Strategies to improve revenue of local news media and projects are subject of debate at 25th ISOJ

If there is one topic that journalists should talk more about, it is money. That is why on the first day of the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), the lunch hour was used to talk about strategies to optimize revenue in local media.

Courtney Lewis, chief of growth programs at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN); Michael Ouimette, chief investment officer of the American Journalism Project; and Katie Rethman, product strategy lead for Newspack at Automattic, each had a space to talk about their projects that benefit local journalism.

Rethman started the panel by talking about how the media will be increasingly dependent on first party data (all the information or data sources organizations have about their clients) and how Newspack can help local media in the collection of this data.

Newspack is a division of Automattic (the commercial arm of WordPress) and was founded in March 2019 to provide an affordable publishing and monetization platform for small and medium-sized independent local news publishers.

According to Rethman, with the use of Newspack, local independent media can have first-party data in a single place and not be disaggregated between different third-party platforms, such as platforms for newsletter creation, donation management, membership programs, etc.

Having all the data in one place would allow media to create personalized calls to action based on what is known about a user, thus improving customer relationships.

The second presentation was given by Lewis from INN who discussed lessons learned about nonprofit news organizations.

“One of the things that we've seen in the new nonprofit sector, particularly amongst local newsrooms, is that they have a sort of outside share of earned revenue compared to nonprofits that cover a statewide audience or cover the nation or the globe,” Lewis said. That means, in local media, advertising and sponsorship still play a relevant role.

Lewis emphasized that the use of sponsored content in local non-profit media, a situation that did not occur years ago, was increasingly being seen.

The way media in the sector are doing this is by adapting certain rules such as: creating sponsored content policies, reviewing and editing content pieces with the right to reject if a publishing agreement is not reached, hiring freelancers to write the pieces, and not leaving that job to the media outlet's reporters and including the option in packages with other offers.

“Another trend we see in the nonprofit news sector is individual giving, particularly in local. It is a smaller share than you might see with other larger or national news organizations, but it's still growing pretty quickly,” Lewis added.

Lewis ended her presentation by emphasizing the importance of creating strategies to retain those small individual donors (who give less than $1,000) and to move them to the next level by converting them into medium-sized donors (between $1,000 - $5,000).

Ouimette, the last speaker, began by explaining what the American Journalism Project consists of, which is being responsible for granting subsidies to nonprofit news organizations. They also partner with communities to launch new organizations and train leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

“In general, our overall approach to our program is that we are grantmakers that make investments typically of about $1 million, over three years, to fund revenue-generating roles that can help organizations diversify their revenue,” Ouimette said.

He also showed success stories in revenue diversification such as that of Sahan Journal, in Minnesota; Block Club Chicago, and Cityside in California. The latter has achieved an outstanding balance between all its sources of income: earned revenue, individual donations, foundations and memberships.

For media interested in applying for American Journalism Project grants, “we have a submission form on our site. So if you are a local nonprofit newsroom, and by local we mean serving local audiences with coverage about their communities, you can go and fill out the form,” Ouimette said.

The workshop ended with feedback from attendees and a debate about the importance of continuing to talk about money and optimizing revenue in the media.

“People are uncomfortable asking for money, and journalists are notoriously uncomfortable asking people for money and asking for help. Those are the things that do become barriers,” Lewis concluded.


ISOJ is a global online journalism conference organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2024, it is celebrating 25 years of bringing together journalists, media executives and scholars to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on journalism.