The old joke goes, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” I feel the same way these days about many conversations regarding “sustainable business models for news.” We talk a lot about audience funnels, engagement strategies, distribution, subscription and other monetization strategies – as we should.
But it seems to me that, in doing so, we skim over the most salient detail: News isn’t just another “product” like cheese or staplers. It actually matters quite a bit that our product — journalism — turns out to be quite distinctly essential, especially in a democratic society. Trustworthy information matters, and it matters more in a disrupted ecosystem where misinformation is common and easily spread. Trusted messengers, delivering reliable information, enable informed action, and those informed actions and policies create healthier and more prosperous communities.
To pare it to its essence: journalism drives impact.
So the next time you’re knee-deep in worthy business discussions about optimizing your funnel, diversifying your revenue streams and other conversations that are indeed necessary to sustain the business model for news, consider pausing to reflect first on what makes journalism essential and valuable in our customers’ and communities’ lives.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (United Kingdom), a participant in the LMA Advanced Fundraising Lab, is a case study in how to center journalism around impact, and how that impact creates community and philanthropic support to sustain the reporting.
“Our impact model is the basis for people signing up and supporting our work,” explained Rozina Breen, CEO and editor in chief. “It’s what we’re known for.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is the largest nonprofit investigative news organization in the U.K. Newsrooms in the Advanced Fundraising Lab, made possible with support from Google News Initiative, regularly share best practices in a peer-to-peer format. Here are four lessons from TBIJ on how to incorporate impact as a business strategy into your journalism.
Build impact in, from the beginning, for every reporting project
Major reporting projects at TBIJ have a dedicated “impact producer” position assigned to the project. This role is in addition to, and distinct from, the reporters who work on the project.
Here’s a job description from a recently posted impact producer position.
Build out a robust and diverse set of possible impacts that reporting could achieve
“We have a lot of conversations about our ‘theory of change,’ and what is our role and place in that,” said Breen. “What is our part? And where and when do we hand off our work to others?”
Those conversations flow from TBIJ’s two-fold mission: “Expose injustice. Spark change.” So the idea of being a catalyst for impact is built into the news organization’s mission.
Here’s an example list of potential impacts the team brainstormed for a political accountability reporting project (with all the caveats about British vs. American politics).
Track and transparently display/share the impact of your reporting
Often, newsrooms that pay attention to impact do so only long after a story is published, and even then, perhaps only when an award application — or a funder renewal conversation — raises the question of impact.
At TBIJ, impact is tracked throughout each stage of a project. Here’s an example tally of impacts tied to one reporting project.
Telling your story of impact is a path to sustained funding
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism funds its nonprofit news efforts almost entirely through philanthropy; 95% of funding comes from grants and community support.
“Our impact model is a differentiator, a reason for readers to support us,” Breen said.
Breen acknowledges that some funders, like some editors, are focused on reach and impressions. “But they are more interested in our investigative impact,” Breen said. “Funders lean in when they can show a ‘shift in the dial.’”
“Funders like the impact because it’s part of an ecosystem where other organizations will use our work [as a foundation/starting point], so our reporting is amplified,” added Clare Forknell, development director at TBIJ. “Funders like the sharing and the collaboration, and to see the ways the work is amplified.”
Note that impact is not advocacy for TBIJ.
“Our board is clear about maintaining neutrality vs. advocating for causes. But we are for ‘exposing injustice and sparking change,’” Breen said. “There is a real delineation between journalistic integrity and the impact producer, who will naturally form other relationships and work with, or at least talk to, other key stakeholders about some of the ways that we can spark change. So we don’t want the journalism to be compromised.”
By following these principles, TBIJ has differentiated its reporting from other publications, increased loyalty and support from its audiences, and achieved funding and renewals from funders to continue and expand its work.