Non-Profit Journalism


Non-profit journalistic outlets are not driven by commercial concerns but are instead dedicated to furthering a public-service mission, filling gaps resulting from market failures, or advancing a particular social cause.

Non-profit outlets have long been a part of many media systems. For example, in the U.S., The Associated Press was founded as a non-profit cooperative in 1846 in order to lower newsgathering costs among its commercial and non-commercial members. Over time, it has helped ensure that audiences in different parts of the country have access to high-quality information from around the U.S. and abroad. Globally, journalism outlets like The Guardian in the United Kingdom and Malaysiakini in Malaysia operate in the spirit of promoting high-quality journalism and providing alternative voices, especially in tightly controlled media environments where commercial and state-sponsored media are afraid of challenging those in power.

Non-profit media have seen considerable growth over the past two decades as the economics of commercial journalism have been disrupted. Put another way, for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, a happy coincidence enabled the market, via advertising and subscription revenue, to support the existence of a robust, ad-supported journalistic sector. There is, however, no reason why that model has to work to adequately support journalism’s public-service responsibilities. Indeed, the drastic drop of advertising revenues and the reluctance audiences have shown for paying for online content in high-choice environments has illustrated how vulnerable that model is.

Objectives, Norms, and Funding

Many of the non-profits established over the past two decades have been founded by journalists who used to work for commercial outlets and became concerned about the ability of commercial media to provide public-service journalism. This is especially the case in democratic societies that lack a strong, state-supported, public-service broadcasting system. Non-profit journalistic outlets often seek to produce the types of content that their founders are concerned is in short supply elsewhere — often because such content is perceived to go unrewarded by market forces. This includes expensive genres like investigative journalism and international journalism, as well as topics that are deemed to be intractable or less-captivating to mass audiences, such as homelessness and mass incarceration.

Many non-profit journalistic outlets share some of the dominant role orientations, norms, and news values associated with journalism in a particular context. For example, conceptions of newsworthiness at non-profits are not wholly different from those at their commercial counterparts. Instead, they are tweaked and, most importantly, less encumbered by economic concerns. Moreover, for these outlets’ content to be considered journalism by audiences, it must still resemble to some extent the forms and formats recognized as journalism within that context — which the dominant, typically commercial or state-supported, outlets play a large role in shaping.

Non-profit outlets often raise funds from an array of sources. The two primary sources tend to be audience-derived contributions and philanthropic grants. Audience-derived contributions may include the subscription fees often found in commercial media, but it typically also includes voluntary donations and crowdfunding campaigns. Philanthropic grants often come from other non-profit organizations and foundations that are devoted to promoting the civic good. For example, the Knight Foundation is a major philanthropic organization in the United States, and it will sometimes provide upwards of $100 million in grants each year to help advance journalism in the U.S. For most other foundations, journalism constitutes a portion of their giving, which is often related to a focus on democracy, community, or education. Researchers have estimated that between 2009 and 2017, foundations provided more than $9 billion worldwide in order to advance journalism — though a significant portion of that was in the United States.

However, those two sources alone are rarely sufficient for non-profit journalistic organizations. Many also draw upon advertising and sponsorships as supplemental revenue sources, though their dependence on advertising is generally lower than that of their commercial counterparts. They also engage in a range of additional revenue-generating activities, like hosting conferences, social events, workshops, and webinars — though these activities usually only account for a small proportion of overall revenue. Additionally, non-profit journalistic outlets benefit from favorable tax status in some countries (including the United States), meaning that contributions to them are tax-deductible and they themselves have to pay fewer taxes.

Impact and Sustainability

The dependence on philanthropic funding does not come without entanglements. Such funders typically receive more requests for funding than they can fund, and they thus tend to require organizations to justify the merit of their requests by demonstrating their impact and sustainability.

Impact is immensely difficult to measure and demonstrate. Funders will often develop different ways of understanding impact, which may include measures of the reach of a project (i.e., how many readers, viewers, or listeners it attracted), the impact(s) it had on policy and governance (e.g., if it resulted in the passing of new legislation or ousting of a corrupt figure), and the coverage it helped generate from other news organizations (e.g., local investigations resulting from a national dataset compiled by the non-profit). However, such developments can be difficult to track and to tie directly to the non-profit’s work, and they may not become apparent for a long time. Moreover, the measures of impact imposed by a funder can significantly shape the journalism produced by a non-profit journalistic outlet — in both positive and negative ways.

Many (though not all) funders also ask non-profit organizations to demonstrate a path toward self-sustainability. A substantial amount of the funding comes as so-called ‘seed grants’ that are intended to help an organization get off the ground, with the expectation that the organization will find sufficient revenue sources over time to no longer require assistance from that particular funder. Indeed, many non-profit journalistic outlets tend to face an inflection point around their fourth or fifth year of operation, and many that fail to establish themselves financially by then are forced to close. Philanthropic funding can thus be an unstable and temporary source of revenue.

Impact and sustainability often become linked in practice within the context of non-profit journalism. One way to demonstrate impact is to point to a growing, loyal audience, which can then be monetized through donations and subscriptions. Additionally, in order to reach a larger audience and increase the impact of a story, non-profit journalistic organizations will often partner with larger, commercial journalistic outlets to distribute the work. For example, the non-profit ProPublica launched its first investigation in 2008 in partnership with the popular CBS television program 60 Minutes, and it has since worked with The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and NPR to increase its reach. In some instances, the works are collaborations — both the non-profit outlet and the commercial outlet devote some resources to producing a story — but oftentimes, the non-profit provides the content for free simply to reach more people. This is because some non-profits tend to publish infrequently, and their own websites and distribution channels tend to have smaller audiences. Thus, even when funders are directly supporting a non-profit like ProPublica, they are also offering indirect subsidies to the commercial organizations that use the non-profit’s work.

Finally, it should be noted that although we have focused on funding for organizations, there is also a robust sector of philanthropic funding for freelance journalists (journalists who work independently and are not attached to any one organization). Such journalists may then work with an established journalistic outlet, such as PBS, or even a non-traditional partner (e.g., Netflix) to ensure wider distribution of their work.

Key Takeaways

  • Non-profit journalistic outlets are not driven by commercial concerns but are instead dedicated to furthering a public-service mission, filling gaps resulting from market failures, or advancing a particular social cause.

  • Non-profit journalistic outlets typically get the majority of their funding from subscribers or donors and from philanthropic foundations that support issues and perspectives they believe are not adequately covered by other media.

  • Non-profit journalistic outlets must often demonstrate their impact and pathway to sustainability in order to receive financial support from philanthropic foundations. They will also sometimes work in partnership with commercial outlets to increase their reach.