News Sustainability & Business Models

Apart from the major national newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, the traditional business models for local journalism have collapsed, and most of the current revenue models in the industry are unsustainable. Despite their digital growth, the majority of local newspapers’ revenues still comes from their print products. Yet print advertising and circulation have seen single and sometimes double-digital declines in each year since 2007. Papers’ investments in digital media, including better user experiences and digital paywalls, have helped ease the topline revenue contraction. Yet the industry continues to shrink, leaving more and more communities without primary sources of local news and information. According to recent data, about 200 communities have completely lost any type of newspaper coverage, and about half of the country’s 3,143 counties have one remaining paper, usually a weekly.

As traditional newsrooms shrink and even disappear, a variety of small-scale experiments in local media have been taking root across the country. The Institute for Nonprofit news now counts 230 member newsrooms across the country. Data from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting show that the number of full-time local journalists at public radio and television stations have grown by 30% over the past 5 years to 2,862 in 2018. These changes, and the expansion of movements like engaged journalism, suggest a new era is afoot in local journalism. 

Indeed, as the old institutions of the news media transform or disappear, new ones are being formed. Whichever direction the local newspaper industry takes, one thing is clear: the future landscape of local news and information is going to look very different from what we have seen before. 

This new landscape requires new research on what news consumers want, on the sustainability strategies that support high-quality local journalism, and on the practices and products that support an informed citizenry. The Shorenstein Center’s News Sustainability program produces original research on sustainable business models for the digital age, and works closely with legacy and emerging news organizations to put the theories into practice—creating a cycle of research, implementation, and learning.

The Public Media Merger Project

Across the country, public broadcasters are working to increase their local news staff and digital reach; simultaneously, journalist entrepreneurs have been launching digital-only startups to fill the gaps in local coverage. This landscape is creating significant opportunities for collaboration and mergers that can strengthen the quality of local news in communities around the country. At least nine of these mergers between public broadcasters and digital newsrooms have taken place since 2013. Business models for mergers of this nature, however, are virtually nonexistent, leaving both public broadcasters and digital newsrooms with no basis for evaluating viability and options for sustainable structures.

The Public Media Merger Project is exploring the business models for local public media newsroom mergers. We have assembled a cohort of public station newsrooms to participate in the research, including WNET’s NJ Spotlight and NJTV, Colorado Public Radio and the Denverite, WHYY and Billy Penn, Rocky Mountain Public Media, and Southern California Public Radio’s KPCC and LAist, among others.

Read more about the project here.

The Public Media Merger Project is supported by a partnership between the Public Media Venture Group and the Google News Initiative.

The Single Subject News Project

The Single Subject News Project, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight foundation, worked with a cohort of nine single-topic newsrooms to identify best practices for building and engaging their digital audience. Participating organizations included The War Horse, The Marshall Project, The Trace, Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Center for Public Integrity.

Read more about the project and its research here.

About the Program Lead

Dr. Elizabeth Hansen is a post-doctoral fellow and lead researcher of the News Sustainability and Business Models project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Dr. Hansen’s research and teaching interests are focused on the digital transformation of newsrooms, emerging business models to support local journalism, and the management of digital innovation. Dr. Hansen is the principal researcher on the Public Media Merger project. Most recently, under the supervision of former Shorenstein Director Nicco Mele, Dr. Hansen led the Single Subject News study. She has published research on combining audience revenue and engagement strategies, the relationship between news publishers and social platforms, and the opportunities and challenges of funding local news. She received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from Harvard Business School and the Harvard Department of Sociology.

For more on Dr. Hansen and her research, click here.

News Sustainability and Business Models Research

Landscape Studies

Business Models for Local News: A Field Scan
September 6, 2018
By Elizabeth Hansen, Emily Roseman and Matthew Spector of the Shorenstein Center; and Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute

Sustainability in Noncommercial News

Funding the News: Foundations and Nonprofit Media
June 18, 2018
By Matthew Nisbet, Professor, John Wihbey, Assistant Professor, Silje Kristiansen, Post-doctoral Associate & Aleszu Bajak, Lecturer at Northeastern University

Facebook Friends? The Impact of Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm Changes on Nonprofit Publishers
October 25, 2018
By Andrew Gruen, Research Fellow at the Shorenstein Center and Principal Consultant, Working Paper; and Aisha Townes, Data Science Consultant to the Shorenstein Center

Funding Journalism, Finding Innovation: Success Stories and Ideas for Creative, Sustainable Partnerships
June 20, 2018
Reported and edited by: Dwight Knell, former consultant, Shorenstein Center; Nina Sachdev, Communications Director, Media Impact Funders; Jessica Clark, Research Director, Media Impact Funders

Playbook for Launching a Local, Nonprofit News Outlet
June 12, 2018
By Adam Fisher, MPP student, Harvard Kennedy School and Adam B. Giorgi, MPP student, Harvard Kennedy School

Sustainability Case Studies

Case Study: Mother Jones – Creating a Thriving Legacy News Magazine through Mission, Strategy, and Experimentation
December 9, 2019
By Caroline Porter for the News Sustainability Project at the Shorenstein Center, and the Institute for Nonprofit News

Small is Beautiful: New Business Models for Digital Media, a case study
June 3, 2019
By Markus Somm, former Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Basler Zeitung newspaper, Basel, Switzerland, and Spring 2019 Shorenstein Fellow

Case Study of VTDigger: A Rising Star In Nonprofit News
May 21, 2018
By Tim Griggs, Institute for Nonprofit News

Technologies for Sustainability

Using Data Science Tools for Email Audience Analysis: A Research Guide
October 18, 2017
By Jacque Boltik, Data Science Consultant and Founder, Kingrail Consulting and Nicco Mele, Director, Shorenstein Center

Newsroom Practice

Reinventing Local TV News: Innovative Storytelling Practices to Engage New Audiences
February 12, 2019
By Mike Beaudet, professor of the practice at Northeastern University School of Journalism and an investigative reporter at WCVB-Boston, and John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and media innovation at Northeastern University and a Research Associate at the Shorenstein Center

Streaming War Won: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the News
April 29, 2019
By Edward F. O’Keefe, former Senior Vice President for Content Development at CNN and Spring 2019 Shorenstein Fellow