July 27, 2022

The Institute for Nonprofit News released its fourth annual report on the sector Wednesday, finding strong growth over that period even during the COVID-19 years.  

Of 285 INN Network members surveyed, the 98 that could provide such figures had a median 25% growth over the four years. That core group had estimated revenue of $400 million in 2021.

During the four years, 135 outlets launched, and INN is finding relatively few closures, with a five-year longevity rate of 93%.

Earned revenue through sponsorships and other activities did take a hit over the four years, but that’s the smaller part of the revenue mix.  Philanthropic support was up in 2020 as foundations invested in pandemic coverage. And the steady influx of startups is a second big factor in the growing revenue for the sector.

One of the striking findings is that through collaborations, often with for-profit outlets, the sector’s work has appeared in 7,100 outlets. 

The longer time frame of a fourth report also has allowed the identification of potential problems. One is that philanthropic support still flows disproportionately to national and global outlets. They account for about a quarter of the network membership but receive two-thirds of the funding.

I spoke with Emily Roseman, INN’s director of research and editor, who agreed with me that the situation may be getting better. Several large new initiatives – the American Journalism Project and the National Trust for Local News – are explicitly focused on regional journalism.

Several of INN’s national member organizations – ProPublica, The Marshall Project and Chalkbeat — are growing programs that address local news needs. Report for America is also underwriting more reporting positions each year.

Roseman noted that INN addresses the issue with its foundation-funded NewsMatch program, providing both technical assistance and money to “smaller outlets in smaller markets that don’t have their own development person.”

The sector has good diversity numbers – about 35% of staff are people of color, a result roughly the same as last year. However, Roseman and fellow researchers found that those numbers are driven by outlets, many of them new, that focus on particular minority communities. Nothing wrong with that, but it masks that many others are not strong on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Other findings of note:

  • The scale of most operations remains small. The typical outlet brings in $373,000 in revenues and has six full-time employees. For the local outlets, the typical mix is 40% from foundations, 29% from earned revenue and 28% from individual giving.
  • Individual giving has been a good growth area for many of the local outlets. More of the giving comes from increasing the number of donors rather than bigger annual gifts from established donors.
  • Earned revenue, sponsorships particularly, fell in many places. A third of the group experienced decreases in 2020 and 2021. Median earned revenue for the local outlets declined by nearly a third during that period. That is particularly concerning, Roseman said, because earned revenue is viewed as an underdeveloped area of opportunity, a cushion if foundation and individual giving level off.
  • For the first time, the index research included a question on purpose and impact. The two targets of impact most often cited were “to build and expand knowledge around a complicated issue or topic, and … reflecting people’s perspective and lived experiences.” About a third of the field focuses on investigative journalism and 78% employ at least one investigative reporter and editor.

There are limits on what the report can measure. INN has some public media members, and their finances differ and are not included. Nor does INN try to count the number of nonmember outlets, presumably smaller and more fragile.

The for-profit local news sector also is seeing growth and its fortunes are tracked by a separate member organization, LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News).

Still, this year’s index shows the measurement beginning to mature as has the sector itself. I asked Roseman for a summary, and she replied, “We’re very encouraged by having this much multiyear data for the first time. It shows that the field is growing and stabilizing. At the same time it enables us to identify challenges – and we can study progress on those in coming years.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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