How should we measure journalism’s impact? It’s a complicated question without an easy answer.

News organizations and funders have grappled with measuring media impact in the U.S. for well over a decade, and for far longer in international media development. I organized some of the first trainings on impact measurement for the then-new field of nonprofit news a decade ago. Organizations like Media Impact Funders have spent years researching best practices and curating tools for both funders and media makers. We know from social science research that local news makes a difference for communities and our democracy in deep and far-reaching ways. Yet measuring it remains difficult and there is no universally accepted model of measurement across the field.

A similarly complex question: How should we measure our impact as journalism funders?

At the American Journalism Project, our mission is to accelerate the scale, growth, and impact of nonprofit news. We are a venture philanthropy, investing in helping organizations to grow and meet the scale of the mighty challenges that local news faces. We measure the impact of our investments and venture support by how well we catalyze grantees’ sustainable growth — growth that leads to greater impact for the communities they serve.

Our 2022 Impact Report, our first-ever report of its kind, distills early learnings from across our work and includes several grantee case studies to help bring to life the role our grantees play in their communities. In many ways, we’re still at the beginning of this effort and we’ll continue to monitor, learn from, and report out about what we learn.

Our measurement framework is organized around five key questions:

  1. Is grantee revenue growing? Across our portfolio, we expect grantees to demonstrate sustainable growth every year and achieve a 2.5x or greater return on our annual investment by the end of the grant period.
  2. Is local news improving as a result? Revenue growth should lead to bigger newsrooms that are providing more and better journalism for the communities they serve.
  3. Are grantees on a path to serve more communities? Grantees are building local news organizations that can reverse the growing trend of news deserts across the country by serving as scalable, replicable models.
  4. Is our support making a difference? We hold ourselves to the same high standards as our grantees and expect our support to help them outperform field-wide benchmarks and their own track records.
  5. Is local philanthropy increasing its support? Local philanthropy is embracing its role to build and sustain local news as a public good and stepping forward with new funding.

To answer these questions, we listen to what grantees tell us, and what they tell their boards and other stakeholders about their work with us. We pay close attention to financial performance, and we watch how local news organizations grow, not just in the new roles we fund but also in how existing staff take on new challenges and responsibilities. And we support and track measures of financial health, diversity and inclusion, and operating capacity that we believe are necessary for growing organizations.

There are other commonly-referenced metrics that we deliberately have chosen not to track. We don’t, for example, measure grantee success by the size of their audience or the number of monthly website visitors they receive. Readership matters, but its correlation with sustainable growth for nonprofit newsrooms is complicated. The incentives to increase readership don’t always lead to quality journalism; page views can’t tell us a newsroom’s impact in a community. We believe strong and growing local newsrooms have a far-reaching impact on their communities, as the case studies in our impact report illustrate so well.

So what are strong indicators of success for growing nonprofit local newsrooms that funders can look for? Sustainable revenue growth, especially from local supporters — such as a growing donor base or an increase in unrestricted funding — often means the organization matters to its community and is making a difference.

We look for models that can scale, and leadership teams developing approaches to local news that can be expanded to new communities, neighborhoods, or regions. We look for newsrooms that look like and are led by the communities they serve, and where local information needs are driving newsroom decisions about what to cover and how.

We invite you to read our 2022 Impact Report and get involved. If you’re interested in learning more, we’d welcome a conversation.