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News Revenue Hub

‘To solve a problem, you have to define it’: How the News Revenue Hub conducts landscape analyses

By Katie Hawkins-Gaar

In early 2020, a handful of citizens in Fort Worth, Texas, began meeting to discuss the decline of local news coverage in their city and what to do about it. The group, helmed by Wes Turner, the former publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Bill Meadows, a prominent local civic and business leader, called themselves the “Coalition of the Concerned.”

The group talked about the gaps in local news coverage. They brainstormed fundraising ideas. They even considered raising money for the Star-Telegram, but ultimately had reservations about the paper’s ownership and for-profit business model, which included a paywall.

Eventually, the group rallied around the idea of funding a new nonprofit news outlet. It was a bold move, and one they would need some help with.

Meadows traveled to San Antonio, where he met with Robert Rivard, who co-founded the nonprofit news outlet San Antonio Report (formerly the Rivard Report) in 2012. He spent the afternoon with Rivard, visiting the Report newsroom and meeting staffers. 

“I saw a room full of enthusiastic, dedicated, and committed young journalists,” Meadows said. “I thought, there’s a lot of energy in this room, and this looks like something we can pull off.”

“You think you know your community, but you need to know more.”
— Bill Meadows

Rivard advised Meadows that if he wanted to “embark on this adventure,” he would first need solid background on the Fort Worth community and their information needs. “He told me, ‘You think you know your community, but you need to know more,’” Meadows recalled.

Rivard also told Meadows that the next person he needed to speak to was Mary Walter-Brown at the News Revenue Hub.

So he did. Once Meadows returned to Fort Worth, he reached out to Walter-Brown, the Hub’s founder and chief executive officer. After a few conversations, Walter-Brown convinced Meadows and his colleagues to work with the Hub to conduct an analysis of the Fort Worth news landscape.

As part of that analysis, the Hub produced a thorough report that included findings and recommendations on filling Fort Worth’s news and information gaps. “It basically laid out a business plan for us,” Meadows said. 

With research to back their assumptions and a financial plan in place, Meadows, Turner, and other members of the Coalition of the Concerned went to local foundations to seek funding to create a nonprofit news outlet.

In April 2021, the Fort Worth Report launched, with $1.25 million in seed money. Today, the organization has raised more than $8 million and employs a staff of 22 people.

“It is a viable, recognized source of news in our community,” said Meadows, who now serves as the president and co-chair of the Fort Worth Report’s Board of Directors

“Sometimes I just shake my head,” Meadows continued, reflecting on the Fort Worth Report’s growth and success. “We had a sense that people still wanted local news and wanted to be informed, but I didn’t see that the demand was as great as it is.”

This wasn’t the first time the Hub had conducted a landscape analysis. From surveying New York City’s news ecosystem in 2018 to the state of news in Amarillo, Texas, in 2023, the Hub has completed several analyses to help potential funders and founders determine audience needs in cities across the U.S.

“We’ve been drawn to this type of work because not only does it help identify the need for news organizations that can serve communities, but it also helps us understand the needs of people in each of these communities,” said Walter-Brown. “That’s the heart of our mission: To help sustain the public’s access to news and information.”

Here are the ingredients for a successful landscape analysis and how potential funders and founders might use them.

Identify existing sources of news

The inaugural landscape analysis conducted by the News Revenue Hub was an ambitious one. In 2018, the Hub was commissioned jointly by The Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Mayor’s Office to assess New York City’s local news landscape, identify digital news outlets within the city’s five boroughs, and determine if any of those outlets were well positioned to implement membership programs. 

To begin, the Hub built a comprehensive list of digital news outlets covering local issues in New York City. The websites of local broadcast media were not included, nor were those of major print publications. In total, the Hub identified 90 outlets that met the criteria.

Through interviews with those outlets, the Hub discovered that residents believed there was less local news coverage than there should be. “Even more worrying,” the final report read, “almost every hyperlocal outlet interviewed said that if they weren’t there to cover the neighborhood, neighborhood news would not be reported at all.”

“In most people’s minds, New York is the center of all media in the universe,” Walter-Brown said. “But we soon found out that there were, in fact, local news deserts throughout the boroughs.”

The Hub’s findings ultimately laid the groundwork for the nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom THE CITY, which launched in April 2019. The digital newsroom, which uses a membership model, has reporters in all five boroughs and specializes in high-impact accountability reporting.

“Our experience in New York was eye-opening,” Walter-Brown said. “It really set off how we approach all of our landscape analyses.”

Find the coverage gaps

For Steve Pair, the co-founder of SKP Creative in Amarillo, Texas, commissioning a landscape analysis made perfect sense. “I believe that to solve a problem, you have to define it,” Pair said.

Pair, who previously worked as the news director for Amarillo’s KVII-TV, was another concerned citizen interested in exploring the viability of a startup news organization in his city. In late 2023, Pair hired the Hub to conduct a landscape analysis of the Amarillo news ecosystem.

With a population of about 200,000 covered by 10 local news stations, Amarillo is hardly a news desert, but there are still significant coverage gaps. After an extensive search, the News Revenue Hub identified 18 entities that provide news and information about Amarillo, including podcasts, hyperlocal websites, and statewide outlets. From there, the Hub conducted an analysis of the topic areas those outlets claimed to cover. Finally, the Hub designed and executed a content analysis of three major sources of local news in Amarillo, including a two-week review of each source’s website homepage plus a month-long study of news articles published on those site’s local news sections.

That content analysis uncovered that Amarillo news lacks meaningful content and depth, with little original reporting outside of high school sports. The research found that “a news outlet that thoroughly reports on topics of local interest and that can build community across differing political views would be well received,” the Hub’s report stated.

Like Meadows and the team behind Fort Worth Report, Pair and his colleagues are using the Hub’s landscape analysis and recommendations to move forward in creating a new source of news and information for Amarilloans.

“The landscape analysis was very informative and is serving as the foundation of everything we’re doing moving forward,” said Pair. “It’s also proved valuable in answering the questions our initial donors have in proving the case for the outlet we’re developing.”

Talk to the community

Perhaps the most important component of a landscape analysis is hearing from community members about their information needs. The Hub connects with local residents in a variety of ways, including community surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews.

In Fort Worth, residents said they were looking for unbiased and in-depth journalism. They also expressed a strong appetite for solutions-oriented coverage — 60% of survey respondents said the current coverage in Fort Worth was more focused on problems than solutions. And through focus groups, community members expressed concerns about how few issues were covered and the lack of depth in existing coverage.

The Hub’s findings affirmed many of the complaints of the Coalition of the Concerned, Meadows noted. “That said,” he added, “it’s valuable to have a third party to assess what the community is saying. It gave us an extremely helpful tool that ultimately enabled us to launch the Fort Worth Report.”

In Amarillo, respondents expressed a general negative sentiment of Amarillo local news, concerns about a lack of accountability reporting, and frustrations with local outlets’ lack of depth and context in coverage.

Pair said he was particularly struck by two findings. “One is how polarized our community is,” he said. “This helped identify a major challenge: how do you create a news source that people from across the political spectrum trust? This is going to be a key challenge for us.” 

The second takeaway that stood out was “the pure desire our community seems to have” for a news outlet that will produce deep dives and in-depth analyses of the issues facing Amarillo. For Pair, it’s an encouraging insight as plans move forward.

And in Miami, where the Hub conducted a landscape analysis in 2019, most consumers were fairly happy with their local news options. “Although that analysis didn’t lead to a new news organization, it provided a lot of insights into the decision-making process of whether or not now was the time to launch an outlet,” Walter-Brown said.

Look ahead

Landscape analyses can be used to guide the development of news startups, as in Fort Worth and Amarillo. They can also be a tool to help inform grantmaking strategies.

Earlier this year, the Hub was commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust to conduct an analysis of the Chicago media landscape. The goal of the analysis was to help determine which independent digital local news outlets are best positioned to grow if given additional financial support and professional resources.

The resulting in-depth report explores Chicago’s independent digital local news outlets in various stages of development. It begins by highlighting geographic areas that have gaps in coverage, identifies challenges in serving Chicago audiences, and explores news outlets’ most pressing needs and long-term plans.

One of the Hub’s starkest findings was that, among the 52 newsrooms that produce local reporting about civic issues in the Chicago area, those outlets are reaching just 25% of their intended audience on average. The median audience penetration among those outlets is even lower, at 10%.

“This isn’t a criticism of those outlets,” Walter-Brown explained. “It’s an observation — an important one — of how difficult it is to reach fragmented audiences in today’s digital news ecosystem.”

The MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust are two of the 10 initial funders supporting Press Forward Chicago, a local chapter of the national Press Forward initiative that aims to raise unprecedented funds to revitalize local news across the U.S. Press Forward Chicago launched in November 2023 with nearly $10 million in commitments from funders.

“We are absolutely using the landscape analysis to inform our work,” said Kathy K. Im, director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Journalism and Media program. “The report gives us a clearer picture of the Chicago news ecosystem, a better idea of the challenges facing news organizations, and a path toward strategic interventions and solutions that will guide our grantmaking.”

“We are able to go deep and zero in on one city, but also spot trends across markets.”
— Mary Walter-Brown

Walter-Brown looks forward to conducting future analyses with other funders and founders. “I think we’re uniquely qualified to do this work because we work across so many different newsrooms and so many different cities,” she said. “We are able to go deep and zero in on one city, but also spot trends across markets.”

“What Chicago is experiencing isn’t that unique,” Walter-Brown explained. “The same thing is playing out in Fort Worth and Amarillo and Miami and New York.”

Identifying the trends, Walter-Brown believes, will lead to solutions. “If we can start to surface these challenges across cities and newsrooms, we can really begin, as an industry, to advocate for scaled solutions that can help entire ecosystems.”

Pair said that commissioning a landscape analysis “was a big investment for us, but it was well worth it.”

“I would recommend this as a fundamental starting point for any community looking to undertake this challenge,” he said.