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Best Practices

Lessons from the Independent News Sustainability Summit

Written by: News Revenue Hub staff

In October, News Revenue Hub co-hosted the first Independent News Sustainability Summit with LION and RevLab, and wow, was it energizing! For three days we got to be in community with and learn from so many like-minded news folks. In addition to being a part of several panels, our staff was there soaking in new ideas alongside participants. Now that we’ve had time to let it all sink in, we want to share a few takeaways with you based on the conference’s three areas of focus: financial health, journalistic impact and operational resilience. 

Below you’ll hear from Abbey Gingras, Director of Consulting Services; Rachel Glickhouse, Director of Learning and Labs; Mac Blair, Project Coordinator and Mariclare Hall, Director of Product. 


Financial Health


Mariclare: “Thinking about growth is a risk mitigation strategy because it requires planning ahead and thinking about the future, which is essential for the health of your organization.”

Abbey: “It’s worth it to get personal with fundraising. Honolulu Civil Beat had a donor match for a previous end-of-year campaign. The team gave that donor their platform to share a heartfelt email that explained what Civil Beat meant to her and the community and why she made her gift. That appeal remains the most successful fundraising email they’ve ever sent with a 60-70% open rate, and they met the match within two hours, per Civil Beat’s Vice President of Operations and Philanthropy Ben Nishimoto.”

Mac: “Build systems that make the job easier – automate. Here are two examples: Credit cards and recurring donations hemorrhage money when cards lapse; come up with a system by running a report once a month for lapsing donors and do a mail merge email. Renewal series are one of the most powerful tools for newsrooms. Having readers get reminder emails to renew their annual donation has generated tens of thousands of dollars for individual newsrooms. Welcome series generate revenue, too. Processes that make life easier over time should be prioritized.”

Rachel: “It’s important not to neglect donor retention since it takes a lot of work to move a user through the whole funnel. Ensuring that you keep existing donors – especially recurring ones – may end up costing less time and effort and will have a big payoff, as The Narwhal’s membership and events manager Kathryn Juricic pointed out.”

Abbey: “Some of the most successful newsrooms have developed a diversified approach to revenue in order to be sustainable. We heard from a variety of newsroom leaders who emphasized the opportunities that lie in growing membership and donations alongside earned revenue through ads and sponsorships – so that newsrooms won’t have to be as dependent on philanthropy. As Chalkbeat’s Chief Strategy Officer Alison Go said, having a growth mentality is a risk mitigation strategy.”


Journalistic Impact


Abbey: “Meet your audience (or your ideal audience!) where they are. If your readers or ideal readers aren’t on TikTok, you don’t need to be! But if you are aiming to reach younger users, and you only have a Facebook page, you’re probably not achieving your goals. The Kansas City Defender team talked about how they focus their social energy on Instagram and TikTok specifically because that’s where young users are—their Instagram has tens of thousands of followers, almost all in high school or college, and shares a mix of meme-style content and breaking news.”

Mariclare: “A/B test calls to action to help direct which news products and journalistic practices you should invest in. Testing and experimentation are great ways to help improve workflows and hone strategy. 

Mac: “Unintentional news avoidance is caused by algorithms — scrolling and headline browsing feels like engagement to a reader sometimes, but the algorithm will see it as not clicking, and can deprioritize news. Solutions and civic engagement journalism are great ways to restart engagement. Use threads to explain sourcing or how you came to a story, use different platforms to capture the attention funnel (TikTok for behind the scenes, Twitter for callouts) and treat design as part of the content to engage readers and give them a reading experience they’re excited to engage with.”

Rachel: “Personas can be a useful way to ensure the products you develop fit your readers’ needs. Outlier Media created a persona when they developed their SMS product, which helped them understand their users’ information needs and the best way to deliver information to them, as Outlier’s Executive Director Candice Fortman described during a session on product development.”


Operational Resilience


Abbey: “Formulate exit plans: For small startups and nonprofits, a founder or publisher leaving can rock an organization—and it’s not just the executives. If you have one membership person and they get a new job, where is their knowledge going? What’s your plan to fill their role? Founders and executives of Cityside, Noozhawk, and San Antonio Report talked about their own exit strategies and the importance of planning for when you (or someone else important) is no longer around. Organizations need to be set up for outlasting any one individual. Exit plans and documented processes are critical for ensuring departures don’t derail your goals.”

Rachel: “It’s important to determine when a new role is needed, particularly involving revenue or audience. If something becomes everyone’s job, it will be nobody’s job, and the only way to really move things forward is to have someone dedicated to a specific responsibility, like membership. Especially with revenue roles, a talented hire can provide a great return on investment. It’s also important to make sure that folks in audience and revenue roles work together to tackle different parts of the funnel, and that there’s constant collaboration and data-sharing between them.”

Mariclare: “When considering a new growth initiative, consider mission alignment and  feasibility on the operational side. If it expands into more than one space you’re unfamiliar with, it’s too risky.”

Abbey: “Lauren Gustus, executive editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, explained a formula for how to make change happen:

Change = process x vision x dissatisfaction/motivation. None can be 0.

‘Some people are just squeaky wheels,’ she said. ‘Conflict is normal. Don’t let tough stuff get in the way of progress.'”

Mac: “Collecting information from donors about why they decided to donate can not only provide insight into your organization’s work and impact, but it can also provide a boost to staff. In some organizations, the membership team shares that information with the rest of the newsroom to remind them of their impact in the community.” 

Rachel: “When staff work in a remote or hybrid environment, it’s really important to create an intentional work culture. The Center for Public Integrity CEO Paul Cheung described building this culture as akin to creating a community garden. He also noted that his all-remote newsroom does an “ask me anything” exercise with a staff member at the beginning of each all-hands meeting in order to help people get to know each other.”

Read more Summit takeaways from our partner LION.


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