At the Ibero-American Colloquium on Online Journalism, a call for media to reduce dependency on donations

Non-profit journalism companies get most of their financing from a single foundation or donor, but this model is not sustainable in the long term, warned Kevin Davis, director general of Investigative News Network, which supports 82 non-profit media organizations in 27 US states.

Journalists Paula Medina and Luís de Uriarte at the sixth Ibero-American Colloquium on Online Journalism/ Photo: Gabriel Pérez for the Knight Center

Davis spoke about the challenges faced by media organizations before 70 Latin American journalists participating in the sixth Ibero-American Colloquium on Online Journalism, a special event following the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ).  This year, the colloquium was dedicated to the sustainability of new internet journalism projects in Ibero-America.

According to Davis, his organization helps non-profit media find ways to diversify their funding through memberships and small donations from the public, as well as event organization.

One successful example of this model is the Texas Tribune, a news site focused on state government coverage in Texas, which recently received a $1.5 million donation from the Knight Foundation, but also raises money through lectures, events, and other premium services.

“I’m obsessed with journalism as a public good,” said John Thornton, founder of the Tribune.  The site received more than 80% of its initial funding from private donations and foundations, but currently 60% of its funding depends on events that it organizes as well as premium services that it offers to readers.  Only 40% comes from foundations and other donors.

“The problem is that if you give $100 to a journalist, he spends $99 on journalism projects and you can’t survive like that,” said Davis.  His organization recommends that non-project media organizations invest more in technology to build a solid digital platform and also in other sources of funds.

One of the key factors in The Texas Tribune site was deciding to cover a subject that the local and state media was neglecting: the state government.  They also used data journalism to increase their traffic.  “At the beginning, visitors spent less time on our site compared to local papers,” said Thornton.  “The reason was that we didn’t have sports coverage,” he added.  To reverse that trend, the Tribune created an interactive database with the salary data of all of Texas’ state employees.  Using that graphic, visitors can find out how much any state employee makes, from their child’s elementary teacher to the governor himself.  “We don’t have sports but we have porn,” he said jokingly.

The salary database became an addictive product, something that they had not anticipated, but it also opened the door to creating and selling data packages, which has proved very popular.

Davis added that his organization tells media companies to invest in less “sexy” areas like medical insurance for their staff, legal insurance, on-site lodging, support for digital operations, and other consulting services.