Although not all foundations or news organizations in the United States were surveyed, the data enhance our understanding of the world of nonprofit journalism in general and the landscape of newer nonprofit media in particular. This community shares many goals, experiences and problems with a variety of perspectives.
Nonprofit news organizations
A total of 94 nonprofit media outlets responded to the survey. That group was derived from compiling and comparing several different lists collected by funders, researchers, and nonprofit media groups. Though the universe is hard to pin down, and outlets expire and new ones start up, our best estimate is that the surveys went to the majority of new nonprofit media outlets.
In all, invitations were sent to a range of entities — large well-established nonprofit organizations, new start-ups with barely any staff, broadcasters affiliated with PBS and NPR, websites dedicated to a single issue, independent investigative units and programs located at journalism schools, and a small percentage of nonprofit magazines.
While a variety of nonprofit news groups responded, the survey reflects more about the small and relatively new digital news organizations that are less known.
Who, according to the survey, are these nonprofits? Aside from public radio and television, most are fairly young. Nearly three-quarters of the nonprofit news organizations surveyed are less than 10 years old, 35 percent starting up within just the last five years.
The largest segment of the nonprofit media outlets in the survey (about 4 in 10) are digital only, either of general interest or community based. A quarter identify themselves as single-subject news organizations, either digital or multiplatform. Multiplatform organizations (often websites that partner with radio, newspapers or magazines) make up a fifth of those surveyed. Very few nonprofit organizations surveyed are newspapers, radio, magazines or documentary makers.
In all, the nonprofit media sector in the survey was also fairly local. Nearly 4 in 10 described themselves as local or metropolitan, and a third reported they are state or regional in their focus. Fifteen percent of the nonprofit media outlets said they are national in scope, and another group about the same size said they are some combination of these categories.
The nonprofit news organizations surveyed were diverse geographically. A third of the responding nonprofit media groups (31 percent) are located in the Northeast, while another 26 percent are in the West. Seventeen percent are located in the Midwest and the same percent in the South.
Most of these nonprofit news outlets have small budgets. Nearly 7 in 10 are less than $1 million in budget size, including more than half less than $500,000 and about 40 percent less than $250,000. Most of these outlets (53 percent) said their budgets have grown in the last five years, while 22 percent said they have been flat and 13 percent said their budgets have been shrinking.
The staffs are mostly small as well. Fully 57 percent have fewer than 5 people. Another 11 percent were five to nine in staff size. Three-quarters have fewer than 20 people. However, another 10 percent say they have 30 people or more.
Over the last five years, foundation support has increased as a share of their revenue for a quarter of the nonprofit news organizations (25 percent), while about a third (35 percent) say it is flat as a share of revenue and another third (35 percent) say it has decreased.
Most of the nonprofit news organizations depend on just a few institutional funders for most of their support. About 4 out of 10 (36 percent) of these nonprofit news outlets have fewer than five institutional funders. And 18 percent receive support from five to nine institutional funders, meaning that most (54 percent) have fewer than 10 funders. Just 7 percent have more than 15 different institutional funders offering support. About 10 percent received no foundation support in the last year.
Is that institutional funder support becoming more diverse or is it narrowing over time? By and large the answer is that support is diversifying. More than 4 in 10 nonprofit media outlets (44 percent) say they have more foundations supporting them now than five years ago. However, a quarter of the surveyed organizations (26 percent) say the number is unchanged, and 12 percent say the number of foundations has actually decreased.
Most of the support for these nonprofits comes from philanthropic sources, but other sources are still significant. About a fifth (21 percent) said they get virtually no other money that isn’t philanthropic, while another quarter (26 percent) said they receive less than 10 percent from other sources, in other words, at least 90 percent of their funding is philanthropic. Nearly one in five of the organizations surveyed (17 percent) say they get more than a quarter of their money from any source other than philanthropy, and 5 percent report they get more than 50 percent of their funds from non-philanthropic sources. Altogether, 62 percent of nonprofit media organizations reported receiving at least some non-philanthropic funding.
The funders of nonprofit journalism surveyed tend to be much older than the nonprofit media they are funding. Two-thirds of the foundations who fund media have been operating more than 15 years, and nearly 30 percent have existed for 50 years or more.
Seventy percent of the foundations that answered the survey are private or family foundations. About a fifth of the foundations surveyed provide grants just nationally. Nearly 15 percent make funds available on a state or regional level. Thirty-eight percent of the foundations surveyed have been providing grants to media organizations for more than 20 years. Thirty-one percent are newcomers to media funding and started funding media within the last 10 years.
Most of the foundations that answered the survey are based on the coasts: Two-thirds are located in the Northeast or the western part of the United States. And nearly all of those are headquartered in either California or New York.
Commercial media partnerships with nonprofits
There are many more for-profit media organizations in the US than nonprofits. We reached out to more than 600 for this research. Top managers from 146 commercial news outlets completed surveys.
More than half of those (76 news organizations) said they participated in some sort of nonprofit collaboration.
Most of these commercial outlets engaging in partnerships are well established. Three-quarters had been around more than 50 years. A smaller number (17 percent) were founded 15 years ago or less. Eight percent were created in that last 5 years.
The vast majority of of the commercial media who responded (68 percent) represented newspaper media. About 15 percent were digital-only. Roughly speaking, this corresponded to the relative distribution of our outreach. And 11 percent described themselves as multi-platform, generally print and digital.
Most of these organizations said their focus and core audience is local. Thirty-six percent said their core audience is a metro area, and 29 percent said smaller than that, or “hyperlocal.” Another 9 percent said their core audience was primarily state or regional. Just 1 percent said their primary focus was national, and 4 percent said international. A sizable portion considered their core audience as more than one category (17 percent).
The newsroom budgets of these commercial media varied, though they were much larger in general than we found among nonprofits. The plurality (33 percent) had news budgets between $5 million to $49.9 million. There was only one higher (and it was above $100 million). A quarter (26 percent) said their budget was less than $1 million, and nearly a third (30 percent) said it was between $1 million to $4.9 million.
Staffing varied. Some 33 percent worked at an organization with fewer than 20 people (most working at company with 10 or fewer employees). Some 21 percent worked at organizations with between 20 and 50. Then, 22 percent worked at organizations with between 50 and 99 employees, and 20 percent worked at organizations with 100 employees or more.
One reason for the partnerships may be financial. Most have of these commercial outlets (66 percent), reported that their budgets had decreased over the last five years. About 15 percent said their budgets increased during the same timeframe. Just 9 percent said their budgets remained the same.
There are a number of ways in which commercial news organizations might collaborate with a nonprofit funder or news outlets, and the commercial media in our sample had a wide range of partners.
The largest number of these collaborations in the survey were with universities or “other educational organizations” (71 percent). Forty-five percent said they had collaborated in the last five years in some way with foundations, and 50 percent said they have done so with a local community organization. Almost as many had collaborated with nonprofit news organizations (42 percent).
What do the collaborations look like? Most of these were partnerships of some kind, rather than accepting funding. More than a quarter of those surveyed said they had accepted funding in the last year from a foundation or other nonprofit (about half said they had not). More common were collaborations that did not involve direct funding, either partnering on reporting and editing content, collaborating on collecting data or information, or collaborating on public events. The most common collaboration was distributing news content produced by a nonprofit news operations (70 percent said they had done so).
More generally, the hypothesis has been that commercial and nonprofit partnerships are growing. The data in our sample support that claim. Of all those who had participated in collaborations of any kind, the majority (54 percent) said they have increased the number of such partnerships over the last five years. Significantly fewer (25 percent) said their partnering has remained at about the same level. Only 7 percent said the amount of partnerships had decreased. (Fifteen percent were unsure.)
In the survey we looked to probe why commercial were forming these nonprofit relationships. The most common answers had to do with resources.
A fifth (21 percent) said the arrangements help share the cost of the project. A plurality (39 percent) said the partnering nonprofit organizations bring “different skills or higher level of expertise on a particular subject.” A notable amount referenced the values of the organization: Some 18 percent said the nonprofit organizations “have had important project ideas.”