What Nonprofit Digital Newsrooms Need Next to Grow their Audience and Find Revenue

Elizabeth Hansen
The Single Subject News Project
7 min readOct 31, 2018


Our Single Subject News Project at the Shorenstein Center studies a cohort of nonprofit, topically-focused digital newsrooms with the aim of identifying best practices that support their audience engagement and growth. As a part of our research, we routinely convene the cohort to maximize peer-to-peer learning and discuss audience growth strategies with the group. For example, last December, we hosted the cohort for a day focused on email newsletters, and in March we held a daylong session on search optimization tactics for nonprofit news.

The cornerstone of our research has been to identify and track a handful of audience growth and engagement experiments across the cohort. After our December convening, we worked with each cohort member to select these experiments, and asked the newsrooms to choose at least one focused on using email. These experiments ranged from overhauling the content strategy of a newsletter, to email address acquisition via Facebook’s Lookalike Audiences tool, to an audience cross-pollination experiment between two cohort newsrooms.

This past week, we brought all of the groups together again to report about what they’ve learned and what they want to explore next.

As we discussed the remarkable progress each newsroom has made, we also heard seven areas of need emerge from our conversations. These are needs that, if filled, would significantly advance the viability and growth of these news outlets.

We’re posting them here in the hopes that other newsrooms can share their needs, and collaborate with us to build the knowledge, tools, and resources that advance the field. If you have ideas, resources, or experiences to share, reach out to us!

1. Configuring Data to Experiment and Measure Audience Growth.

Several cohort members expressed the need for help around how to set-up and run an A/B test, how to configure source tracking to make sure their email acquisition experiment data are as accurate as possible, and ways to calculate predictions and goals based on their total addressable market. A frequent obstacle across the cohort’s audience experimentation was the time it took to set-up an A/B test and to create a baseline measure of the right data.

2. Digital Partnership Best Practices that Create Shared Accountability.

Based on our work with the cohort, we now have a good sense of the SEO best practices to employ when a digital newsroom is co-publishing a story with another newsroom. But what we’ve heard from small newsrooms inside and outside our cohort is that large newsrooms aren’t always listening or following through on those best practices.

Some partners don’t link back to the mirror story on a small newsroom’s site (claiming a broken link), others drop requested keywords, or they place co-publisher recognition at the bottom of their article page. These practices suppress the visibility, audience growth, and SEO credit that a small newsroom could otherwise gain from partnering with a larger news organization. For small newsrooms, these kinds of lopsided partnership practices can add up significant missed opportunities and can sometimes tip the cost-benefit of collaboration over time.

We want to establish a guidebook that small, local, or topically-focused digital publishers can share with larger newsrooms when reaching out with a partnership pitch. Carrie Porter, one of our fantastic fellows, is currently in the process of setting up interviews to get at this question. If you’re interested in being a part of this project, please give her a shout at caroline.ralstin.porter@gmail.com.

3. Org Charts, Roles, Teams, and Workflows for Engagement and Revenue.

This is nothing new (see the Tow Center’s Platform and Publishers Report, particularly the Appendix I on Workplace Analysis), but there’s a lot of confusion among our cohort of similarly sized and staffed nonprofit newsrooms on how to best structure roles and teams for audience engagement, growth, and revenue especially when staff and resources are tight. What’s the optimal way to build a team that can establish and execute a email newsletters strategy, SEO tactics, and membership workflows? If you could only hire one person to begin a reader revenue strategy, what would you ask that person to do? When can process (regular meetings and communication flows) substitute for more formal structures and roles?

Carrie Porter has a blog post coming soon that will address email newsletter workflows, and our friends at the News Revenue Hub are collecting data on structures and workflows across their client base. We’re going to keep working on this question.

4. Guide to Email 201

If you’ve been following the Single Subject News Project, you know that we have an obsession with email as an integrated editorial, engagement and revenue strategy (see this white paper on metrics and our email related blog posts). Our cohort has done amazing work in getting email savvy, and now they are eager to take their work to the next level. They want to explore questions like: what’s the data on the ROI of different types of newsletters — and how can they balance cost to produce typical products with loyalty and revenue? What’s the cost per acquisition of email addresses in different channels? We are building this work into our research plans for next year — please reach out if you have ideas for where to start! And stay tuned for an Email Newsletter 201 Guide that we’re working on with our friends at the Lenfest Institute and YellowBrim.

5. Audience Engagement and Growth Using Other Platforms and Products.

We believe that for many nonprofit, digital-first newsrooms, the largest ROIs for staff time and resources (in terms of audience growth) can come from investing in email newsletters and SEO. Several newsrooms in our cohort are maximizing these learnings and are now eager for other forms of experimentation, including:

  • SMS and podcasts: We were all inspired by Reveal’s presentation on how they use SMS and podcasts to grow their audience engagement and convert to email — and we want to learn more. Is the black box of podcasting data surmountable? Is texting worth the cost?
  • Facebook: We learned from a few cohort newsrooms about how to use the Facebook Lookalike Audiences and Lead Generation tools to grow email audiences. Early findings indicate that the latter tool is far more effective at acquiring new audiences than the former, but we want to dig further into this question.
  • Google AdWords: Google offers nonprofits the chance to spend up to $10,000 with its AdWords Grants tool. But many nonprofit newsrooms are uncertain about how to best leverage this opportunity, or whether active management is worth the staff time at all. It takes a decent amount of time to optimize AdWords and to maintain the tool. At least one member of our cohort is paying a consultant to help optimize their AdWords budget, but they aren’t quite sure how to assess its effectiveness. One frequent question we heard was: should nonprofit newsrooms opt for the passive AdWords Express grant, or actively spend all of their AdWords on their member funnel (e.g. email landing pages), or should they use their credits intermittently to promote big stories or projects throughout the year? We want to explore this question further next year.

6. Sophisticated Cross-Sector Benchmarking.

Several cohort members asked for more and different audience and revenue benchmarks to compare their organizations with others that are similar in staff and budget size. They are interested in expanding their view beyond news, too, to understand how organizations in different sectors are reaching and converting digital audiences.

  • This reminds us of the Membership Puzzle Project’s research on membership models beyond news. The M+R Benchmarks Report is also a great resource for nonprofits in news, advocacy, and education alike.
  • Email Benchmarking Tool: More on this soon, but our team is in the process of building an Email Benchmarking Tool for newsrooms on MailChimp. The tool generates a series of “email metrics that matter” and compares your metrics against other users of the tool. We’re also constructing a feature that allows users to filter the results by a few different variables — like staff size, total annual budget, and affiliation.

7. A Talent Pipeline for Bridge Roles in Newsrooms.

At one of our sessions, Chalkbeat made three (or more?) pitches to the room full of cohort members that THEY ARE HIRING for an email marketing manager and engagement editor. To put it mildly, we’ve seen a fair bit of engagement-editor-musical-chairs among our cohort. It turns out that hiring a tech-savvy, mission-driven individual with an eye for engaging editorial and build email products requires finding a rare “unicorn.” We wrote about this in our Field Scan, and it continues to remain top of mind today. We are starting to think about how the field can build the talent pipeline that feeds more bridge roles at newsrooms. And for the sake of Chalkbeat’s hiring process, where can you go now to recruit for these types of roles? What do you ask for and what do you look for?

These questions and needs will guide our work with the cohort over the next several months, and inform how we craft our future research agenda. We look forward to hearing from newsrooms and other stakeholders on ways to collaborate on these questions so we can advance the field together.

Next up, we’ll reveal our cohort’s major lessons from their audience engagement and growth experiments.

Also, stay tuned for a post on email newsletter workflows, our NEW email benchmarking tool, partnership best practices, and more.