How Grist has been able to flourish as a nonprofit news site
This is the fourth of four profiles of journalists at nonprofit news startups.
Chip Giller started Grist 16 years ago, when, he says, there was nothing in the world like it. His creation quickly caught on with its snarky environmental news stories, hipster storytelling, and an excellent advice column, "Ask Umbra." Hundreds and then thousands of readers signed up for Grist's email newsletter, and then finally, hundreds of thousands found its website: at the beginning of 2015, the site had more than 1.5 million unique visitors per month, according to Quantcast, and another half a million including Twitter and Facebook followers.
Giller wanted Grist to make a difference. He had been an environmentalist since he was a child and says he grew up to be a "very earnest" undergraduate student at Brown. "I carried around a clear plastic bag of the trash I generated for a week, expecting my personal demonstration of waste to raise alarms. It didn't," he says.
As the editor of Greenwire, an early online environmental daily newsletter, Giller had tired of reporting for an insider, privileged audience that paid to subscribe to very specialized and mainly political reporting. He wanted to make environmental news stories "more relevant to more people."
Grist represents three innovations, Giller says: Humor was one. Giller also embraced online publishing, still relatively new when he started conceiving the outlet in 1998. And he wanted it to be a nonprofit, a novelty at the time that fit in with his mission-based mindset.
After leaving Greenwire, Giller worked for conservationist Denis Hayes and the Earth Day Network. The first Grist email newsletters went out in January and February 1999, in order to build momentum for the 30th anniversary Earth Day celebrations in April 2000. At first, Giller says, "I was sending emails to my 10 best friends and my mom and dad. Then it grew to several thousand."
The first newsletters "pulled together environmental news from disparate sources." In those pre-Google days, finding environmental news took a lot of time.
Gen-Xers were Giller's target audience back in the 1990s, to add to the environmental movement's aging population. Today, according to the tracking data on unique users per month, demographic information shows that more than half are Millennials.
"We are definitely a news organization. We are totally comfortable writing with a perspective. We just disclose that -- and now that's more acceptable," Giller says, adding that readers expect and resonate with that now. "Back in the 1990s, pre-blog" era, not so much. At the beginning, Giller didn't use business modeling and focus groups to chart a path forward. "It was more about change," he says, as well as about being funny and optimistic, even though "the planet is still screwed."
Grist evolved from email lists to WordPress publishing, and from pre-Google news scouring to the wealth of the Internet. It became an independent organization at the start of 2003. Today, Grist has 30 staff members and three fellows. More than two-thirds of the staff is on the journalism side, which now includes designers and engineers, as well as writers and editors.
Grist's budget is now more than $4 million a year. Of that, about $2 million come from foundations and $1.8 million from individuals, including major gifts of $1,000 and up, and membership-level gifts, typically of $25. Advertising and other forms of sponsorship ("earned revenue") bring in more than $250,000 (one peak year brought $600,000). The organization occasionally sends email ad campaigns to people on its news email alert lists, for example, and hosts events and runs ads online.
Grist was one of the first online news organizations to raise money with a direct email appeal – $70,000 back in 2002. The organization has experimented with subject lines and content, where to place the "SHARE" and "GIVE" buttons on its site, and how to engage readers looking at its site only on mobile devices.
"We have continued to innovate," Giller says, and even now, "we have to rethink advertising. CPMs [cost per thousand impressions] are in turmoil right now." While native advertising is "in vogue" at the moment, Giller says the organization has to develop other forms of revenue "that are true to who Grist is."
"I think it's a glorious era to do journalism." He is excited by the experiments and new ways to tell stories: "we get to figure this out!" Grist itself is unique in that it doesn't fit squarely within many foundations' guidelines, but does have a subject area that many foundations want to fund.
Giller recalls that in the mid-2000s, "there were rumors of the demise" of both environmentalism and journalism. "The story of Grist is that neither is dead," Giller says. "We've sort of risen from the grave, and been persistent in both these areas. … There's been a lot of passion [for both journalism and environmentalism at Grist and elsewhere]. Where we are now I couldn't have anticipated based on where we started, and I think one just needs to have a lot of persistence."
Giller says Grist is not just a nonprofit because of its mission to help the public: "Were we for-profit … I'm not sure that could be sustained. It's not entirely clear how to make money on a newsgathering organization right now."
Conclusion: Naomi Lubick’s series of four profiles represent four different experiences journalists have had with digital launches as they search for audience and financial sustainability:
- Jim Giles and his partner sold their long-form, for-profit science site, Matter, upstream to Medium. Matter has changed substantially from his original vision but is going strong as part of the growing Medium site -- attractive to writers in large part because of its flexible and elegantly designed platform.
- Beth Daley left a longtime job at the Boston Globe to become a senior reporter for the non-profit New England Center for Investigative Reporting. She was surprised to find that revenue-generating activity came with the job – but the effort is working. Led by training income of more than $500,000, the center is in its sixth year with a total budget of $1.2 million.
- Michael Stoll’s San Francisco-based, non-profit Public Press is another survivor, though it has never generated enough revenue for Stoll to pay himself a salary and relies heavily on volunteers.
- Chip Giller’s non-profit Grist is an outlier. He started the environmental site 16 years ago, pre-Google and in the earliest days of aggregation. With serious intent but an often humorous voice, Grist quickly found and has held an audience (with considerable California flavor). Challenges remain, but it can be counted as a sustainable success.
These are representative experiences, but by no means a comprehensive catalogue, of the adventures of launching or joining a start-up site aiming to produce journalism with impact
My colleagues Katie Hawkins-Gaar, Ren LaForme, and I are engaged in a year-long study of digital start-ups, supported by a grant from the Excellence and Ethics in Journalism Foundation. We will be posting additional stories on our visits to successful sites and observations of their best practices, leading up to a conference and summary report in January 2016.
Reader suggestions are welcome.
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