MinnPost may be able to survive on diverse donors and oatmeal

MinnPost may be able to survive on diverse donors and oatmeal
Photo by Diane Worth

If a news organization's business model -- or, non-business model, if you like -- is based on the largess of foundations and donors rather than competing for advertising revenue in the marketplace, does it stand a chance of survival? In the case of MinnPost and other news sites like it, the answer is a qualified maybe, according a new study from one of the journalism business brain-trusters at Harvard's Nieman Foundation. The key to the recipe: Serve plenty of oatmeal to a local audience.

Jim Barnett looked at a half-dozen non-profit news sites around the country, including MinnPost, and found that they had more diverse, and thus stable, sources of revenue because they limited their coverage to local and regional topics that traditional newsrooms have abandoned: City hall and state house public policy issues. He also found that, the bigger the site's budget, the less likely that site was to depend on a single donor for survival.

If this trend holds true, I think it would portend a relatively bright future for the nonprofit model as a major contributor in places like city halls and state capitals where newspaper bureaus have been emptied out. These are the places where the disintegration of the newspaper business model is most obvious to readers -- and where for-profit alternatives have a hard time realizing returns on investment. Here, the case for philanthropy is clear -- and so is a nonprofit's potential to supplement its revenues with advertising and other market-driven revenues streams as it scales up its operations.

Whether or not these sites could actually attract and keep an ever-growing audience isn't addressed by Barnett. That luxury of competing for handouts rather than audience share leave operations such as MinnPost free to openly chide commercial news operations for trafficking in stories that they deem to be beneath them -- stories that commercial news organizations can tell their readers actually give a damn about because of traffic to their Web sites.

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