This week, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced the twenty-four recipients of its Sustainable Publishing Solutions Grant.
The grant is designed to help newsrooms adopt publishing platforms that grow audiences and increase revenue, with each grantee receiving up to $20,000 toward this goal. This is part of a three-year, $2 million commitment by Knight.
“The News Revenue Hub was honored to facilitate the application process for this grant because we know how important a high-functioning website is to the success and sustainability of digital news organizations,” said CEO Mary Walter-Brown. “In our work every day at the Hub, we see firsthand how important a good content management system [CMS] is to newsrooms’ ability to reach new audiences and increase revenue. Far too often we’ve seen news organizations with strong strategies blocked from executing their ideas because of website limitations.”
That’s why the Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant is so important—especially as the media landscape continues to change.
“It’s harder to be nimble when your CMS keeps you from making quick updates or deploying critical features. This grant gives news organizations the opportunity to invest in a more affordable and robust solution or improve their existing systems,” says Christina Shih, News Revenue Hub’s Vice President of Business Development. “This is especially true for smaller organizations with limited resources.”
The Sustainable Publishing Solutions grant is part of Knight Foundation’s broader commitment to helping news organizations optimize their use of technology to improve sustainability and better serve local and underrepresented communities. This opportunity strengthens the foundation of each newsroom and in turn, the communities they serve. The News Revenue Hub was tapped by Knight to help manage the call for applications and provide training for the grantees on utilizing business and audience development tools and building lasting strategies.
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN ON OUR PROCESS
Here’s some insight into the grant review process, with an eye toward lessons learned for next time.
When we put out the call for applications in February, we specifically asked to hear from nonprofit news organizations, organizations led by people of color or serving communities of color, and/or those serving underrepresented communities including rural areas and news deserts. Our pool of 140 applications reflected this call.
After eliminating applications that did not meet minimum qualifications, we advanced 127 to our team of eight reviewers. The reviewers were recruited for their mix of technical, business, editorial and nonprofit management experience, and they worked collaboratively to establish a judging criteria that ensured equity and consistency. Due to the nature of the grant and the fact that a CMS is the foundation of any digital newsroom, it was important to have a group of panelists that could evaluate applications from every angle.
To get to 40 finalists, reviewers evaluated each application in three core areas:
- Strength of the application: Is there a clear vision for how the CMS will improve their business model? Did the organization research the best platform for their business?
- Readiness to receive funding: Are they in a position to deploy funds immediately? Additionally, how do they plan to maintain costs after the grant period ends?
- Impact on the industry/thought leadership: Will they be a role model for their peers in the industry and are they likely to share best practices?
In addition to the core criteria, reviewers also considered the impact this investment would have on specific newsrooms and diversity in size, years of operation, and audiences served.
Here are some additional insights from our reviewers:
- Does the organization have a sufficient level of fiscal stability? Adds reviewer Fran Scarlett, “It’s the difference between feeding somebody or teaching them how to fish. An organization’s understanding of how they are going to sustain this endeavor after the installation was a key part of what we were looking at in the process.”
- Reviewer Chris Kewson wanted to see applicants demonstrate a clear understanding of the different platforms and their drawbacks. “I tended to lean toward places that had picked CMSs that were more standard and easily available.”
- Impact. Impact. Impact. Reviewer Sisi Wei adds, “Are we going to make an impact here? There’s a lot that goes into that question…but the key of it is do they have an understanding of what a CMS gets them versus anything else? And have they picked one that really solves the problems they’ve articulated? Do they have a handle on what this will really cost them—and not just monetarily, but also staff time?”
MEET THE RECIPIENTS
“The grantees represent diverse sectors of the news industry, from digital startups to legacy print organizations—but all want to serve their communities. An investment in their technology platforms should have a long term effect on their readers,” said Tristan Loper, the Hub’s Executive Vice-President and Co-Founder who also participated as a reviewer.
Here’s the breakdown of the 24 grant recipients:
- 58% nonprofits, 38% for profits, 4% fiscally sponsored
- Led by women or person of color: 79%
- Serve underrepresented communities and rural areas: 75%
- Platform choice: 50% Newspack, 33% other WordPress solutions, 17% other
- Coverage area: 41% local, 33% statewide, 20% topical, 4% other
“This grant is game-changing. If you were to do it on your own, you’d have to raise money to do it [and that] takes you off your mission…It’s hard enough to raise money to fund reporters. It’s a lot harder to raise money for a new website,” says Krewson.
RE-EXAMINING IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 AND BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT
Our application window took place at a time when the world was completely different.
Our lives had not yet been upended by COVID-19 or protests over the death of George Floyd. Both of these moments have reinforced the critical role newsrooms play in building trust and informing readers.
COVID-19 has forced organizations to navigate extraordinary operating challenges and revenue shortfalls, while keeping up with record-breaking web traffic and demand from readers. While COVID-19 has accelerated many troubling trends that newsrooms have worried about for many years—such as the loss of advertising dollars—the crisis has also cemented their role in readers’ lives.
This is especially true of many of our grantees, many of which serve communities that have fragile relationships with mainstream newsrooms. For example, the Brooklyn Reader has disseminated critical information to vulnerable populations in New York; Que Pasa and Sahan Journal are reaching immigrant communities by publishing in Spanish, Somali and Hmong; and DC Witnesses provides families with information on what COVID-19 means for those in the criminal justice system.
The essentialness of these newsrooms continues to hold true as our country grapples with issues of systemic racism and over-policing. Newsrooms such as Afro-American Newspapers, New York Amsterdam News, The Atlanta Voice and Omaha Star have covered these critical issues for decades and in some cases, for over a century.
Better technology systems will help these newsrooms serve their communities—not only in a time of crisis when the need for reliable information is acute, but in a time of recovery and reckoning.
ADVICE TO APPLICANTS FOR NEXT TIME
- We heard it repeatedly from our reviewers, so we’ll reiterate here: Do. Your. Homework. In the context of the grant, think about your mission and how your organization can deliver on it. Consider whether you have the resources to implement your plan—not just monetarily, but in staff time, too. This goes not just for the Sustainable Publishing Solutions Grant, but for any grant.
- It helps to be thorough: Our reviewers were impressed by the applicant that issued a Request for Proposal before they submitted their grant application. By issuing an RFP, said reviewer Sisi Wei, “They not only got better knowledge of what they needed to do, but also an easy and clear path to when we get this money, here’s the plan and we have a person ready to do it. I think that was really smart.”
- Be honest about your limitations around diversity: If this is a challenge you’re facing as an organization, be upfront about it rather than hiding it or evading the question altogether.
GET TO KNOW THE GRANTEES
Accion Hispana/Que Pasa
Que Pasa’s mission is to inform, educate and drive to actions the Spanish Speaking local community in areas that will help them to have a Better Life (Por Una Vida Mejor), increasing their knowledge of their rights and duties as members of their communities as well the knowledge (civic, financial, medical, etc) they need to continuing becoming better productive and contributing members of society.
Afro American Newspapers
The Afro American Newspapers (The AFRO) is the longest-running African American family-owned newspaper in the nation. Founded in 1892 by John H. Murphy Sr., The AFRO is celebrating almost 128 years as the most trusted voice of news and information for the African American community. The AFRO promotes unity in the community and crusades for racial justice while exposing racism in education, jobs, housing, and public accommodations.
Bangor Daily News
The Bangor Daily News is the only statewide news publication in Maine and has been in business since 1889. As a digital first newsroom for almost a decade, we cover the entire state of Maine, with reporters spanning the state, from the Canadian border all the way to Portland, our largest city. We serve a largely rural audience in the most rural state in the U.S., with only around 30% of residents living in cities.
BK Reader (The Brooklyn Reader)
The BK Reader is a digital daily news site covering Central, East and North Brooklyn.
Block Club Chicago
Block Club Chicago is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods. We are committed to covering underserved and urban communities on Chicago’s South and West sides that have been long-neglected by not only the city but by local media.
Carolina Public Press
Carolina Public Press is an independent nonprofit news organization dedicated to nonpartisan, in-depth and investigative news built upon the facts and context North Carolinians need to know. Our award-winning, breakthrough journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues facing our state’s 10.2 million residents.
Community Media Center
Community Media Center is a nonprofit media center that includes a citizen journalism website, public access TV, community radio, historic theatre venue, IT support for nonprofits, educational services, and video services for nonprofits.
DC Witness is a website that tracks every homicide, sexual assault and domestic violence case in DC from act to resolution, gathering and sharing data. We bring unprecedented transparency to the DC criminal justice system.
Fostering Media Connections
Fostering Media Connections (FMC) uses the power of media and journalism to lead the conversation about children, youth and families in America. FMC publishes The Chronicle of Social Change, a daily news site dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives as well as a bi-monthly resource magazine, Fostering Families Today, which is distributed to foster families across America.
Mississippi Today is a nonprofit news and media company with a forward-facing mission of civic engagement and public dialog through service journalism, live events and digital outreach. Our newsroom is dedicated to providing Mississippians with reporting that inspires active interest in their state and equips them to engage in community life.
Montana Free Press
Montana Free Press is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit source for in-depth Montana news, information, and analysis. We work independently and in collaboration with other news outlets around Montana to produce meaningful news stories that have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of local communities.
Muslim is a news outlet, media publication and online community for millennials and Gen-Z Muslims to connect with one another, feel empowered through each other, amplify our faith, and share our lifestyles and views.
Muslim Journal is the oldest Muslim newspaper in the U.S.A., a 44+ year old weekly newspaper successor to newspaper started by Malcolm X Shabazz, representing a free and independent voice, built on the first amendment Bill of Rights of the US Constitution. Muslim Journal is securing its future with a firm presence online via virtual news circulation, planning for the 21st century.
Native News Online
Native News Online (nativenewsonline.net) delivers important daily news that affects the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Founded in 2011, Native News Online has established itself as one of the most-read news sites among Native and non-Natives interested in Indian Country news. Our vision is to “change the narrative” about Indian Country by providing fair, balanced and accurate coverage of social issues, policy matters and economic development involving tribes throughout the United States.
New York Amsterdam News
For a 109 years the Amsterdam News has sought to provide unbiased news and information to the Black community in the Greater New York City area. The Amsterdam News mission is just as critical today during this current health crisis as it was 109 years ago.
Sahan Journal is a nonprofit digital news organization that covers Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities. Launched in the summer of 2019, the news organization chronicles the struggles, successes and transformations of Minnesota’s new Americans, whose stories are often overlooked by traditional news organizations.
Scalawag is a Black-led, women-run nonprofit media and storytelling organization that illuminates dissent, unsettles dominant narratives, pursues justice and liberation, and stands in solidarity with marginalized people and communities in the South.
Soul Pitt Media
Soul Pitt® Media, a certified Minority business enterprise, is a local media company that serves the African-American population in Pittsburgh and the Western PA surrounding communities by delivering the latest, most informative, and most comprehensive content via its award-winning internet and print platforms TheSoulPitt.com and Soul Pitt Quarterly print magazine.
The Atlanta Voice
Serving Metro Atlanta and beyond for more than 55 years, The Atlanta Voice is a family-oriented, small business enterprise with a scrappy, resourceful team of talented journalists of color who not only believe in the power of the Black Press but are also committed to creating meaningful journalism and telling stories that will help shape media consumption in the black community. Our newsroom is one-part traditional, two-parts learning lab, a space designed by our editorial team to foster continual ongoing learning and development in an industry that is ever-evolving.
The Daily Yonder
The Daily Yonder provides news, commentary, and analysis about and for rural America. We publish online to a nationwide audience of rural residents, advocates, policymakers, and journalists. Our reporting aims to inform rural Americans and the people who care about rural communities about important issues and to build bridges between rural and urban communities in ways that strengthen both.
The Omaha Star
It is the mission of the Mildred D. Brown Memorial Study Center to provide access to the Omaha Star’s inspirational archive materials and resources; to promote the future of community-based media; and to help area students, especially African-Americans, envision career possibilities in journalism and communications.
The Plug is a digital news and insights platform covering the Black innovation economy. We provide timely and relevant news and stories on Black ecosystems, founders, investors, and policies shaping the present and future of technology and society.
The Real News Network
Our mission is to speak truth about power, and to provide tools and information people can use to make the world a more just place, by serving disenfranchised audiences that need change the most and audiences who can help create the change we need the most, in the US and across the world, through digital media. In an ever-shrinking independent media landscape and uncertain political climate, TRNN’s purpose is more critical than ever.
TucsonSentinel.com reports in-depth stories about politics and public policy in Southern Arizona, focusing on the unique cultural and social interactions in the Borderlands. With an emphasis on immigration, the environment and local investigations, our award-winning journalism holds the powerful to account and gives voice to stories that otherwise go untold.
- Jim Brady, CEO, Spirited Media
- Laura Frank, Consultant, Colorado News Collaborative
- Chris Krewson, Executive Director, LION Publishers
- Tristan Loper, Executive VP & Co-Founder, News Revenue Hub
- Aron Pilhofer, Director, News Catalyst
- Hong Qu, Research Director, Harvard Kennedy School
- Fran Scarlett, Chief Knowledge Officer, INN
- Sisi Wei, Director of Programs, Open News