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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The media support system needs an update

A decentralized and diversified media ecosystem needs new forms of philanthropic and organizational journalistic support to become sustainable.

June 13, 2024 | By Matt DeRienzo – Newsroom Consultant@mattderienzo

Not too long ago, the consensus was that a significant digital reader revenue strategy could only work at two or three outlier news organizations. The New York Times had the breadth and depth and quality of content for which the average person highly engaged with the news might pay. The Wall Street Journal had a large potential base of readers who needed its specialized content for their jobs and who had expense accounts that would cover it.

Beleaguered regional newspapers such as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Boston Globe eventually proved this wrong. Voice of San Diego and dozens of other local and national nonprofit newsrooms found they could have public radio-like success with small donations from readers who understood the altruistic mission of accountability journalism.

Beyond the business side

Local news organizations are right to pursue the formula. We’re past the debate over whether a significant number of readers will pay to support strong journalism. It’s been proven they will.

Industry leaders and journalism funders continue to put crucial focus on testing and improving revenue models. Many cohorts of local publishers have been trained in the business-side factors involved in a reader revenue strategy. Help on achieving the level of journalism that will capture an audience and move them to give or subscribe has been much harder to come by. 

And that’s the elephant in the room: The media support system – the dot orgs, foundations and funding organizations – need to figure out how to help make the journalism at under-resourced newsrooms strong and impactful enough to generate the kind of support that will make them sustainable. (And ultimately lead to more such journalism.)

This isn’t a question of building a business model or fundraising. This is about staffing and data acumen and the knowledge and tools it takes to create powerful journalism and a user experience that audiences value and support. 

As they long have, amazing training opportunities exist through organizations such as IRE, ONA, SPJ, the Ida B. Wells Society and more. But the barriers for small and under-resourced news organizations to actually take advantage and put that training to use are high.

Small is the new normal

Zooming out, we see a local journalism landscape dominated by hundreds of very small newsrooms: local independent online startups that are one- to three-person operations and legacy Black and brown news organizations. They have limited resources or are chain-owned daily newspapers whose staffs have been reduced to one or two reporters.

First and foremost, these newsrooms need more direct operational funding to employ more journalists. This is something that the massive Press Forward initiative created by a coalition of journalism-supporting foundations is seeking to address.

But the industry also needs to have teams equipped for the future. Newsrooms like these will benefit from a system of training, resources and mentorship to support “capital J” accountability journalism in news ecosystems that are now decentralized.

Readers are well-served and grateful for coverage of the day-to-day news of the community. However, every newsroom yearns for the space and resources to also do work that goes deeper, that holds the powerful accountable, that has impact and drives change. It’s the kind of work that elevates the stature of your brand, that exposes your organization to more people, that is the catalyst to subscribe or give for many. 

We need great journalism

I’d argue that the same dynamic applies to advertising at many news organizations, even if they don’t realize it. They can’t compete with the price, reach and targeting of the digital ad tech that drives the biggest online platforms. But small newsrooms can make a hell of a case to local advertisers that they want to be adjacent to and associated with the kind of journalism that has the community appreciative and engaged. 

This has happened in incredible (even Pulitzer Prize-winning) ways and it is exciting how quickly  collaborative journalism has been embraced. But it’s never completely organic. This movement has happened in large part through the facilitation, research, training, convening and cheerleading of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Solutions Journalism Network has built training programs into its facilitation of regional and topical journalism collaboratives. And ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal, ICIJ and my alma mater, the Center for Public Integrity, helped show a new generation of investigative and single topic-focused nonprofits how having collaboration in your DNA allows you to punch far above your weight.

Meanwhile, Report for America is building training, mentorship and additional editing support into its process, to make sure that its ambitious goal of putting hundreds of additional reporters in under-resourced local newsrooms across the country has the intended impact. And the Investigative Editing Corps is pairing small newsrooms with experienced editors to provide support for enterprise and investigative reporting that goes beyond their typical daily news coverage.

Emphasis on essentials

Technology is also playing a part in making more advanced reporting possible in smaller newsrooms, from data journalism resources such as The Accountability Project and Big Local News to the document and records-access tools of Muck Rock

When the Center for Public Integrity focused its mission four years ago on investigative reporting that confronts inequality in the U.S., we thought about how to scale that work beyond what our 25-person newsroom could do. When we obtained secret White House documents showing the true extent of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. We shared them directly with journalists across the country, and it saved lives. After spending thousands of hours obtaining and cleaning more than a decade’s worth of data about polling place locations and closures, we made it available to power not just our own reporting, but others’ work ranging from small local news organizations to NPR, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

We followed ProPublica’s wonderful example of publishing “reporting recipes” for investigations that local reporters could follow in their own communities. This grew into a routine of sharing customized data and reporting formulas with local news organizations ahead of our own publishing. Then came full-blown, public-facing local reporting toolkits for topics such as lead contamination, hate crimes against AAPI people and threats to academic freedom on college campuses.

A lightbulb went off when we were publishing “Unhoused and Undercounted,” an investigation that proved public school districts across the country were failing to identify and serve homeless students as required by federal law. We realized that this story, using our data analysis, could be written in almost any local community in the country and have a high potential for very direct impact in helping kids. 

We were offering the data and the formula of questions to ask. How could we get it — and similar investigations — into the hands of any/every willing local newsroom able to tackle it, in a way that allowed them to have impact with few resources but also an entry point to go far deeper into the topic in their community if they could?

Decentralized journalism calls for decentralized solutions for seeding and supporting the kind of work that will spark a virtuous cycle of revenue that rewards the most impactful journalism. Our media ecosystem is supported by a robust network of organizations that are focused on keeping newsrooms afloat. But like all things digital, even this support must continue to evolve. Revenue models are only as effective as audiences’ willingness to support journalism. It’s time to focus on empowering under-resourced newsrooms to deliver the highest caliber journalism, to support society – and to inspire audiences to support them. 

About the author

Matt DeRienzo is a veteran newsroom leader whose work over the past four years as editor in chief of the Center for Public Integrity was recognized with a national Edward R. Murrow Award for general excellence. Previously, he served as vice president of news for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers and as the first full-time executive director of LION, a national nonprofit supporting local independent online news organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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