Nonprofit news initiatives in the United States seek to serve underserved populations, strengthen local journalism and create jobs for journalists

The nonprofit model applied to journalism has flourished in recent years in the United States. There are already several digital media that have emerged under this paradigm that are focusing on under-served populations, reinforcing the local news ecosystem and creating jobs for journalists, while striving to consolidate sustainable business models.

In the opening panel of the 23rd International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), “Coming of Age: Nonprofit Online Journalism Attracts Big Investments and Creates Sustainable Models,” representatives of four initiatives of local journalism from different American cities shared their experience as nonprofit organizations April 1 at the University of Texas at Austin.

The panel included Mukhtar Ibrahim, manager and editor of the Sahan Journal; Imtiaz Patel, manager of the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism and The Baltimore Banner; Ann Stern, president of the Houston Endowment Foundation; and Nykia Wright, president and CEO of Chicago Sun-Times Media.

The moderator was Evan Smith, co-founder and CEO of The Texas Tribune, the emblematic nonprofit digital news organization based in Austin. Since its founding in 2009, the Texas Tribune has served as model and inspiration for dozens of media outlets around the world that have ventured into the nonprofit model.

“It’s incredibly moving to hear all of you talking about this, and it is an indication that the world has changed, it has moved in a direction that I think it’s very hopeful,” Smith said at the end of the panel.

Sahan Journal is a digital media outlet that emerged in 2019 to meet the information needs of an underserved population in Minnesota: immigrants and people of color. Ibrahim said that prior to the founding of Sahan Journal, there was no media outlet to accurately tell stories of migrants and other minorities in Minnesota, so these populations were underrepresented in traditional media.

During its first months of existence, the Sahan Journal faced coverage affected by waves of disinformation, such as the start of the pandemic, the protests following the murder of George Floyd and the development of vaccines against COVID-19. The outlet responded with a series of explainer videos with people and professionals from the same community in the most representative languages of its audience, including Hmong, Spanish, Somali, and Oromo, in addition to English.

“It’s time consuming, it’s expensive, it requires a lot of resources, but we had to do it because it saves people’s lives,” Ibrahim said. 

Those efforts have translated into strong support from his community and the formation and constant growth of an audience that Ibrahim described as young and diverse. With the growth of its audience, little by little the outlet has been consolidating its business model, which has allowed it to expand its newsroom to more than 10 full-time employees two years after its foundation.

“The community is actually supporting us. When they see these stories being covered everyday and put on the front page, they decide to support it. I can confidently say that almost 50% of our budget comes from our readers. Since we launched, we have had over 3,000 members donate through our website. A thousand of those are recurring monthly donors,” Ibrahim said.

Sahan Journal has managed to establish partnerships with some of the largest media outlets in the state, such as the StarTribune and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). 

“We want not just people of color to read our stories. We also want the white community who read the [Minneapolis] StarTribune or listen to MPR news to come across stories of their neighbors, of their colleagues, so that they can get a good understanding about their neighbors, so that they can read stories that truly reflect the lived experiences of people that they see everyday,” Ibrahim said. 

Another news outlet that was created to meet the information needs of communities in news deserts is The Baltimore Banner. The idea for this project came about after Maryland hotel magnate and philanthropist Stewart Bainum Jr. realized that supporting local journalism was a way for his donations to have a significant impact on society.

“[Bainum Jr.] was sitting at home during early days of the pandemic and started to read about what’s going on with news deserts and he’s looking at The Baltimore Sun, that’s getting thinner and thinner, and he’s like, ‘How can we have a functional democracy if we don’t have solid local news?,’” said Patel, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal.

It was then that Bainum Jr. sought Patel out to help him start the project of creating a local media outlet that would confront The Baltimore Sun, a 185-year-old legacy newspaper. According to Patel, this newspaper has been deteriorating over time and its limited coverage leaves out several communities.

Following a failed attempt to acquire The Baltimore Sun and later its parent company, Bainum Jr. decided to create the non-profit organization The Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, which will serve as the parent entity of The Baltimore Banner.

The project will be launched with a mission to make a positive impact in the region through reliable local news coverage for the diverse communities of Baltimore and eventually all of Maryland.

“We chose to use journalism as a way to serve our communities. Journalism is not the end, it’s a means to an end, which is serving our communities, and that’s what we are really focused on. And then the other part of this is that we want to do it in a way that people are willing to support it,” Patel said. 

Patel said The Baltimore Banner’s operation plan includes creating the largest newsroom in Maryland, focusing exclusively on local issues, becoming a multi-platform media outlet, developing a scalable operation that considers the product, marketing, technology and analytics, and becoming a good place to work.

“We are in the business of creating news content, we should not care about the format of that content, so we are not a website, we are not a newspaper, for sure. We will be across every format that we need to be across, in any way that the user wants to get our content. Five years from now we may not have a website, as no one wants to go to a website, so we’ve got to continue to innovate from that perspective,” Patel said. 

Although the project has an initial investment of $50 million from its patron, the project has a business plan based on the diversification of income in areas that include advertising, monetization of its audience and a subscription plan with a paywall that will be accessible for free to underserved communities, Patel said.

Among the initial goals of The Baltimore Banner are achieving statewide expansion in two years and reaching 100,000 subscribers and 5 million unique users by 2025.

“We need multiple ways to make money to be sustainable. It’s not one way or another, we are really focused on diversity of income at the end of the day . . . and other ways to monetize that audience. That is why we need those 5 million monthly uniques. We can start creating events, we can start creating other solutions, eventually non-publishing solutions to monetize that audience so we can feed the newsroom and continue that cycle going,” Patel explained. 

Another case of a multi-million dollar investment for the creation of a new digital news outlet is that of the philanthropic organizations Houston Endowment, Kinder Foundation and Arnold Ventures, who came together to finance the creation of an independent and nonprofit information project based in Houston, Texas.

The goal is to strengthen the ecosystem of journalism in that city, add information resources to serve communities underrepresented in existing media, and create a more participatory citizenry in Houston.

“We began to realize there was a missing piece, and that missing piece was good information. People simply couldn’t engage in a meaningful way, couldn’t participate in the community because they just didn’t have good information about the things they cared about, and there were lots of voices that weren’t being heard,” said Stern, president of the Houston Endowment Foundation. 

The project took shape after two years of research led by the American Journalism Project, which conducted surveys, sessions with communities of different profiles and languages in Houston, and analysis of journalistic coverage in that city.

The results of the investigation showed that a new journalistic project should be designed to fill the gaps in original coverage left by the Houston Chronicle and other local media, give a voice to underrepresented communities, provide useful information for the prosperity of the inhabitants of Houston and put the needs of the community at the forefront, Stern explained.

“We needed more high quality independent, nonpartisan journalism, and we needed it to be in service of the community. That meant several things to us: information needed to be free and it needed to be accessible, we needed to understand how people were accessing information and we needed to meet them where they were, and that meant languages and formats that were very different from what was going on,” she said. 

Project leaders knew that given the size of Houston and its population, the new outlet was going to require an enormous amount of resources. They managed to join forces with the American Journalism Project and the Knight Foundation to net a $20 million investment to establish the independent, nonprofit news organization over the next three years.

“We believe that high-quality, independent nonpartisan journalism is absolutely essential for democracy in the world and it’s absolutely essential for the future of our region,” said Stern, who made it clear that the financial philanthropic organizations will not meddle in the news agenda of the new outlet. “Houston Endowment is not funding this just because we want more journalism, or because we love journalism, although we do. We are funding it because it’s essential to really serve the people in our region.”

Philanthropy also played an important role in transforming the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper into a nonprofit outlet. Several foundations and citizens backed the $61 million acquisition of the paper by the nonprofit media organization Chicago Public Media, which owns the independent, NPR-affiliated radio station WBEZ Chicago, in January of this year. 

The goal of the acquisition is to strengthen the outlet’s local journalism, expand its coverage and digital presence, and boost its print version.

“We aspire to become the essential and most trusted news source that Chicago turns to each day for understanding the people, events, and ideas that shape the conversations of our community,” Wright said. 

Following the merger of its team with WBEZ Chicago, the Chicago Sun-Times is on a mission to build the largest newsroom in its region and reach more than 2 million users each week. It is expected that more than 350 employees will collaborate with the team, 165 of them journalists who will cover more topics and add investigative journalism to the current coverage of the newspaper.

“Most times when you hear about mergers and acquisitions, you hear that people lose their jobs. Not one person has lost their job. It is our mission to ensure that we can balance both making the right business decisions to achieve a sustainable business model but also ensuring that people like you feel comfortable so you can go out and do your best work,” Wright said. 

The newspaper has 200,000 subscribers who help finance the outlet, in addition to donors who are committed to contributing to the startup for at least five years. Wright said they will try to make sure those contributions go into the journalism side of the organization as much as possible.

Speaking of the expanding coverage of the Chicago Sun-Times, Wright said that in its new phase, the newspaper will place special emphasis on arts and culture, not as a complementary part of the life of Chicagoans, but as a fundamental part of their information diet.

“Sometimes people look at that as sort of a side dish and not part of the main entree. And Chicago’s arts and culture  is significant, it’s huge, it’s a corridor that brings people from the suburbs to downtown. It helps explain what’s happening next with respect to society,” she said.

Wright also highlighted the enormous opportunity for journalism represented by the merger of two independent journalistic entities such as the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ Chicago, which have their own separate strengths, which, she said, will be enhanced by this coming together.