Advertising revenue for traditional print media has been declining for decades, decimating the traditional business model for the industry and leading to layoffs in newsroom staff. All this translates into fewer people covering local issues and fewer communities with quality coverage of local schools, politics, and other critical information. The American Journalism Project (AJP) is an initiative that seeks to grow the resources available for local journalism by investing in a new model for sustainable, mission-based news organizations.
AJP’s strategy is three-fold: fund existing nonprofit newsrooms through grantmaking, provide intensive support to develop grantees’ fundraising and commercial media capacity, and build a movement of support for this model. Co-founded by the leadership of the Texas Tribune and Chalkbeat, two of the largest locally-focused nonprofit news organizations, AJP seeks to expand their revenue model to nonprofit newsrooms across the country, thereby increasing the resources available for coverage of local issues that communities depend on.
AJP, which has raised $42 million to date for the initiative (with a goal of $50 million), will offer grants and support to civic news organizations (CNOs). With a long-term goal of catalyzing $1 billion in financial support for independent local news, AJP seeks to bolster the precarious financial model that supports many CNOs. Some 46% of nonprofit news organizations have less than $500,000 in annual revenue and 42% rely on just one or two revenue streams, typically from foundation grants. AJP newsrooms will be launched using philanthropic funds and then sustained via a mix of digital subscriptions, advertising, and fundraising, so that each source constitutes roughly a third of each news organization’s revenue.
AJP’s two co-founders have proven with their own news outlets that they can make CNOs more financially sustainable. The Texas Tribune launched in 2009 with a staff of 18, and has grown to 63 fulltime employees by 2018. Just 25% of its $9.5 million in annual revenue comes from foundations, compared to 57% in the nonprofit news sector overall. In one weekend the Tribune raised $2 million at TribFest18, a multi-venue conference attended by over 5,000 people. These financial resources now support a 40-person editorial staff covering Texas politics and public affairs.
Chalkbeat, an education news website, has relied on a similar mix of philanthropy, corporate sponsorship and audience support to grow its budget by more than 100% over the past three years. With $7 million in revenue and a 51-person staff, it now has reporters in seven cities, most recently expanding to Newark, filling a gap after the Star-Ledger reduced its newsroom staff by more than half in the past decade. As the business model for local papers no longer incentivizes in-depth coverage of local issues, Chalkbeat and Texas Tribune’s growth demonstrates the viability of an alternative, philanthropic model that ensures communities’ critical information needs are met.
AJP will provide multi-year grants ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million to 25 to 35 organizations starting in late 2019. With their investment, AJP will catalyze matching funds from local philanthropic organizations. An essential use of grant funds will be to hire revenue-generating team members whose efforts will find sustainable sources of funding (audience support, sponsorships, and local philanthropy) that support the CNOs long-term. Philanthropists can give directly to AJP, or work with their preferred newsroom to submit a proposal for AJP’s first round of grants. Funders can find a list of local, nonprofit newsrooms at the Institute for Nonprofit News.