SXSW: Survival techniques for nonprofit news organisations

As the traditional business model for news flounders, nonprofits have played an increasingly more significant role in maintaining news coverage, particularly in the US. A panel at South by South West Interactive on Nonprofit Journalism: Survival of the Scrappiest gave nonprofits concrete advice on how to tackle some of their key challenges.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 9, 2013

Meghann Farnsworth, senior manager for distribution and online engagement at the Center for Investigative Reporting, gave advice on how to distribute content through partner organisations. CIR’s goal is not to be a major destination site in itself, but to produce investigative pieces that are also used by other news outlets.

–       When you have an idea for a story, before you even start the main research, think about how it should be produced – text, video, other multimedia – based on the impact that you hope to have. “You will save yourself a lot of time,” she said.

–       It can be hard to get partners to pay for exclusives, so if you have a statewide story, think about how to tailor the same story for multiple local publications.

–       Don’t just think about one-shots – if you have good data, think about whether you can obtain enough to produce regular data features for news organisations who don’t have the capacity for data reporting. Always think about how you can package content together.

–       Get to know your partners, including individual editors and reporters, and get to know what they are looking for

–       Remember that you don’t always have to sell to the biggest publication. Sometimes having a higher impact on fewer people can be more effective than a smaller impact on many.

–       Price your content according to the audience size of your partner, and start with modest introductory prices.

–       Share the story with partners in advance, don’t be afraid of being scooped. But never work without contracts.

Jonathan McNamara, web editor at The Texas Observer, an Austin-based monthly news magazine, gave tips on how small news organisations can use social media effectively without a dedicated social media editor. The Texas Observer has a staff of eleven, and all are expected to contribute on social media.

The magazine focuses its Twitter presence on its main corporate account, but this involves retweeting individual staff members.

It’s tempting just to tweet headlines and links, McNamara said, but this can be a missed opportunity to reach out. For one of the Observer’s events, Rabble Rouser, the magazine reached out on Facebook and Twitter for volunteers to help at the event and gave them free tickets in exchange. By promoting the event venue, the social media coverage spread into different audiences as the venue tweeted about the event also.

At The Texas Tribune, 20% of its $4.5million annual budget comes in through public events. Tanya Erlach, director of the Texas Tribune Festival, explained how events can become a significant revenue stream for a news organization.

“People crave contact,” she said, both with writers and with other members of the public who have similar interests.

Many publications fear that events are too expensive, but in Erlach’s experience, corporate sponsorship is usually the answer. Sponsors are very interested in interacting directly with their markets rather than just through advertising, she believes. Some events cost the Tribune $15,000 to put on but they bring in $100,000 in sponsorship. The organization films all the events and repurposes them as online content, which sponsors love, she said.

If putting on events seems like too much work, then strategic partnerships might be the answer, she said, with universities for example. As well as taking their expertise and manpower on board, you can benefit from their reputation and reaching into their networks.

The events must have compelling content to reach the right audiences. If you’re organizing a panel discussion, think about who at your publication is a great moderator. But don’t just think about panels, she said, think about walking tours, happy hours and parties: create social interactions that develop a sense of community around your brand.

How to conjure philanthropists? Cherilyn Parsons, former director of development & strategic initiatives at the Center for Investigative Reporting advised nonprofits on how to succeed in fundraising.

–       Fundraising is matchmaking, not selling. Do you share a purpose? What do they want? Is that why you do your work?

–       Get to know the grant organisations: embed yourself

–       Make sure that you tailor each proposal to each grant: some organisations will want to hear one thing, others will be interested in another thing entirely

–       Don’t bury the lead in your proposal – start with the fundamental ‘so what’ point

–       Inspire as much as inform – inspire hope, inspire confidence

–       Think about the actual person reading the proposal: make it interesting, and make sure you give them what they need.

–       Don’t feel like you’re begging: they want to help, and you’re bringing valuable resources to the table. Without you, their money just sits there.

–       Keep the grant givers informed: they are your partners.

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