Four patterns we see in growing nonprofit newsrooms

At the American Journalism Project, our Learning and Impact team helps us understand the impact of our work and the ways our grantees have an impact in their communities and help solve the local news crisis. Below, Jason Alcorn, vice president of learning and impact, shares what we’re understanding about nonprofit growth as part of a new series on what we’re learning.

The American Journalism Project was created to rebuild local news. A key part of this work is providing nonprofit news organizations with the strategic support to realize ambitious visions for growth. Since 2019, we’ve built a portfolio of 32 nonprofit local newsrooms across the country; our grants and accompanying venture support provide the leaders in our portfolio with the investments necessary to have even greater impact in their communities.

The news organizations we support are already doing impact journalism: they connect people to each other and the places they live, empower readers by explaining local issues, and provide the accountability journalism that’s critical to our democracy.

Two years into this work, we’re starting to see our impact on our grantees’ ability to unlock new support for local news and reinvest that revenue in their newsrooms and other programs that help local communities to stay informed. Some encouraging patterns and early results of our work stand out:

  1. Our grantee newsrooms are seeing strong, consistent growth. Individually and collectively, the portfolio is exceeding our growth targets. On average, our grantees grow by 67 percent during their first year with the American Journalism Project — not counting the dollars we put in — and that growth continues in the second and third year. Our grantees are growing faster than comparable nonprofit newsrooms, according to industry benchmarks including Knight Foundation’s Local News Sustainability report and data from the Institute for Nonprofit News. 
  2. We’re seeing success across many approaches to building local news organizations. We’ve also taken a close look at the progress of individual news organizations — in particular, grantees in the final year of their grant. Regardless of business model or stage of growth, we’ve seen strong evidence our support helps newsrooms achieve success. All our grantees are increasing their revenue and, as a result, expanding their journalism to serve a growing number of communities. Cityside added to its business team and launched a second newsroom with our support. State newsrooms like VTDigger, Montana Free Press and Spotlight PA are devoting new resources to local coverage and bringing reporters back to local communities. Block Club Chicago is growing by adding reporters across Chicago, neighborhood by neighborhood. City Bureau launched its national Documenters Network and just won the $10 million Stronger Democracy Award to bring its model of training and paying everyday citizens to document public meetings to far more communities. 
  3. Partnering with grantees pays off. Before making a grant, we work closely with grantees to understand their existing capacity, and we map out a three-year vision for the kind of journalism their communities need and the resources it will take to get there. This collaborative planning provides a roadmap for growth that is strategic, ambitious and aligned with the organization’s values. It also helps grantees to prioritize the revenue streams that matter most — all of which lays a path to success. As we look ahead to future grantmaking, we can use actual results from our portfolio to refine our approach to funding and be even better partners in grantees’ success. 
  4. Our support is catalyzing greater philanthropic support for strong organizations. There are more resources available than there used to be for early-stage nonprofit news organizations with strong business and editorial plans. Our grantees are using this support to expand their newsrooms and build trust and audience within their communities; they talk about the “AJP Seal of Approval” that helps them make and close asks with foundations and major donors. More established organizations are leveraging the American Journalism Project’s endorsement and investment in sustainability too: major donors and foundations are giving for the first time or increasing their gifts to support newsroom expansion because of the cases for support we help our grantees develop and their newfound capacity to manage that growth well.

These are real accomplishments. But there are challenges too. Organizations that lack the right leadership, experience, and external support face barriers to growth.When nonprofit news organizations aren’t strongly aligned around a strategy or program vision, progress happens more slowly. When strong hiring processes aren’t in place, we see mismatched expectations and higher turnover. And we see that many grantees, and nonprofit local newsrooms in general, need to have stronger financial planning and management, which keep leadership focused on investments in sustainable growth and avert crisis management. Perhaps most critically, we see grantees serving low-income communities are most reliant on institutional funding, including support from national funders, to compensate for the lack of wealth and giving capacity in these communities. Both membership and major giving take longer to develop, and likely have a lower ceiling in lower-wealth communities, many of which are predominantly communities of color.

Every community deserves to have their local information needs met, so barriers to growth can’t be barriers to investment. We work closely with our grantees to overcome these obstacles, starting with the planning and due diligence that we do before ever making a grant and continuing throughout the grant period.

As we continue to make grants, grow and work with our grantees, we’ll share what we’re observing and learning, and how these learnings will shape the future of our work. In our next post in this series, we’ll share how our grantees are building their business and leadership teams and attracting talent — from both inside and outside of journalism — to help rebuild local news. 

Jason Alcorn is vice president of learning and impact at the American Journalism Project. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonalcorn.