Non-Profit Indies, One-Time Successors to Local Media, Face Funding Woes

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money tunnelYou think traditional broadcast media like TV and radio are struggling with depleted revenue models as audiences move to online screens? Consider those who were already depleted: Community broadcasters on  cable access TV and local radio. These folks face even greater challenges with sparse audiences, a limited to non-existent revenue model, and funding from foundations drying up faster than fresh rain in the Mojave Desert.

National foundations have sustained independent community media as local newspapers started disappearing, but according to Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network (“INN”), they have begun to signal that their interest in funding nonprofit journalism is coming to an end, and focus is shifting to community foundations.

But, despite the trend, they’re not worried. According to Pew research on nonprofit news, “optimism is the prevalent feeling among those working at nonprofit news organizations,” with 81% expressing confidence that they will be financially solvent within five years. To some, it’s the same blind optimism that has driven all media organizations to believing a solution is around the corner since online news reared its ugly head. But there is hope, if they get some business-learnin’ and consider diversification of revenue sources beyond foundation funding channels.

Step 1: Learn more about a variety of business models
Nonprofit media associations like INN and The Media Consortium are focusing on helping their members learn more about a variety of business models, with the goal of diversifying revenue and funding sources to achieve sustainability. Association leaders keep their members apprised of social media marketing strategies; create partnerships to monetize their content; and help extend their media offering to mobile and other platforms. Community media needs to show what it can do beyond broadcasting to attract community funding. Many cable access TV, like St  Paul Neighborhood Network, are focusing on educating youth on media production, thus killing two birds by providing a fundable community service and developing a volunteer resource pool.

Step 2: Consider sponsorship models that pay for journalism
Cracks in the wall between journalism and funding are happening the same way they occurred between traditional media and their advertisers. One example of this is Public News Service (“PNS”), an innovative news service that embraces sponsorship models by offering nonprofits and NGOs a “beat” for publishing articles relevant to their mission, with the proviso that PNS retains editorial authority. CEO Lark Corbeil says: “Similar to becoming an NPR member and selecting to support All Things Considered or Prairie Home Companion, funders can choose an issue area or ‘beat’ they want to support, but can’t control the coverage on that beat.” This tracks with the content marketing model by elevating news and issues that may enhance a sponsor’s profile without expressly attributing the sponsor and creating a “sponsored content” perception. In PNS’s case, the focus is more on education of the issue without any marketing slant. Furthermore, PNS diversifies its revenues streams by extending its reporter for hire model to a subsidiary company that services for profits and corporations who need rapid response journalistic services.

It’s too soon to say whether nonprofits will take the path of their commercial counterparts, but those who embrace new ways of funding their journalism will have the best chance to survive.

Patrick Kitano is a founding principal of Brand into Media, a strategy group for social brand management solutions, and administrator of the Breaking News Network, a national hyperlocal network devoted to community service. He is reachable via Twitter (@pkitano) and email ([email protected]).