Keeping up with the Times: Free tech for nonprofit newsrooms

The New York Times just shipped a virtual reality headset to every one of its Sunday subscribers. The Washington Post comes pre-installed on all Kindle Fire devices sold in the United States. NowThisNews publishes natively on just about every social network out there, completely forgoing the traditional news website.

The lines between journalism and technology are blurring. How can small nonprofit newsrooms with no tech teams and limited funding keep up?

They're not quite virtual reality goggles, but the following free tools can help even the smallest newsrooms stay competitive with bigger outlets in the arenas of audience development, online publishing, fundraising and more.

Google Analytics
A number of analytics companies specialize in tracking news audiences, but Google Analytics is free, powerful and easy to install, even for nonprofit founders or editors with limited technical knowledge.

 

Cahill

 

“As as a matter of journalistic pride, you want your stories read as much as possible,” said Bill Keller, editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a Manhattan nonprofit that covers the criminal justice system. But nonprofits, in particular, need to be able to provide evidence of impact to funders or risk losing a primary source of revenue.

Among other tools, the Marshall Project uses Google Analytics to track pageviews, email clickthrough rates and unique viewers. An audience editor compiles this information into weekly and quarterly reports for newsroom and fundraising use. Because most nonprofits operate with a team of five people or fewer, creating a dedicated analytics position can sometimes be out of the question. Even so, some newsroom familiarity with the software is a must.

“At least one person in any newsroom needs to figure out analytics,” said Mike Cahill, director of SEO for Mic, a for-profit aimed at attracting a millennial audience. “At least one person should be open to speaking about analytics and about where we can improve based on data.”

Cahill said this point person doesn’t have to watch Google Analytics minute-to-minute, but he or she should be “on board with the idea that traffic and data should always drive the conversation.”

WordPress
Many nonprofit newsrooms, like The Lens in New Orleans or Rocky Mountain PBS I-News in Colorado, choose WordPress as their content management system for its ubiquity and ease of use.

For-profits and larger nonprofits like the Marshall Project have built their own content management systems from scratch, but Trevor McLeod, director of product management at Mic, argued for restraint with custom technology.

“With your own CMS, you’re limited to what you’ve built and can’t just snag a plugin to add this or that,” he said. “Unless you can really look yourself in the face and say this technology is going to be a core part of our business, there’s no sense in building your own.”

Wordpress is ideal for small newsrooms as it can be installed on Web servers in one click, integrates with thousands of plugins to provide new features and, since it now powers 25 percent of all websites, has a wide knowledge base and community of support.

Kickstarter
When the Charlottesville Tomorrow needed funding to create three-dimensional models in Google Earth for road project and hire a new reporter to cover public schools, the Virginia nonprofit turned to its audience.

With the former, the Tomorrow sought $7,000 to hire an architect to build a virtual road to offer readers a “fly-through” video of a proposed highway highway project. The crowdfunding campaign was successful. The result was used by both highway supporters and opposition, and fueled a conversation around the project that executive director Brian Wheeler said wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

The Tomorrow’s next project sought to to launch a new education beat. Wheeler initially raised money from major funders, but crowdsourcing covered the gap to hire a reporter. The takeaway from this project, Wheeler told the audience at the LION Conference in Chicago last October, was not to put a person’s career on the line with crowdfunding.

Kickstarter Tips

Google Docs
Though the Marshall Project went entirely custom with its website, programmers really “can’t compete” with the free suite of tools offered in Google Docs, said Ivar Vong, director of technology at the Marshall Project. The tools are stable, and most reporters are already used to them.

Investigative reporters at the Marshall Project write directly in Google Docs and share their copy with an editor when they’re done. Then, a script Vong wrote converts the text into markdown language that graphic designer will use when designing the story for the Marshall site.

At Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, reporters write for print, digital, television and radio. All scripts and copy exist in Google Docs, where they can be shared with the producers, developers and outside partners who need them.

At bigger places, Vong said, reporters have gotten used to the interfaces on their newsrooms’ websites. "But they’re usually not as good text editors as Google Docs is."

The Poynter Nonprofit News Exchange will be held in St. Petersburg, Florida, on January 20 to 22, 2016. Applications for the free, three-day conference close on Friday, Nov. 13.

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