25 ideas nonprofit newsrooms can't afford to ignore
Diversify revenue streams. Train from within. Make the most of metrics. Sometimes the simplest ideas can be the most effective.
A small group from Poynter visited a dozen nonprofit and for-profit news organizations in 2015 to gather information to share at this week's Nonprofit News Exchange. Here are 25 ideas, observed at many of the places we visited, that anyone can apply to his or her own newsroom.
- Know your mission. As you build your team, look for staffers that buy into your mission and keep communicating the big point of your venture clearly. This is an advantage startups have over legacy outlets attempting transformation and struggling to bring staffers along.
- Start with a fresh idea. A good editorial concept, fresh and serving an unmet audience need, is critical. This will need refining as you go along, but what you are doing needs to stand on its own or no amount of tweaking will save it.
- Train from within. Data journalism specialists are critical to generating high-impact investigative stories but might be hard to find or pay for. Look for opportunities to train your own employees and allow them to expand their own expertise and skill sets on the job.
- Find a partner. Consider collaboration and content partnerships. They offer a great way for a small organization to leverage its work and reach a wider audience. Sometimes syndication fees are possible, but partnerships are usually worth doing even they aren't.
- Don’t pay for things you can get for free. Before you pay for expensive analytics software or other digital tools to boost storytelling, look for a cheaper option. Companies like Google and the Knight Foundation have a plethora of free tools available to journalists.
- Be social. Social media allows for greater outreach and audience engagement than was possible a few years ago. Plus it can be a valuable source for generating content. Take time to craft a social media strategy and empower staff to use social to promote their work and connect with the audience.
- Put your audience first. Meaningful audience participation is an effective way to build brand loyalty, something all news organizations strive for. You won’t succeed by doing this in a surface-level kind of way, such as asking for comments or stories that are turned into a sad collection of reader contributions. But if you think about audience participation from the very beginning, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up producing stories that stand out from the pack.
- Empower your audience. Especially on a local level, the possibilities for participatory storytelling are endless. Audience outreach and a commitment to following through are key. Look for meaningful opportunities to incorporate users’ voices and perspectives in the reporting process.
- Get locals talking. In choosing content – particularly investigative projects – look for those that can be the basis for community conversations. Having some initiatives that could lead to community events is even better.
- Make the most of metrics. Keeping track of metrics over time will help you identify trends, which can inform many editorial decisions. What topics do readers respond to the most? Which stories missed the mark? By measuring things like unique visitors, time spent on site, social shares, engagement and so on, you can ensure you’re producing work that resonates with your audience.
- But know that some things can’t be measured. You can’t — and don’t want to — rely entirely on metrics. Some of the best work you’ll produce won’t be easily quantified, and that’s OK.
- This is a business. Treat it like one. A strong editorial vision is worthless without a solid business plan. Remember to devote as much, if not more, planning and effort into the business side of your nonprofit.
- Operate lean and hungry. Even the biggest startup outlets are run out of modest offices. Some pay competitive salaries to attract top-level talent, but others are looking for dedicated workers who will settle for a little less.
- Diversify your revenue. Strong revenue streams for nonprofits may include events, memberships, local foundations and private donors. All of those approaches tie back to a worthwhile mission regularly fulfilled by the site’s journalism.
- Mix and match revenue streams. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the right sources of revenue. Test out different approaches and consider what opportunities are unique to your mission, audience and location.
- Think beyond advertising. Because of relatively low traffic numbers, local sites may have more success with sponsorships than pure advertising. Through events, exclusive sponsorships of a feature on the site or basic branding mentions, businesses indicate support for the shared constructive mission of the site and its readers. Sponsorships may command premium pricing where a traditional product banner would be deeply discounted.
- (Try to) track impact. Measuring impact is a tough challenge, but it’s a worthwhile effort. Foundation funders value measures of engagement, or better yet, impact. Look for ways to track the results of the work that you produce.
- Keep moving or fall behind. Running a nonprofit organization is both a sprint and a marathon. Keep innovating and iterating or the next wave of startups may leave you in the dust.
- Fail fast. Newsrooms need to experiment as often as possible to keep up with industry changes. Do it as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible, as often as possible. If it doesn’t go well, learn from the experience and apply it to the next experiment.
- Take care of yourself. Founders, managers and team leaders often spend time and energy on their employees and forget to take care of themselves. Delegate. Take time off. Leaders who set a good example will lead a healthy team.
- Be deliberate about culture. Culture is the invisible glue that holds an organization together. Be conscious about building one that values collaboration, innovation and inclusivity.
- Seek out digital expertise. Look for team members who can bring a digital-first mindset to your organization and empower them to collaborate and share knowledge. Don’t relegate digital expertise and work to the "younger people."
- Split costs with others. Early on, consider a more established nonprofit for housing and perhaps picking up business functions.
- Plan your succession. When you have resolved all these challenges, think about succession. Key people (like you) may choose at some point to retire or move on. Give the enterprise a chance to flourish after.
- When all else fails, take a walk. Sometimes the best solution to technical problems is to unplug a device, take a pause, then plug it back in. The same tactic holds true for humans. It’s easy to forget how restorative some time outside the office can be.
The Poynter Nonprofit News Exchange, funded through a grant from the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation, will be held in St. Petersburg, Florida, on January 20 to 22, 2016. Follow #nonprofit16 for updates.
Rick Edmonds, Poynter's media business analyst and co-leader of the Nonprofit News Exchange, contributed to this article.