New Data, New Perspectives, New Hope: Takeaways from INN at Home

When we had to cancel our annual conference, INN Days, due to the pandemic, no one was sure if or how we would hold a virtual version. Eventually, our Chief Knowledge Officer Fran Scarlett chose to take the sessions on network-building, revenue-generation and sustainability from the first day of the planned conference and spread them over two half-days via Zoom in June — leaving the second day, on leadership and diversity, for a second installment in September.

Then the murder of George Floyd kicked off an international movement demanding police reform, and we pivoted to bring some of the second-day speakers into the June event. One of our sponsors, Microsoft, postponed their pre-conference panel to make room for new speakers who could address how journalism can respond to the needs of communities of color.

On June 16 and 17, INN at Home attracted some 640 people — almost triple the attendance of INN Days 2019. Only about half were from our community of members, funders and peers; the rest came from other industries — technology, traditional media, community foundations, academia and consulting.

What ultimately transpired was something none of us could have anticipated: the presentation of research findings, attitudes and encouragement suggesting that nonprofit, mission-driven news is the future of journalism. Here are just a few takeaways from the event. You can follow many more comments from attendees on Twitter.

Stay tuned for registration for INN at Home Part 2, to be held online September 22-23.

New Data

INN’s Executive Director and CEO Sue Cross shared findings from the INN Index 2020: The State of Nonprofit News, published June 16, showing that nonprofit news organizations are becoming more sustainable, more engaged with their readers and more concentrated at the local level than ever before.

  • For the first time since the Index launched in 2018, a majority of nonprofit news outlets reported that foundation funding made up less than half of their total annual revenue. Nonprofits are continuing to diversify their revenue sources, particularly by tapping into individual giving.
  • More publishers than ever reported that they primarily engage their audience directly, and fewer reported that third-party publication was the primary way they reached readers and viewers. The vast majority of news organizations reach at least some of their audience via partner publication, but outlets are increasingly focused on building direct audiences, such as by using distribution as a marketing tool to lead consumers to their own websites and newsletters.
  • Local publications make up a growing share of the nonprofit news field. As financial woes force severe cutbacks and closures of traditional local newspapers, more local nonprofit news media are being launched — a pattern that has shifted from the start of the nonprofit news movement in 2009, when the nascent field was led by national and investigative news outlets, which have flourished and grown over the years.
  • The field continued to grow through 2019, reaching an estimated $500 million in annual revenue, and staffed by roughly 3,500 people including some 2,300 journalists.

In addition to the Index, this week INN released a Member Compensation Study, which revealed that the nonprofit news industry offers salaries and benefits that are comparable with other news media outlets.

New Perspectives

Two esteemed journalists from different areas of the field busted through a common myth about journalists: that they must be objective in their work.

Martin Reynolds, a former newspaper editor-in-chief who is now executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said, “Objectivity is the greatest lie perpetuated on journalism. And it is time to forever throw off the illusion that objectivity ever existed. It never did and it never will. Focus on fairness, accuracy, balance, and understanding balance is not always equal time or inches, in fact, balance may well be about rebalancing.”

David Brooks, an opinion columnist at The New York Times and chairman of the Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute, said, “I’m not objective and I never was and I never will be. And in the eyes of some, like the inept leadership at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, that might disqualify me from covering a story related to being Black and this struggle. And how ridiculous does that sound? By that logic, white folks shouldn’t be able to cover anything! And how outrageous is that?”

Rather than aim for the impossible goal of individual objectivity, both speakers emphasized a focus on the facts and the inclusion of diverse voices who may have different opinions based on those facts.

New Hope

The conference closed with a talk by Julie Sandorf, President of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, which is known for funding many things — urban affairs, Jewish life, biomedical research, and education — but not, historically, journalism. Yet the foundation became a founding donor of The City (a NYC-based nonprofit newsroom and INN member), and Ms. Sandorf made a direct call to action to philanthropists across the board.

“There is an inextricable link between the mission and role of journalism and the advancement of philanthropic mission,” Sandorf said. “Foundations simply cannot afford to not fund journalism as a tool to advance their mission.”

If foundations started setting aside two percent of their grantmaking for journalism, as Sue Cross suggested during the conference, and individuals continue stepping up to support their local nonprofit outlets, it might fill up the news deserts left by the collapse of traditional newspapers, create products that reach communities of color, hold power to account, and even share the stories of humanity that bring us together at a time when we are driven ever farther apart.

That sounds like good news to us.