Journalism’s traditional advertising- and circulation-focused revenue model is crumbling. Even billionaire owner Jeff Bezos’ interest and investment haven’t saved The Washington Post from budget problems (Mullin & Robertson, 2022). As for-profit outlets large and small look for ways to stay afloat, many are turning to philanthropy as a safety net.

The Johnson Center first reported on growth in the nonprofit media landscape in 2019’s 11 Trends in Philanthropy report. That piece, “Nonprofit Media is Experiencing a Growth Spurt — So is Philanthropy’s Response” (Martin, 2019), primarily focused on the rapid proliferation of start-up nonprofit news outlets and the response from individual philanthropists (small-dollar donors and billionaires alike).

If anything, that trend has sped up since we first wrote about it, especially among providers of local news. According to the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), 65% of the nonprofit news outlets that launched in 2021 had a local focus, compared to 57% the year before (2022). In total, the number of newly-launched outlets from 2017 to 2021 effectively doubled the number launched in the previous five years — 135 new outlets, compared to the 69 outlets that appeared between 2012 and 2016 (INN, 2022).

This year we’re looking at a different aspect of the news landscape and its increasingly close relationship with philanthropy. In the for-profit news space, legacy brands and 21st-century digital natives alike are moving to explore, adapt, and adopt the nonprofit model. We identified three emerging models that indicate a shift in the future of news media.

There’s no question that philanthropic support for journalism is growing. However, as commitments increase, philanthropy will need to be careful not to fall into old patterns that could undercut its intentions.

  • Supporting Local vs. National News. Many funders are entering this space to reverse dramatic losses in local news coverage. Yet, according to INN, “gains in philanthropic support to nonprofit news is most densely concentrated among larger national and global organizations” (2022, para. 3). Foundations make up only 40% of revenue for locally-focused nonprofit outlets, while they account for 59% of revenue for nationally/globally-focused nonprofit newsrooms (INN, 2022).
  • General Operating Expenses. In Philanthropic Options for Newspaper Owners: A Practical Guide, Nicco Mele notes that philanthropic structures created to support both The Salt Lake Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer are explicitly forbidden from supporting those papers’ operating expenses or covering their deficits (2019, p. 9 & 12). While funders may feel this establishes a necessary barrier between themselves and news content, the policy could leave newsrooms cut off from a critical source of core support.

Read the full article about nonprofit news by Tory Martin at Johnson Center.