News Sustainability & Business Models

The traditional business models for journalism have collapsed, and most of the current revenue models in the industry are unsustainable. Despite their digital growth, 80 to 90 percent of newspaper revenues still come from print—even after the steep decline of print advertising and circulation and almost 20 years of investment in digital media. As traditional newsrooms shrink and even disappear, the information landscape for Americans is bleak. A recent Pew study shows that 21 states do not have a single local daily newspaper with its own dedicated congressional correspondent.

To address this crisis, the Shorenstein Center 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 Single Subject News Project

In October 2017 the Center launched its Single Subject News Project to provide news outlets with training and best practices on how to find, build, and engage audiences. The project has been working with a cohort of nine newsrooms. The War Horse, The Marshall Project, The Trace, Chalkbeat, and The Hechinger Report cover veteran’s issues, criminal justice, gun violence, local education news, and innovation and inequality in education, respectively. The cohort also includes ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Center for Public Integrity, as investigative and nonprofit models with broader coverage areas.

During the first phase of the project, researchers gathered metrics from participating news outlets and assessed audience development plans, staffing, technology, and funding. During the second phase of the project, each newsroom worked on a series of performance challenges related to growing their digital audience. The project has produced a number of best-practices from our research including:

See the project’s Medium page for a full list of research and best practices.

Final results will be published in the Fall of 2019. Thank you to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for supporting this project.

About Dr. Elizabeth Hansen

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. Most recently, under the supervision of former Shorenstein Director Nicco Mele, Dr. Hansen led the Single Subject News study, funded by the Knight foundation. This 2-year, cohort-based, participatory research project examined the strategies for audience growth and development in topically-focused digital newsrooms. 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.

Prior to joining the Shorenstein Center, Dr. Hansen was a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University where she contributed research to the Platforms and Publishers project examining the evolving relationship between news publishers and social platforms. While at Tow, she convened a series of collaborative workshops between Harvard and Columbia on open protocols in podcasting, and on the future of advertising. She continues to collaborate with the Tow Center in ongoing projects examining the rise of bridge roles in newsrooms and in a landscape review of public media. From 2016 – 2017, Dr. Hansen was a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a Center affiliate from 2017 – 2019.

At Harvard, Dr. Hansen has taught in College courses in social entrepreneurship and organizational failures and disasters. This year, Dr. Hansen will teach strategy and managing organizational change as an adjunct lecturer in the CUNY Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s Executive Education Program in News Innovation and Leadership.

Dr. Hansen’s academic work focuses on the organizational and leadership dynamics of managing innovation in institutions. From 2014 – 2016, she conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of innovation and organizational change in public radio broadcasting. Her current academic projects include a study of changing newsroom structures with Elizabeth Watkins of Columbia Journalism School, and a study of the dynamics of platform competition in open-standard ecosystems with Richard Tee of the University of Surrey. She has given talks on sustainability and the future of journalism at the Nieman Foundation, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and the Forum for the Future of Higher Education at the Aspen Institute.

Dr. Hansen received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Joint Program in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School and the Harvard Department of Sociology.

Collection of Research and Commentary:

Dr. Elizabeth Hansen on the Web:

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

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