Nonprofit News Outlets Gaining Ground, Study Finds

Nonprofit news organizations are boosting their revenue and investing more in business planning, even as their progress toward sustainability remains uneven, a study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation finds.

The report, Gaining Ground: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability, examined revenue, expense, and site traffic data from twenty nonprofit news sites and found that revenue growth between 2011 and 2013 averaged 73 percent — fueled largely by significant increases at a few leading sites, including the Texas Tribune — while several sites saw little or no increase in revenue. Sites that set specific financial goals saw average revenue growth of 88 percent, significantly more than the 16 percent increase among sites without specific financial goals, while sites that invested in a business or strategic plan saw average revenue growth of 76 percent, compared with 65 percent for sites that didn't invest in a plan. The study also found that sites with a state or regional focus increased their revenue by 55 percent on average, compared with 12 percent for sites with a local focus.

According to the report, while nonprofit news organizations are becoming less dependent on foundation funding, grants from foundations remain the largest source of funding for most nonprofit news sites — especially those in operation less than five years. The report also found that individual support and earned income are growing as sources of revenue, with the latter accounting for 23 percent of total revenue in 2013, up 5 percentage points from 2011. Nonprofit news sites also saw an average increase of 75 percent in the number of visits, with mobile traffic representing 22 percent of their site traffic in 2013, up from 14 percent in 2011. At the same time, only a few sites are testing sophisticated methods of tracking impact beyond basic website analytics, and most are struggling to capture audience engagement data in a more meaningful way.

"There are some promising success stories emerging in the nonprofit news arena that hold important lessons for organizations looking to scale and meet new audience demands," said Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation. "Using compelling data, the report highlights these best practices, while creating an important narrative around the progress of nonprofit news organizations that can contribute to the growth of the sector."

"New Report: Nonprofit News Organizations Move Closer to Sustainability." John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Press Release 04/08/2015.