Like many big ideas, AVL Watchdog was born at a cocktail party.
Two months ago, just before COVID-19 burst onto the scene, a group of former media executives and journalists gathered at a party in North Asheville. The group got to talking and, as one might expect from a group of reporters, the conversation shifted to news. They wanted to see more local stories, explains party attendee Bob Gremillion.
A few days later, Gremillion and his wife, Sally Kestin, met with Steve Keeble, a former executive at Thomson Reuters. Keeble offered to put up seed funding to turn the idea into something real: an online news presence built on the brains and firepower of their friends from the news business. Gremillion agreed, and they got to work.
As Keeble, Gremillion and Kestin sheltered in place, they began workshopping ideas. They met with local news leaders to assess the current media landscape. They created a network of volunteer editors and sought out freelance reporters. And they carefully studied materials from the Institute for Nonprofit News to learn exactly what it would take to build a nonprofit news organization.
Their site, AVL Watchdog, launched last month, joining hundreds of nonprofit news startups emerging across the United States. As traditional for-profit news outlets face shrinking advertising revenues, staff cuts and consolidation, nonprofit news sources are exploring whether their model may be part of the solution in a changing media landscape.
“We always say we’re just trying to bring more journalism to Asheville,” explains Gremillion, who now manages newsroom operations and partner relations for AVL Watchdog. “We’re trying to supplement journalism in Asheville. We’re not taking shots at anybody.”
Assessing the trends
It’s no secret that news outlets are on the decline. Traditional newspapers, following a business model that relies on selling advertisements to finance the cost of printing and distribution, are struggling to find their footing as more and more news outlets go digital.
Since 2004, the United States has lost more than 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weekly publications, according to research conducted at UNC Chapel Hill on news deserts. Print circulation dropped 38% between 2004 and 2019, and data collected by the Pew Research Center shows the number of newspaper employees has declined by more than half from 2008 to 2019. A different Pew study noted only 14% of adult Americans have paid for print or online news within the last year.
In stark contrast, nonprofit newsrooms have been launching at a pace of more than one a month in the United States for almost 12 years, according to an Institute of Nonprofit News report that surveyed over 100 nonprofit news outlets in the spring of 2019. Since 2008, the number of digital newsroom staff has more than doubled, from 7,400 workers to more than 16,000 in 2019.
Unlike for-profit media, a nonprofit news model generally does not depend on advertising revenue to support its work, explains Sue Cross, the executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Nonprofit organizations are taxed on any income received that is unrelated to the nonprofit’s mission. Advertisements fall into this category of unrelated business income, and too much of it can cause a nonprofit to lose its tax-exempt status.
By drawing income from a diverse stream of sources — including foundation funding, grants, individual donations and earned revenue from events, trainings and other initiatives — nonprofit news organizations are positioned to be more sustainable long-term, Cross says.
Roughly half of all nonprofit newsrooms market themselves as national or global news outlets, per the 2019 INN study. Statewide newsrooms, which generally cover a variety of subjects over a broader geographic spread, and local newsrooms, typically reporting on events and issues in their communities, each constitute a quarter of news nonprofits.
Editorial needs vary from community to community, Cross explains. When an organization relies on community support and donations, remaining focused on a specialized goal is crucial, be it watchdog reporting, tracking local government or spotlighting coverage on a single topic.
“The place to start is asking the community what it wants and understanding the real information needs of the community,” Cross says. “Then, start by addressing the most urgent needs. They can broaden out and cover other things over time, but it really does need to be rooted in what the community needs and will support.”
Filling in gaps
When COVID-19 hit North Carolina, the team at 103.3 Asheville FM jumped into gear. The community station, known for its extensive music programming, reassessed the lineup to bring the community a broader mix of news, talk shows, Spanish-language programming and music sets.
Asheville FM is a nonprofit community radio station that draws roughly 10,000 weekly listeners, explains K.P. Whaley, general manager. Unlike for-profit stations, which Whaley says he’s seen conduct layoffs and furloughs when they stop bringing in money, Asheville FM runs on a network of more than 100 volunteer journalists. Per the station’s most recent tax documents, over 60% of its revenue comes from contributions, grants and gifts. The rest comes from underwriting sponsorships by local businesses, Whaley says.
“A lot of for-profit media, even in Western North Carolina, is operating on reduced staff and are unable to provide coverage when we absolutely need it the most,” Whaley says. “But we haven’t lost anything. In fact, we’ve exponentially expanded our coverage for the community and in providing that information when we need it the most.”
With routines upended by COVID-19, Whaley sees the community searching for varied programming as a break from constant news about the pandemic. He’s made it a priority to provide listeners with music shows, meditation segments and a story hour for children.
Blue Ridge Public Radio, which became a fully qualified public radio station in 1986, serves 13 counties in Western North Carolina and parts of north Georgia. The station runs two channels, BPR News and BPR Classic, and draws more than 85,000 listeners weekly.
David Feingold, who has served as BPR’s general manager since 2015, views the station’s nonprofit business model as a way to support its mission to expand listeners’ horizons through new perspectives and an interchange of ideas.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, BPR receives most of its funding from listeners, with a growing proportion coming from local businesses and institutions, Feingold says. The station doesn’t have the resources to cover every piece of breaking news, he explains, which means the team can focus on the kinds of information community members have said they need and want.
“For us, public radio tends to be a gaps-oriented enterprise focus,” Feingold says. “It’s where, for us, we don’t have the people to be a journal of record, so we have to make a choice of what we can and can’t cover.”
To illustrate ways the station is filling critical gaps in coverage, Feingold cited areas of specialization among BPR staff, including a bilingual morning host with strong connections within the Latinx community, an afternoon host who’s an established health and science reporter, and one of the state’s only arts and culture public radio journalists.
In its examination of local news gaps, AVL Watchdog saw a need for longer, in-depth pieces, Gremillion explains. Most of the new group’s seven volunteer editors come from print media backgrounds and therefore understand the challenge of marshaling the resources to report and edit long-form articles.
“If you look at anything on our website, you’ll see that they are long stories,” Gremillion says. “Other media may or may not have that option, but we decided to go in that direction because it doesn’t cost anything extra online to print a 3,000-word story versus a 1,000-word story.”
North Carolina native and former Citizen Times reporter Angie Newsome first began following the rise of digital-first nonprofit news organizations in the late 2000s. The news-first, community-first, public service-first mentality matched her motivations to become a journalist, she writes in an email exchange with Xpress. The model fit, and in 2011 she formally launched Carolina Public Press, with a mission to provide independent, in-depth and investigative news for Western North Carolina. In 2018, the organization expanded statewide.
The team at Carolina Public Press spends “nearly 100% of our time thinking about and trying to report and produce news that adds to the news ecosystem,” Newsome says, whether that’s asking another question, providing more public information or shedding light on topics that need examination. Recent projects include a statewide investigation into the prosecution of sexual assault cases and coverage of the coronavirus in North Carolina nursing homes.
Newsome wishes there was a playbook that could guarantee success regarding what works and what doesn’t for every nonprofit news organization. Some practices work better than others, she says, but there are dozens of specific factors to consider, from revenues to operations to financial oversight.
“Every person I know and respect working in the news industry is concerned about how people will stay informed about what’s happening in their own communities, state and nation,” Newsome says. “The people I look up to the most are prepared with business plans, are trying to think and act thoughtfully about news needs, and are highly concerned about and committed to the communities they serve.”
The most successful new media groups are those that are well-versed in change management, says Mebane Rash, the editor-in-chief of EdNC, a North Carolina nonprofit news organization covering education policy.
“Newsrooms need to be built in a way that they are very able to adapt and iterate to changing circumstances, whether that’s what needs to be covered, funding streams or staffing,” Rash explains. “All of it is about change management. And I think the folks that we see leading the way are really good at that. They are not wed to even their own one model of it. They know that everything is going to always be changing.”
Money dictates choices
Journalism-focused philanthropy has nearly quadrupled since 2009, according to a report by Media Impact Funders. In 2017, over 1,200 funders contributed over $255 million in journalism grants to 925 organizations.
Most foundation funding is available to news publications that cover a single topic or set of related topics, says Cross of the Institute for Nonprofit News. These organizations — like EdNC — draw from foundations that have a mission to support journalism and from foundations dedicated to advancing public awareness or work in a given topic area.
Individual and family donations make up nearly 40% of the revenue going to nonprofit news organizations nationally, Cross notes.
Blue Ridge Public Radio draws the majority of its revenue from listener, business and corporate support, as well as some grant funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, according to its most recent tax documents. The station was in the middle of its spring fund drive when the pandemic hit but made the decision to continue asking for donations — because now, more than ever, BPR is providing vital information to listeners, Feingold says.
“We all know when there’s an economic downturn, everyone gets hurt,” he explains. “But we’ve made ourselves strong over the last few years. For a nonprofit, we’ve built up a reserve, built up our endowment and operate very leanly.”
In the wake of COVID-19, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributed $75 million in federal stimulus funding to local affiliate public radio and television stations across the United States. BPR will receive $112,136 of this funding.
Because Asheville FM is not a public radio station, the station won’t get any federal support of this size, Whaley explains. Like other nonprofits with fewer funding and grant opportunities, it relies heavily on the community for financial support. “Times like this could be very devastating for small operations like ours,” he says.
An uncertain future
North Carolinians deserve access to reliable, insightful, trustworthy news, Newsome says. The more people devoted to that, the better.
Prior to AVL Watchdog’s launch, the team met with several local media groups to offer coverage of stories that other reporters didn’t have time to get to. “We’re trying to be additive and do whatever we can to supplement what’s going on,” Gremillion says.
Carolina Public Press, EdNC, AVL Watchdog and a number of other sites offer their work to other for- and nonprofit outlets across the state for reproduction. “Being able to supplement our ongoing coverage of Western North Carolina’s news, arts and culture with stories that we wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to take on allows us to offer more to our readers. It’s a wonderful service,” says Virginia Daffron, managing editor at Mountain Xpress. At the same time, she notes, Xpress recognizes the importance of carefully reviewing and vetting any content it republishes.
For Asheville FM and Blue Ridge Public Radio, partnerships with other news organizations are key. BPR’s default model is collaborative, Feingold says, and can be seen in one-on-one on-air interviews with local print journalists to discuss their reporting. He also points to in-person events held in conjunction with other news organizations, allowing reporters to connect with and learn from one another’s audiences. Asheville FM works closely with JMPROTV, a nonprofit organization that provides Spanish-language programming, and with Carolina Public Press.
“I’m seeing this partnership in all areas in Asheville,” Whaley says. “It’s not just in the media landscape, but I do feel like people in organizations are leveraging other organizations and helping them while helping themselves. Like they say, we’re stronger together.”
But cooperation can only do so much when facing an uncertain future. Much will depend on community support and on which organizations prove resilient in the face of a volatile economy. “A lot of news organizations are unfortunately in survival mode,” Feingold says.
Nonprofit newsrooms were poised for success, Cross says, but no one was prepared for the changes brought by COVID-19. “We’re seeing increasing numbers of displaced journalists and at the same time we’re hearing from community leaders seeing news go away and are wanting to figure out their options to keep news in the community,” she says. “It’s going to change a lot of things.”