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3 Ways the Nonprofit Newsroom PublicSource Is Becoming More Sustainable

A screenshot from PublicSource’s project about accessibility in Pittsburgh, 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The nonprofit newsroom PublicSource in Pittsburgh will turn ten years old next year — and there’s a lot to celebrate.

Since 2011, PublicSource has built a membership program with more than 1,000 supporters, earned grants from nearly two dozen foundations, and produced award-winning journalism on everything from court debt to the coronavirus.

I talked to PublicSource executive director Mila Sanina about the organization’s path to sustainability and how they continued to learn and grow this year.

Here are three takeaways about what’s working for PublicSource:

1. Boosting individual giving by widening the funnel

Since 2016, PublicSource has grown its membership program from 20 to 1,000 members (and counting), and their contributions now make up about 10 percent of the organization’s annual budget.

Sanina says the membership growth is partly a result of expanding the business team, which includes two full-time employees: a director of loyalty programs and a membership and development coordinator. (The organization has 14 employees in total.)

But another key to PublicSource’s membership success is its growing audience.

The organization’s email newsletters, web posts, and podcast now reliably reach more than 60,000 unique users per month — up from 2,000 per month several years ago — and that growth accelerated in 2020 thanks to PublicSource’s original reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

“In some months, we’ve tripled our audience,” says Sanina, who noted that unique visitors topped 180,000 in November. “And we’ve already had someone donate and say ‘you saved me a lot of time’ with your coronavirus coverage.”

2. Engaging new foundations by telling a compelling story about journalism

When Sanina arrived in 2016, PublicSource received most of its annual funding from four foundations.

Today, the organization receives financial support from nearly 20 foundations, including some without a history of funding journalism.

Sanina credits that success to people’s growing awareness about the plight of local journalism. And there’s often a snowball effect with philanthropy, she says, because foundations tend to follow each other’s lead.

But Sanina is also a case study in how a journalist by trade can become a skilled fundraiser.

Until joining PublicSouce, she had never worked in a fundraising or sales role (unless you count her teenage experience selling candy bars and toothbrushes at a local market), and she still doesn’t enjoy asking for money.

However, she’s found success by learning to tell a compelling story about the importance of journalism generally and PublicSource specifically, in part by drawing from her own personal story.

“These past four years I’ve had flashbacks to what it was like working as a journalist in Kazakhstan, with the animosity toward journalism,” she says. “But if you’re able to convey the value of journalism and you know the stakes like I do, there’s nothing you can’t learn how to do.”

3. Creating unique value by finding the right focus

PublicSource initially tried to cover the entire state of Pennsylvania when it launched in 2011, but since then, the newsroom has narrowed its focus to Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

In theory, that pivot should have meant fewer prospective members and grant funders, because the Philadelphia and Harrisburg markets are now out of reach.

But the sharper focus helped PublicSource deepen its work and impact in Pittsburgh, through projects that explore race, accessibility, the opioid epidemic, and other pressing local issues.

And supporters took notice.

“Members and grant funders want to know they’re contributing to something that makes a difference,” Sanina says. “Covering unique stories or finding unique angles that widen the conversation about an issue has become our brand.”

LION Spotlight is a series of profiles on LION members. Want to suggest a member we should profile? Email your ideas to ben@lionpublishers.com.

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Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers is a journalism association helping local news entrepreneurs build and grow financially sustainable small businesses.

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Ben DeJarnette

Ben DeJarnette

Stubborn believer in local news and occasional writer of words about media.

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