Floundering news start-ups need help
The casual approach at most news start-ups to the serious business of identifying next-generation models for journalism has got to stop. More on that in a moment. First, the background:
The scale of spending on news start-ups was captured in an unprecedentedly thorough study released today by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
In surveying 178 non-profit news ventures formed since 1978, Pew learned that 57 of them started with “a major seed grant,” according to Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the project, who kindly responded to my request for funding details not contained in the published report.
While only 50 of news ventures receiving major seed grants reported the amount of their backing to Pew, those groups collectively raised “just shy of $26 million,” said Jurkowitz in an email exchange. That makes for an average or more than $500,000 per organization.
So far, so good. But here is the problem:
Although the intentions of both donors and recipients undoubtedly were noble, Pew found that many non-profit news organizations, including bootstrap operations not benefitting from significant seed funding, “face substantial challenges to their long-term financial well-being” because they “do not have the resources or expertise necessary for the business tasks needed to broaden the funding base.”
While most of the 178 organizations surveyed by Pew said they brought in more money than they spent in 2011 (the most recent year studied), Pew noted that the bulk of funding for most organizations came from a single foundation or donor. “That funding source may not provide long-term sustainability,” said Pew, noting that only 28% of the organizations at the time of the report said their key donor had agreed to renew the initial grant “to any degree.”
Of the organizations whose seed funding was renewed partially or not at all, only 28% “were able to make up the entire deficit from other sources,” said Pew.
Despite the risk of depending on a single source for long-term viability, Pew found that nearly a third of the news start-ups spent less than 10% of their staff time on business development, while more than half said such activities occupied between 10% and 24% of their time. By contrast, 85% of the ventures said editorial tasks consumed at least half of their time.
In other words, most start-ups are concentrating on their journalistic missions without giving due regard to the equally vital task of building financially healthy organizations to sustain their efforts over the long term.
This has been a consistent theme among most of the news start-ups that have emerged since the wheels started coming off the traditionally profitable newspaper and newsmagazine businesses in the middle of the last decade.
Inattention or ineptitude with respect to business matters killed off such high-profile efforts as the Chicago News Cooperative, which flamed out in 2012, and the Bay Citizen, which was euthanized last month in San Francisco.
The Pew report is not the first to identify the want of business acumen at most journalism start-ups.
In a 2010 study of 46 news ventures that collectively received $833,000 in funding, Jan Schaffer of the J-Lab at American University reported that nearly a third of the organizations had failed and that the balance were hanging by a thread because the founders were toiling for little or no pay. “Community news sites are not a business yet,” she concluded.
The weight of the available evidence over the years makes it clear that small, isolated groups of journalists – regardless of their passion and talents – are not going to spontaneously discover ways to fund the news business.
If all the nation’s newspaper publishers have been unable to arrest a 50%-plus decline in advertising revenues since 2005, how can a handful of writers and editors be expected to do better?
For all the millions of dollars that have flowed into starting news ventures, almost no serious research has been funded to identify the business models and best practices necessary to ensure the success of those investments.
With each news start-up left to its own devices, many have failed. Without significant help, many of the remaining ventures will succumb, too.
These wonderfully well-intentioned people need help. Before anyone backs another journalism start-up, let’s put some time and money into figuring out how to make sure they can succeed.