Necessity has become the mother of innovative business models for local news. It’s no secret that vanishing news outlets and shrinking staff at the outlets are causing a void in solid investigative reporting, that can be expensive and labor intensive to produce. Entrepreneurial journalists who are passionate about news have taken on the challenge with online news enterprises at the local, state and national levels.
At Health Journalism 2014 in Denver, Laura Frank, the executive director of I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS; Carol Gentry, editor of Health News Florida; Tim Griggs, a fellow at The Texas Tribune; Rosemary Hoban, editor of North Carolina Health News; and moderator Andy Miller, the editor of Georgia Health News; talked about the opportunities and challenges of creating new models for doing the deep dive into covering health news.
Gentry said the goal at Health News Florida is to fill the gap in coverage that went by the wayside. The site, which launched in 2007, “works hard to provide small investigations, but we don’t do anything that duplicates what is already being done out there,” Gentry said. “We only work to fill in the gaps in coverage, and we break news.”
Gentry said there are challenges in starting a sustainable online news service center while offering content for free. “We want to make sure that the information is accessible and affordable to the masses, and there hasn’t been a business model for that that has worked for us.”
Like the other panelists, Hoban’s North Carolina Health News was born out of a hole in the marketplace for good solid health care news in the state. Like the other new journalism enterprises represented on the panel, the site place a priority on quality content. Hoban said it has produced 600 stories since the 2012 launch. They have forged some content partnerships, including with Kaiser Health News. The organization has broken several stories that would have gotten lost without this type of enterprise journalism.
“Several news outlets have come to us because of our coverage of the Affordable Care Act in North Carolina,” Hoban said. “We get about 8,000 page views per day and 50,000 per month,” Hoban said. “We had about 10, 000 subscribers to the site during the legislative session, but now we are up to 28,000 subscribers. “
Laura Frank was an investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News before she and her husband were “downsized.” She worried that, with news outlets getting shut down, many important stories in the health space just wouldn’t get done. “I thought that if we started a website with a small, efficient team, and delivered text, digital and radio content we could do this,” Frank said. “And I-News was born.”
As with any new enterprise, funding is always an issue. All the panelists’ organizations were seeded in some way through foundation funding. Frank said, “We got grant funding from an ethics in journalism foundation and the Knight Foundation matched that grant three to one.” But she said it didn’t take long to figure out that these new journalism models required that they not put all their eggs in one basket.
“We work on a four-legged stool business model,” Frank said. She said their stool is made up of grants, donations, earned revenue and events like a boot camp for young journalists. Recently they became a part of the local public radio station, helping them offset costs.
Griggs was a Knight Fellow looking at innovative business models when the idea of the Texas Tribune was born. An investor from Austin Ventures originally wanted to create a newspaper because he believed in the power of public media, Griggs said. The Texas Tribune, like the other three news outlets, works to provide solid news content that fills the void.
Unlike the other outlets, the Texas Tribune has a highly monetized business model that Griggs said works. He said they “use an eight-legged stool model that includes multiple revenue streams.” The Tribune has found a way to weave together corporate sponsorship and underwriting, as well as memberships, major gifts and subscriptions to keep the money coming in.
“Our efforts have led to a staff of 50, of which 18 are reporters,“ Griggs said. In addition, the Texas Tribune has created a very lucrative revenue stream in producing a series of successful events and training. Griggs attributed the team’s success to the efforts on the business side of the group,
“We have found that failures happen when a group’s passion is for the writing and there is no business acumen,” Griggs said. Their team has both, and brought in $6 million last year in revenue. The other panelists have found some success in forging partnerships and collaborations with organizations such as their local NPR or PBS stations.
The panelists agreed that defining the target audience is helpful in keeping this kind of enterprise journalism going.
“Match the need in the marketplace and pair that with great writing,” Griggs said, adding, “Like a lot of startups, we have made a lot of decisions by gut, and it is easy to get distracted, but we also know that data is important.”