but stepped down at the end of 2023. Rundlet took the helm of INN on Jan. 8, and answered questions for this story over email this month.)

Since 2016, INN, and NewsMatch, have been transformed by the scale of their growth. In the program’s first year, the Knight Foundation provided $1.5 million in matching funds, which was distributed to 57 nonprofit newsrooms across the country. Today, nearly 20 national funders contribute about $7 million to NewsMatch, and several hundred local and regional funders contribute millions more, which is divided among more than 300 newsrooms.4

Two things are true here. One: NewsMatch has been a game-changing success for the nonprofit news industry, and a godsend, in particular, for small newsrooms. Two: Newsrooms that have been participating in NewsMatch since its earlier years, like ANNO members ecoRI News and East Lansing Info, have experienced NewsMatch’s growth as a decline in the matching funds they’ve personally received.

“Overall, NewsMatch is great,” Detz said. “It just gets smaller and smaller every year, as more newsrooms join INN.” That’s not true for everyone, but it is true, on balance, for EcoRI. The outlet received $28,000 for the 2017 NewsMatch cycle; for the 2023 cycle, Detz expects to receive about $16,000, including the new donor bonus, she told me.

It’s a similar story for the East Lansing Info. “NewsMatch funding has gone down as more organizations have joined INN,” Dreger and Emily Joan Elliott wrote in the outlet’s 2021 annual report. “In 2019, we obtained $30,000 from NewsMatch; in 2020, $22,000; and in 2021, just $15,000. We have always hit the max for which we are eligible, but the fact is that, year by year, the importance of local support has risen steadily.”5

Cross acknowledged that while “the field is growing every year…you don’t have a tripling, a quadrupling in the number of journalism funders that are national foundations.” She also emphasized that INN sees the local fundraising component of NewsMatch as the more important marker of its success.

“The real success metric out of NewsMatch is never going to be the size of the national match — that’s the starting point, that’s the catalyst, that’s the spark” for local fundraising, she told me.

Rundlet, similarly, told me that the fundraising to keep NewsMatch growing “is not easy work.”

“Philanthropy for journalism has become an increasingly competitive space,” she said. But as that has happened, news outlets “have also become more creative in activating ‘local matches.’” 2022 was, in fact, the first year that local NewsMatch funders outpaced national funders.

To Colbert, the local match structure of NewsMatch, and other funding initiatives, can exacerbate the economic and infrastructure inequities that already disadvantage underresourced communities — especially more rural and small-town areas like Athens County. “If we had money for a match,” she said, “we wouldn’t need your money so much.”

Funding news in underresourced rural communities is a challenge Cross thinks about too. There can be “a little bit of magical thinking” in how funders talk about making outlets in these communities sustainable, she said. “If you only focus on sustainability — can it support itself without philanthropy? — you will get a certain kind of news because there are news types that are sustainable, and they tend to either go where there’s wealth, or where money is generated, like covering tech, covering business, covering real estate, or to the most entertaining [coverage]…or you’ll see a lot of fear mongering in local broadcast, or a lot of crime coverage that people get addicted to out of fear.”

For newsrooms serving less affluent areas, small communities in rural areas, and communities of color, and especially for local investigative reporting, “we are going to need ongoing philanthropy beyond what can be raised locally,” Cross said. At the same time, “if you look at the scope of need, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect we’re going to have national funding that can spread across the scale of the reinvention of journalism,” she added. “It has to spread to enable every newsroom to build that locally.”

Rundlet pointed to specific bonuses built into NewsMatch’s structure as a way that the program attempts to give additional match opportunities to the communities that need them the most. The campaign includes bonus funds “designed to serve organizations led by people of color and that serve audiences of color” as well as “for particular geographies,” she told me.

INN is a big tent. Its 425-plus members reflect the variety in the nonprofit news sector, including national heavyweights and tiny hyperlocals alike. Rundlet told me that local newsrooms “are the fastest growing segment of the INN membership.” The median revenue per INN member outlet is about $475,000, according to the 2023 Index, while the median revenue for local outlets is $271,000. Members pay dues on a sliding scale based on annual revenue, from $150 for newsrooms with revenue under $50,000, to $1,000 for newsrooms with revenue at or exceeding $2 million.

Some of the eight ANNO members I spoke with — who almost all have budgets much smaller than both of those medians — say that INN is set up to serve some larger members better than it serves them. Before the Athens County Independent joined ANNO, Colbert felt “a little disappointed and frustrated” with INN because she did not see many of its offerings as relevant to her newsroom. As an example, she pointed to a wealth screening resource INN offers intended to help members identify donors who could contribute major gifts. For INN to complete the screening, the INN member must first compile and submit a “prospect list” with as much detailed donor contact and personal information as possible.

Colbert told me she can’t take time off from reporting to create that list. “I don’t have a week to comb the internet for all of that data,” she said, “so it’s a great tool that I can’t access.”

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Cross acknowledged that not all INN resources are suited to all INN members, though she said INN tries to ensure there is a “critical mass” for any training they do provide. From INN’s perspective, putting money toward shared services helps it go further, in the big picture — for instance, giving money to each individual member newsroom for wealth screening, Cross said, would be “much harder because we can centrally contract more cheaply.”

In Rundlet’s first month as INN’s executive director, she said she’s seen that “INN is evolving its programs and services to meet member needs, including the smaller startups.” One recent example she pointed to: A member reached out about offering health insurance to their sole employee. Since INN has a special negotiated rate with JustWorks, a PEO company that offers group health insurance for members with as few as two employees, INN’s services manager is working with the company to figure out “what might be possible for a one-person shop,” Rundlet said.

Cross told me that small local newsrooms’ “needs do differ for sure” from the needs of other INN members, and “they are among the highest users of INN services,” especially audience development resources.

INN operates under the belief that a big-tent identity allows bigger and more established newsrooms to support smaller and newer outlets, from sharing fundraising tips to partnering on reporting. “Part of the value of the network being a big tent is that ProPublica and the other major national players just contribute so much,” Cross said. “They contribute more to other INN members than they get out of INN membership.” Smaller outlets, she said, can and do use INN’s listserv to ask questions that bigger outlets respond to — “a lot of what INN does…is facilitating that knowledge exchange,” Cross added, citing an instance where several members shared their memoranda of understandings on INN’s listservs, allowing other organizations to use them as templates, potentially saving them the cost and time of hiring a lawyer.

For INN to better serve newsrooms like hers, Colbert believes that smaller, bootstrapped newsrooms need more direct representation among INN leadership. She ran, unsuccessfully, for INN’s board of directors last October.

She’s not the only one thinking that way. Amihere, of AfroLA, also ran unsuccessfully for INN’s board in that cycle, though unlike Colbert, she was a designated “recommended candidate.” At the time, AfroLA had not yet joined ANNO; the newsroom joined about a month later.

When Amihere ran for INN’s board, she told me she was concerned with three aspects of representation on the top body: a lack of grassroots local news experience; inadequate demographic diversity; and a lack of age diversity, with members skewing older. Since she ran, Amihere feels the board’s representation has advanced “maybe a half-step in the right direction,” she told me.6

Today, only one of INN’s 11 board members actively leads a small, hyperlocal organization at all comparable to AfroLA, or the Athens County Independent — Ron Smith, of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (which is fiscally sponsored by, and receives some financial support from, Marquette). While multiple board members have previous experience in local news, and the board does include one other seat held by a state-level local news outlet leader (Adams of the Montana Free Press), as of Fiscal Year 2022, the MFP’s budget exceeded $1 million — making it much larger than most ANNO newsrooms.

“Farming in shitty soil”

At the heart of some journalists’ frustration with INN is a sense that the organization belongs to a different world — a world characterized by, from their perspective, glossy boardrooms and “bacon-wrapped” conferences, Dreger said.

“There are a lot of us who are grumpy,” Dreger said. “And it’s not that the people of INN aren’t great people trying to do great work…it feels like they’re kind of a shiny thing on the top of the mountain. And we are farming in shitty soil.”

“People feel stressed out, always on the verge of collapse,” she continued. “And when INN announces that they’ve created another position for themselves, or they’re having another sort of fancy initiative, a lot of the people who are doing that farming in shitty soil feel like, ‘Oh, my God, just give me the money.’”

I spoke with Dreger for this story in October 2023, which was the same month she stepped back from East Lansing Info. Her explanation of why she left gives texture and credibility to what it means to “farm in shitty soil”:

For years, I’ve been working past the point of physical exhaustion. At ELi, at various times, I’ve been publisher, executive director, managing editor, city desk editor, assistant editor, lead investigative reporter, development director, bookkeeper, and on and on. Conservatively speaking, I put in over a half-million dollars in unpaid labor in addition to the over $100,000 my spouse and I have donated in cash to bring East Lansing news.

But a lot of the burnout has to do with the psychological cost of bringing local news in a small town, something I think too few people outside serious local journalism understand. I am told I look exceptionally tough. The truth is that there have been many stories that have made me incredibly stressed out or sad to have to report.

This window into what it was like for Dreger to run East Lansing Info helps explain why she and Pramas both specifically pointed to INN’s executives earning six figures as a source of resentment and suspicion for some ANNO members. As Dreger said, some of those compensation packages are bigger than the entire annual budgets of the smallest hyperlocals. “Is it appropriate, when we’re in the current environment that we’re in, to…have a lot of executives at INN being paid gobsmacking amounts of money compared to the budgets that we all have?” she wondered. “It makes for a very uncomfortable situation.”

Amihere has a slightly different perspective. “I can see both sides of it,” she told me. For one thing, she noted that the cost of living varies drastically depending on where people are based. Generally, “we’re thinking, as local news organizations…of where we are, and how far money goes where we live,” she said, making for some apples-and-oranges comparisons. “I don’t want to sit here and say that no news executives should make six figures or beyond — I don’t want to say that because I don’t think it’s true.”

The problem, she said, isn’t so much that INN executives are overpaid; it’s that people like her are drastically underpaid, and the contrast is galling. “As a leader of AfroLA, my work is sure as hell worth $100,000,” she told me. “I mean, you don’t work 75 hours a week, and expect to get paid 50K. It’s just not O.K.”

“The reason people are angry,” she said, is this disparity is “a symptom of our own industry’s problems.” And the problems are baked in so deep, structurally, that no one person can fix this — “even one person near the top, or at the top.”

“We want to be equally funded”

In November 2022, ProPublica founder Dick Tofel wrote a much-discussed essay (republished by Nieman Lab) where he questioned whether journalism intermediaries like INN, LION Publishers, News Revenue Hub, and others were getting too much foundation money.

“I am increasingly worried when I observe what I see as the increasing fragility of many nonprofit newsrooms juxtaposed with the robust growth of the intermediaries whose mission is to support them,” Tofel wrote, arguing for more funding to go directly to newsrooms. The piece provoked enough response — much of it critical — that he wrote a second newsletter edition rounding up some commentary.

A year later, “I certainly agree that more grants directly to newsrooms make sense,” Tofel told me in an email in November. “With respect to the reality on the ground in 2023, I don’t think anyone could seriously disagree that the intermediaries are generally growing at a significantly faster pace than are the run of the newsrooms they ostensibly serve.”

To be clear, ANNO members don’t necessarily want to see INN defunded, nor do they think that giving all of INN’s funding to newsrooms would magically make them sustainable.

“I don’t want INN to be shortchanged in order…[for funding to flow] directly to us smaller guys,” McCarthy said. “We want to be equally funded.”

Cross understands the desire for more direct funding. “If I was running a local newsroom, I would be doing everything I can to get direct funding,” Cross said. “But I would also take advantage of every opportunity that’s a national fund, or a national group, or a national network to say, ‘Can I get funding there that I can leverage as well?’ I think it’s going to take both.” She also noted, “INN does more fundraising that goes directly to members than comes to us by a good bit. So our goal is to get as much [as possible] directly to them, and a big chunk of that is through NewsMatch.” According to INN’s 2022 impact report, “more than 56% of funding raised by INN is directly passed to members through NewsMatch and other direct payments.”

Ultimately, INN’s success “has to be measured by individual newsrooms,” Cross said — the only reason to fund INN is to help the nonprofit news field grow, not INN itself.

Dreger sees the value in some of the services INN provides, and believes they’ve improved, albeit more slowly than she’d like. She acknowledged that dividing INN’s grants by its member organizations, and distributing that money, would not be sustainable or realistic in the long term. “It is millions, but it’s only millions,” she said. (INN’s 2022 revenue totaled about $4.875 million, with a “cumulative reserve” of $1.6 million, per the impact report.)

“But I think INN has spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is,” Dreger added. “And during that time, we have wanted more out of it.”

INN’s programming “has changed so much — and evolved with the field, and it evolves every year,” Cross said, and cannot always meet every need, or do so as quickly as newsrooms would like.

INN used to focus more on mass training, for example, when the nonprofit news sector was less varied. Now, as the sector, and INN, have become bigger tents, INN has created smaller member cohorts facing similar challenges, like the Emerging Leaders Council and the Rural News Network — these didn’t exist “eight years ago, much less 15 years ago,” Cross said. (Multiple ANNO members, including Colbert and McCarthy, praised the Rural News Network unprompted and said it offers the kind of support that benefits their organizations.)

Having run nonprofits outside of news, Dreger said she is sympathetic to INN because “I recognize it’s really hard to know where the money is going to help,” she said. “But I do wish that INN spent more time having hard conversations with us, and listening to the degree of stress and anxiety and hope that groups have, because I think they tend to talk to the folks who are already their friends…you’ve got to listen to people who are in the trenches, and I’m not sure that that’s happened.”

Instead, she said, “what’s happened is there’s been a few chosen organizations that are listened to, and that many of the other organizations feel left out. And that’s been a struggle. And that’s, I think, where places like ANNO come from, is the feeling of being left out of the conversation.”

You can read Part II of this series here.

Photo by Linhao Zhang on Unsplash.

A previous version of this story stated that Jason Pramas still runs DigBoston. It has been updated to clarify that DigBoston shut down in June 2023. This story was also updated to state that Ron Smith, of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (not Ron Nixon, of the Associated Press) currently serves on INN’s board of directors. Due to an INN website update error, Nixon, not Smith, was still listed on INN’s board of directors when this story was published.

  1. The report also explicitly acknowledged the Athens County Independent as the only one of 20 digital news sites “founded within the past year” that is not based in an urban area, while “the vast majority — more than 80% — of the 541 digital-only news sites in this year’s tally are located in large metro areas with more than 250,000 residents.” []
  2. Not all ANNO members are as small as the eight organizations I talked to — a handful have budgets over $500,000, and at least one has a budget over $1 million — but the majority are lean, and place-based. []
  3. Referring to the number of adults in Athens County. []
  4. Drilling down into what, exactly, the average funds individual newsrooms have received through NewsMatch each year since 2016 is complicated because the program has made some big changes. Two important ones: in 2018, deciding to add “bonuses” on top of the main matches that reward achievements like bringing in new donors, and, in 2021, limiting eligibility for its national matching funds to newsrooms with operating budgets under $1 million “to concentrate funds where they would have the most impact,” according to NewsMatch program manager Meta Stange. But, on the whole, the “main match cap” declined as more newsrooms joined the campaign, from $28,000 in 2017 (among 109 newsrooms) down to $12,500 in 2020 (260 newsrooms), leading to the 2021 change. For the last two years, it’s held steady at $15,000. If you look at the average payout per newsroom, including extras like bonuses, the same pattern holds — a decline from 2018 to 2020 (approx. $24,500 to $17,200), which was back up to about $17,900 in 2022. []
  5. Meanwhile, here’s Dreger a few years earlier as quoted in INN’s NewsMatch 2019 press release: “Without NewsMatch’s national prominence, the reputation of its donors, and the resources it provides through its excellent staff, we would have a much harder time bringing our community meaningful, nonpartisan, high-quality local news,” she said at the time.

    An East Lansing Info Task Force report from August 2022 strikes a balance between those two perspectives. “At first, NewsMatch made a huge difference in our annual budget and also kickstarted us into a much better methodology for our annual sustainability campaign,” Dreger and others wrote in the report. “But the amount of funds available through NewsMatch has been decreasing as more organizations have joined that program, and the amount available is very unpredictable.” []

  6. INN’s board members have a wide range of experience and expertise across the media and nonprofit worlds. INN’s current 11-person board (excluding three emeritus directors) includes five public seats and six member seats. Marcia Parker, its board chair, is vice president of philanthropic partnerships at The New York Times; other public seats are held by Bruce Theriault, a previous senior VP for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; Mark Horvit, a journalism professor at Mizzou and a previous executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors; Hsiu Mei Wong, a partner at PA Consulting Group; and Kinsey Wilson, an executive at Automattic Inc, which owns WordPress (Kinsey “developed and oversees Newspack”). Its six member seats, meanwhile, are held by John Adams, executive director and editor-in-chief of Montana Free Press; Ron Smith, an instructor of practice of journalism and media studies at Marquette and the executive director of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service; Valeria Fernández, the managing editor of palabra. (a multimedia platform for National Association of Hispanic Journalists members) and founder of the mentorship program Altavoz Lab; Lucas Grindley, executive director of Next City, which focuses on solutions-based journalism focused on “reimagining cities as places of economic, environmental and racial justice”; Kyra Kyles, CEO of YR Media, a national nonprofit network of young journalists; and Carla Minet, the executive director and editor at the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. (Of the three emeritus directors, Laura Frank leads the Colorado News Collaborative, which supports collaborative reporting for 170+ news outlets across the state; INN co-founder Brant Houston, as a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, oversees, where journalism students report on local news; and INN co-founder Robert J. Rosenthal is a Reveal board member and previous executive director. He was also previously an executive editor of the Philly Inquirer and managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.)

    Adams of Montana Free Press and Minet were the members that bested Colbert and Amihere in the election. Amihere emphasized that she thinks the organizations both members lead, as well as all of the organizations run by INN member representatives, are “fantastic.”

    “I respect the work that they do,” she told me, “but I feel like there’s not representation of something that’s granular enough, that’s more on the ground.” []

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Feb. 7, 2024, 2:56 p.m.
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