Business of News

Nonprofit newsrooms are keeping their heads above water

June 24, 2020

Nonprofit news organizations, in their dependence on foundation funding and individual giving, have proved less vulnerable to the economic crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic than their for-profit counterparts. The Institute for Nonprofit News indicated in its recent index report that, so far, audiences for many nonprofit news publications are growing and over half of those surveyed reported that revenues are holding relatively steady amid the crisis.

Most nonprofit news organizations saw increased readership in March and April, INN reported, a trend observed across much of the journalism industry. After the early months of the coronavirus crisis, readership began to decline, according to the report, but audience engagement still remains higher than it was before the pandemic. “Many have been hosting online community groups and video meetups, becoming vital community connectors as well as news reporters,” INN executive director Sue Cross added. Christine Schmidt of the Local News Lab tweeted recently that “heading into a summer of covid-19 coverage and continued calls for police reform + dismantling of systemic racism, and eyeing the elections of the fall, nonprofit newsrooms are poised to connect with their communities.”

Increased reader engagement, over a period of years, has allowed nonprofits to diversify their revenue streams by gaining reader support and using it as a metric for increased donor investment. Though foundation funding still makes up the largest percentage of nonprofit newsroom revenue across the sector, the INN reported that 2020 was the first year for which foundation funding made up less than half of total revenues at a majority of nonprofit news organizations. In January, the Tow Center reported on foundation funding for CJR, examining the pressures inherent in depending on foundations to finance newsrooms. Researchers Jacob Nelson and Patrick Ferrucci found—in a study based on forty interviews with journalists at nonprofit newsrooms—that foundation funding was less likely to influence editorial decisions about coverage than it was to influence a newsroom’s methods by prioritizing investment in technology, audience engagement, and nontraditional reporting initiatives. Nelson and Ferrucci did warn that newsrooms typically have more to lose than funders do. “If a foundation funds an initiative that fails, then that foundation can learn from the experience and move on to another innovative approach to journalism,” they wrote. “The same cannot necessarily be said for the journalists who receive the funding.”

Nonprofit newsrooms remain somewhat vulnerable in a pandemic, as events revenues decline at newsrooms that have been unable to smoothly transition to online engagement, foundation funders experience economic instability, and limited reserve funds begin to run dry. “It is too soon to assess the impact of the covid-19 crisis on the nonprofit news field,” INN researchers Jesse Holcomb and Michele McLellan wrote. “As of June 2020, the ground is still shifting.” Still, nonprofit models hold promise for a sustainable and ethical approach to offering readers the information they need in a crisis and beyond. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe). 

  • CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared).
  • ATTEND THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR: On Thursday, June 25, join us as we talk about searching for solutions in the current crisis. The webinar begins at 1pm on Zoom, and you can register here.

Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the country:


JOURNALISM JOBS: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. Last week, Study Hall and Deez Links announced their launch of media classified ads, and Study Hall tweeted that 125 jobs and freelance opportunities are available on their jobs digest page.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites