7 lessons from revenue teams at exemplar civic news organizations

During the American Journalism Project’s first few months, one focus of ours has been to understand what’s known and what’s not known about Civic News Organization revenue operations.

We’re learning a lot about the Civic News Organizations, or CNOs, doing crucial public-service journalism throughout the country, in order to be prepared in our own work to boost the sustainability efforts and the revenue-generating capacity of the CNO ecosystem. We know, for example, that people matter. The success of revenue teams depends on the talent and effort of people who believe in local news and spend all day, every day figuring out how to pay for it . As such, one of the first projects we undertook was to study existing revenue roles and teams within exemplary CNOs, in partnership with the News Revenue Hub and the Impact Architects.

Today we’re excited to share that research. The full report, by Eric Garcia McKinley, can be found here.

Eric interviewed 16 Civic News Organizations about their revenue teams and operations, then wrote in-depth case studies on six specific revenue roles:

  • Membership: Mariko Chang, Honolulu Civil Beat
  • Development: Tanner Curl, MinnPost
  • Philanthropy and major gifts: Amanda Wilson, The Marshall Project
  • Underwriting: Dylan Woodrow, VTDigger
  • Advertising and marketing: Katy Silva, Rivard Report
  • Audience development: Bill Emkow, Bridge Magazine

The report also includes organizational charts of several of the CNOs that took part in the study, and the report’s appendix includes more than 60 pages of job descriptions that CNOs have used for hiring revenue staff.

Beyond helping us to start off on the right foot, we hope that our learnings from this research benefit the news industry as a whole. As Eric writes in the report’s executive summary, “No organization we spoke to claimed to have found the solution to revenue generation, but each had useful lessons for other Civic News Organizations at different levels of maturity. These organizations are broadly comparable to other organizations this study is designed to benefit. Though they don’t necessarily represent the entire industry, they may represent how it’s evolving.”

Here then are the three overarching themes and seven key lessons from our research into successful revenue roles at Civic News Organizations:

Blending fundraising and business development skill sets with a mission-driven mindset is key to an individual team member’s success

1. Having business development and fundraising skills along with a mission-driven mindset is a crucial trait for individuals with revenue roles in a CNO. Successful revenue teams are staffed by individuals with strong business development and fundraising experience and an entrepreneurial disposition, all underscored by a deep commitment to the journalistic and public-service missions of their organizations.

Eric outlines 9 specific characteristics that arose from the research:

  • Personable
  • Passionate about the mission
  • Persistent and resilient
  • Organized
  • Effective written and verbal communicator
  • Data-driven
  • Numerate and financially literate
  • Creative and strategic thinker
  • Attentive to detail

2. Many CNOs draw from disciplines and sectors outside of journalism — and outside the traditional business side of the media industry — to staff their revenue teams, which has strengthened their operations. Nearly everyone the report profiles began their career outside of journalism. For most, their current role is their first at a journalism organization of any kind. The people highlighted in the report have backgrounds as varied as university fundraising, arts nonprofits, the insurance sector, and business administration.

3. Embracing and deeply committing to the journalistic mission means that the revenue team and the editorial team understand each other, work together, and align on goals and strategies. Despite the fact that business-side staff often come from outside of journalism, they choose to work for a CNO. And they do so because they truly believe in and understand the importance of civic news for their community. They fully embrace the journalistic mission, while being aware of journalistic ethics, of editorial independence, and of knowing when to draw the line (even if, as the report outlines in several cases, this requires a period of learning and cultural adjustment for those who come from outside journalism).

Successful revenue staff are entrusted as representatives of their organization’s mission, and in practice, this sometimes can mean managing expectations of donors and sponsors by putting the organization’s journalistic mission first. Revenue staff are often on the front lines of communicating to the public the organization’s mission, the need for community support, and even the concept of nonprofit news to stakeholders and a public that can be unfamiliar with the idea.

The revenue and editorial staff being aligned means that the editorial staff is aware of, and sometimes even involved in, the revenue team’s work. As the Marshall Project’s president Caroll Bogert put it, that means “winning the buy in of the newsroom without making them fundraisers.” The report covers some noteworthy examples, such as Honolulu Civil Beat’s “Why I Do This” fundraising campaign centered on reporters, and MinnPost’s practice of giving newsroom staff the option to sometimes be involved in fundraising initiatives, such as events.

Overall, however, we found in every example that the key to success is to have constant communication and alignment between revenue and editorial teams, even if it’s as simple as being aware of what each team is focused on in the short-term and long-term. For example, VTDigger director of underwriting Dylan Woodrow said that simply knowing what the newsroom is doing helps him in his work of seeking out potential underwriters.

Focusing on diverse revenue generation is key to an organization’s overall success

4. Revenue diversification, a priority for every CNO in the report, leads to organizational resilience, greater sustainability, and overall growth. We found that most nonprofit news organizations must prioritize among the seven most-common revenue streams. Those seven revenue streams are foundation grants, major gifts, membership, advertising/underwriting sales, events, and — less common, but increasingly found in the broader nonprofit news ecosystem — sponsorship sales. (As Eric writes in the report, sponsorship sales are “closely related to advertising/underwriting, but with an emphasis on event sponsorships and sponsored content”.)

The revenue stream and staffing breakdown of the organizations that participated in the study is visualized in the graphic below. Foundation grants are the only revenue stream found across all interviewees, reflecting the fact that the broader CNO ecosystem continues to be heavily grant-funded.

5. As a successful CNO grows, it moves away from the model of the “Swiss Army knife” founder — who has both editorial responsibilities and ownership over various revenue-generating areas — and invests in staffing existing revenue streams while strategically branching out to new ones. In the broader CNO ecosystem, we typically see CNOs begin with very small revenue operations, often consisting of one person (often a founder) with high-level editorial responsibilities who is also single-handedly taking on the primary revenue responsibilities spread out across various business areas. As successful CNOs grow, they increasingly bring in specialists for each existing revenue stream while branching out into new revenue areas.

The report shows the revenue evolution of various CNOs and the ways they have strategically chosen to invest in new revenue streams as they have grown. For example, as their revenue teams have grown, the Marshall Project and Bridge have invested in adding membership-focused roles, VTDigger has plans to invest more heavily in underwriting based on current staff performance, Rivard Report has invested more in events by adding an events coordinator, and Bridge has added an audience development role to its revenue team.

Return on investment (ROI) is key to sustainability

6. Successful revenue teams set concrete and constantly evolving revenue goals and benchmarks tied to long-term strategic growth plans. It’s no surprise that revenue-focused roles pay for themselves multiple times over, but what sets exemplary CNOs apart is that they have short-term and long-term strategic plans and they are explicit, and transparent, about the ROI of their revenue efforts. They are willing to invest, or to cut back and reorganize, based on the results.

7. How ROI is measured for revenue roles and teams varies widely. In the study, the ROI of revenue roles varied from about 2x to 20x an individual’s salary, depending on the role and the broader context of an organization (i.e.: its budget, market, and organizational structure, including whether revenue efforts are, or can be, measured by individual roles or by larger teams’ work).

Some roles, like advertising and underwriting, have very straightforward and individual ROI measurements — so much so that some underwriting positions are compensated by commission. The connection of other business-side roles to ROI, while crucial, is more complex, like Bridge’s “funnel task force” that consists of an audience growth strategist and a membership director. Their work, according to Bridge president and CEO John Bebow, “opens up opportunities for other revenue streams, such as sponsorships and underwriting, which wouldn’t be feasible options without the organization’s demonstrably growing base of committed readers.”

As the CNO ecosystem as a whole further grows and evolves, we’re finding that the field is thinking in a more nuanced way about revenue and ROI metrics. For example, the business team at MinnPost is working on developing “activity-based performance indicators,” such as major gifts asked and grants submitted, to factor into more traditional ROI measurements and to more holistically measure success as the organization continues to grow.

The full report can be found here.

Thanks to Jason Alcorn, Eric Garcia McKinley and Anna Nirmala for their editing and input for this post.