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Nonprofit journalism grew in 2020

Nonprofit journalism grew in 2020, and individual donors played an increasingly large part in this boom, the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) says in its annual report.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice movement and presidential election in the U.S. intensified demand for high-quality news. It was a year that proved the value of public service journalism and accelerated the growth and public dependence on nonprofit news outlets, INN says in “The State of Nonprofit News” report.

“This tumultuous year generated the fastest growth in nonprofit news media since the financial crisis of 2008, when many journalists left legacy media to create nonprofit newsrooms, with the aim of saving accountability and investigative reporting considered essential to democracy.”

INN distributed the survey online in January 2021 to 284 INN network newsrooms, excluding service organizations that are also INN members, and 268, or 94%, completed the survey. Of those newsrooms surveyed, 36% cover local issues, 24% cover state issues, and 21% are national outlets, while the remaining 10% and 9% are global and regional, respectively.

Audiences grew

As more people turned to nonprofit news sites, audiences swelled. On average, the survey found an increase in web traffic of 43%, with median monthly unique visitors growing from around 35,000 in 2019 to about 50,000 in 2020.

It also found an increase in email newsletter signups of 36% across its member organizations, from a median of 5,300 subscribers in 2019 to around 7,200 in 2020. 

Individual giving rose 41%

According to the report, individual giving is where nonprofit outlets shined in 2020. The median revenue from individual giving increased to $118,000, a 41% gain from the previous year based on the Index respondents with comparable 2019 and 2020 financial data.

Nearly two-thirds of news nonprofits saw increases in individual giving in 2020, and for about half of those outlets the increase was more than 50%. 

The majority of individual giving revenue came from major donors (60%), followed by small-dollar contributors (22%), members (9%) and mid-range donors (7%).

Revenue increased for most outlets

INN projected that the total revenue among its members was $350 million in 2020, but cautioned it’s not easy to compare that to the previous years, partly because in 2020 INN excluded public media groups from its financial analyses.

The survey found that there was an increase in foundation support and individual giving for nearly two-thirds of nonprofit news outlets, but a decrease in earned revenue for about half.

“Nonprofit news outlets attracted more first-time contributors than ever before,” the report notes. The number of people who gave a nonprofit news outlet a small-dollar contribution jumped by almost 50%, from an average 846 small-dollar donors per outlet in 2019 to over 1,200 in 2020. The average amount of a small-dollar donation held steady at around $90.

Major funding concentrated to well-established outlets

Local, state and regional, and national and global nonprofits all count on foundation funding for an average of 47% of their revenue. However, that funding disproportionately went to national and global outlets, especially older ones, INN notes.

According to the report, the outlets that attracted the most grant dollars are well-established, tend to be nationally or globally focused, and have larger overall budgets. More than 70% of all grant funding goes to just the top 20% of the field, a group of outlets with annual revenue of $2 million or more. Older outlets that launched in 2008 or before make up roughly one-fifth of the field, but bring in more than a third of all grant money.

Major giving is also concentrated disproportionately among older and national outlets. Of all the outlets that reported major gifts, just 9% brought in at least $1 million from this source in 2020. That 9% – a group dominated by older, nationally focused newsrooms – accounted for nearly three-quarters of all major donor revenue across the field.

The challenge

“Nonprofit news outlets succeeded in serving their communities with essential information through the crises of 2020. From the impact of their journalism and the growth in community support, we find direction and the momentum to restore and reinvent news for all Americans, at a much greater scale,” INN notes.

The Institute argues that the decline of commercial media will continue. “Our challenge is to move from a crisis footing toward a future ensuring the nonpartisan, nonprofit news needed to govern ourselves in a democracy.”

A key opportunity is underscored by a recent Pew Research Center study showing consumers lean on their familiarity with a news brand more than any other factor in deciding what news to trust. 

“Coming off a year when service journalism introduced millions of people to nonprofit news brands and attracted individual donors, the priority for nonprofit news publishers is to keep and expand this support. The audience challenge for nonprofits is more about depth and loyalty than the total numbers and affluent audiences sought by ad-based news outlets,” INN says.


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