For the past eight years, Sue Cross, Executive Director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), has led the organization in its pursuit to build a nonprofit news network across North America that ensures everyone in every community has access to trusted news and information. Since Cross’ start in 2015, INN has grown from a small consortium of nonprofit newsrooms into a growing network with more than 425 independent news organizations. Collectively, these newsrooms send 4,200-plus journalists into the field to tell stories that would otherwise go untold.
By the end of this year, Cross will step down from her role, with plans to continue supporting news reinvention while also pursuing a personal project. Ahead of her transition, Media Impact Funders Executive Director Vince Stehle sat down with Cross to discuss INN’s growth over the past eight years, the impact she’s had on the organization, and insights for funders in supporting the emerging and growing field of nonprofit news. At our annual Journalism Funders Gathering next month, Sue will be presenting tips to funders who want to find and support newsrooms leading the reinvention of news.
Vince Stehle, Executive Director, Media Impact Funders: The number of INN members has grown a lot under your leadership. I trust you take full credit for every one of them.
Sue Cross, Executive Director, INN: [Laughs]. No, not at all. We take some credit for them though. I think the difference we have made is that–some of those are newspaper conversions, some of those are now started by civic leaders. Many others, of course, are founded by journalists, but we work a lot with them, sometimes starting two years before they actually get to launch. I think the biggest difference we make is that we know enough to encourage them not to try to do it solo. Don’t just try to be a journalist who’s going to take in enough money magically to do this on the side. How do you really create this as something that endures for your community or around your topic? So I think we are able to really make a big difference in their success rates and their survival rates.
We do track closures of INN members: 94 percent of them survive, go on to thrive, and we see extremely low closure rates once they get launched. On the flip side, we get a lot of calls. We hold open sessions for startups, and if people just want to do it on the fly, or they really are a caring, wonderful journalist who just wants to keep being a reporter, we don’t say, “Oh, yeah, start a nonprofit newsroom.” No matter what, we really try to encourage them to make sure they actually want to do this, know what it takes, know the investment and are willing to reach out to the community and build support.
Vince: Have you seen a shift from 2015 to 2023 with regard to who’s starting these newsrooms? Was it more likely in 2015 that the new journalism startup would be led by refugees from the daily newsroom? And today it’s more of a community organizer? What’s the trend you’re seeing?
Sue: Yeah, there are two shifts we see. That was definitely true in 2015. Virtually nobody was going into this who hadn’t worked in some kind of legacy news operation. That’s not at all the case today. There still are many, many people out of legacy media, particularly as founders, because they might still have a pension. They might have accrued enough. They can go into it and put some sweat equity into it. And we see many of them now going in with that intent: “We’re going to launch this. We’re going to build it to the point where somebody can make a living at it and hand it off.” So that’s one shift. The second is we are seeing a lot of younger and more diverse founders and top editors in every way. There’s more racial and ethnic diversity. That was not at all true in 2015. If you came to INN Days this last spring, it was so striking to me. I mean, it was every generation. It was people from all over, all kinds of backgrounds. I would say the majority of nonprofit news startups still are launched by journalists, but there’s a pretty sizable and growing number that aren’t.
Vince: And they come from where?
Sue: The initial organizers, the catalysts, the founding boards – they’re from the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce. Sometimes they’re local officials, and even though they’re elected officials and they don’t get directly involved, they might be the spark, might be the catalyst, because they see a lack of coverage. They see nobody’s covering these issues, nobody knows what’s going on, and they might rally people. So we do get calls from people who are just civic and business leaders who typically pull together an organizing meeting and often one of their points is, “Well, how do we hire a journalist? How do we hire an editor?” And that’s where they’re starting.
Vince: Do the news startups call themselves journalists, and do they call what they are doing journalism, or do they use different terminology now?
Sue: I think people still use journalism in the field. People come at it from a variety of frameworks, and that’s pretty interesting. Some see it as a form of community building. They’re coming at it from that sense. Or organizing a community, particularly if it hasn’t been well-covered by traditional media, they may see themselves almost as community organizers. INN does not have any member organizations that are specifically advancing a given cause, a piece of legislation or a public policy. We do require that they be independent of any other mission, but I think one way that journalism has changed in a really cool way is that it’s not as removed. It doesn’t see independence or objectivity as keeping it separate from the community. It’s based on the question of, “What does this community need? What information do people need?” And the community is much more invited in, if you will.
Vince: But the Marshall Project would be a member?
Sue: The Marshall project is a member. Yes.
Vince: And they have strong points of view around particular areas of work.
Sue: Yes. You will see strong points of view. I would say in 2015, it was a hard, rigid line, and now that has become more of a fuzzier line for sure. Where we still draw the line at INN is, our members will have a strong point of view–in the case of the Marshall Project, that the justice system needs reform and merits a hard look–but they’re not out there saying, “Hey, go call your congressman to vote this way on this measure.” They are not advocating for specific policies, and they keep that very clear distinction and I would say that’s true for the most part.
Vince: In your membership eligibility, do you require that organizations not be advocacy outlets?
Sue: Yes. We do, and the ones who apply run the gamut. We’ve had pro-reproductive rights, we’ve had anti-reproductive rights, we’ve had pro-military, we’ve had anti-military.
Vince: These are all applicants that you passed on, that you did not include.
Sue: Yes. That’s correct, and that’s quite a few because cause organizations understandably have seen coverage of their issues decline and so they start a publication. They hire journalists. They’re often excellent publications, but they have, beyond a point of view, a cause they are advancing and all of their content is aimed at advancing that cause.
People get caught up in objectivity and I almost think it’s a red herring. It’s more like independence and intent. Are you serving the reader? Or are you serving up a cause, another cause? And I think that still matters. But I think we’re all feeling our way toward the notion that media can have a significant point of view and be legitimate, independent media. Where INN lands is heavily on the cause of transparency. If you have a point of view, wear it on your sleeve. Don’t leave it to the consumer to guess, or to guess who funded you, or what you really stand for. Put it out there. Let them know.
Vince: I’m sure you know about the survey research project we’re doing in collaboration with Jennifer Preston, NORC at the University of Chicago and The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The findings on disclosure and ethics continue to be an issue of concern. Have you seen the data on that?
Sue: Yeah, and we were pleased. Jennifer said that INN members do disclose the most. And that’s a big part of our work. It’s a much bigger part of our work than I ever expected coming into this and it’s become a bigger part. The Nonprofit Times recently had a piece about how dark money is moving more and more into nonprofits and in businesses of all sorts. So, this idea of transparency and just telling the public, “Here’s who funds our reporting, here’s what we’re about, you can look it up on our tax forms.” Or we encourage them to put the information on their website. I think that’s more and more important in rebuilding public trust in news or keeping public trust or engaging the community.
Vince: Is it your sense that we’re making progress in ethics and disclosure? Or does it continue to be an issue to be concerned about? You never stop being concerned about it. But are we making progress?
Sue: I think we absolutely are. I think that is a place [where] we can make a difference. I think there are a couple of challenges, though, looking forward. I think we’re seeing many more news sites routinely declare their funding. You will also see all kinds of transparency around a conflict of interest. A line will appear at the bottom of the story: “We’re writing about this company, and we have a board member who works for that company or represented them,” and it’s just routine. Nobody even thinks anything of that. That’s a degree of transparency that was unheard of really not that many years ago. So that’s spreading.
I think the challenges are as philanthropy moves from grant making foundations, institutional philanthropy, to more individual donors. Donors have a greater sense of privacy. They may want to be private because they’re really trying to sway the news coverage. Or they just don’t want anybody else to come ask them for a donation. But if that builds up over time, that can be problematic if you have one major donor bankrolling a news outlet. Or a series of a small number of them. So that can be a concern. The second thing is donor-advised funds, which are now very, very common [in philanthropy, but less common in journalism philanthropy]. Individuals put their funding into [a] community foundation or [financial institution like Vanguard or Fidelity]. You can’t always tell who’s behind that. So, the way we approach it is that we do encourage members to list any donor and try to convince a donor who gives $5,000 or more into being listed. But the bigger guideline for INN is that no material amount of your funding should come from anonymous sources, so we define material the way many foundations do it: around 15%. That is a requirement for membership that no more than 15 percent of your revenue is coming from anonymous sources.
Vince: You were instrumental in the launch of NewsMatch in 2017, if I recall. It’s raised nearly $300 million for nonprofit newsrooms. Can you talk about some of the wins from that campaign?
Sue: We’re in this dilemma of scale. We need to restore or reinvent local news across the country, and there’s only a certain number of news funders. John Palfrey, bless him, is trying to expand that number of journalism funders and succeeding in doing that, but it’s still a limited set. The thing about NewsMatch that I think has been so essential is that it takes these national dollars and enables them (funders and news sites) to leverage that—to incentivize people in communities and who care about issues to give individual donations—knowing it’ll be matched. And now we’re seeing more and more local funding, local institutional funders, a community foundation, a family foundation, even a major donor individual put up a match, and matches are a time-proven method to encourage broad support at this moment in time where the idea that news is a community asset is fairly new to people.
The idea of news as something you give to the way you give to your university is very new. NewsMatch is incredibly impactful in raising the awareness and expanding the amount of individual gifts and local funding for local media. So, it’s one of these things that has had enormous leverage. And then it’s paired with capacity building. So, all these startups that come in, fundraising is new to them. In partnership with News Revenue Hub and other trainers, we’re offering them all this capacity building and as a result, these startups are on a much sounder financial footing. And they can build, particularly in those first few years. NewsMatch has had the biggest impact for startups and small news organizations.
Vince: One of the main takeaways from the survey that we are embracing is that the field is large and growing. It may be that there’s only a handful of major national funders with a dedicated journalism program, but there are very many national funders who give substantial grants outside of a dedicated program. It may be attached to a different program—environment, arts, you name it. But whatever their structure, they’re making grants to journalism. The majority of the people surveyed said that over the past five years, they’ve increased their support. So, we don’t have a comprehensive absolute number associated with that, but we can see from our own media grants data map and also the recent survey that it’s a large and growing field. But you’re also in a field that is growing perhaps even faster. Is the growth in number and size of organizations as a field growing at a faster clip than philanthropy’s increases—which are substantial and encouraging—but nevertheless can’t keep up with the growth of the field? When you see layoffs at places as great as the Texas Tribune, you wonder if the field is growing faster than a growing philanthropic support can sustain.
Sue: That’s a really fair question. I don’t think so and here’s why: When we look ahead, where I think you’re going to see continued launches of new startups are in communities that have lost or never had good coverage. So that’s essentially a (new donor or philanthropy) market, and that’s why we look at that leverage from NewsMatch, but also from funding collaborations, to find and encourage new sources of local philanthropy. It can be from a community foundation convening all the backers in an area and just introducing them to this idea. There can be a number of ways for journalism funders to use their role and their visibility and to draw the community together and support news. And so much of that philanthropy that’s building is coming from people who never gave to news before or never thought of it, or they used to subscribe to a newspaper that’s now gone.
So, I do think there’s generally a pretty open field, but it’s a big cultural change, right? We all grew up with news being really close to free, either supported by advertising, with a little bit of subscriber revenue. And so, it’s going to be a long game to build that up, but we are seeing it. In NewsMatch, we saw local and match funders outstrip national funders for the first time last year. That’s incredibly encouraging. That’s the whole thing we want to see, right? That’s where it needs to go so that local communities are supporting local news.
I do think a bigger part of news is going to be funded by philanthropy than was in the past. Philanthropy is going to be necessary for the long run, particularly in investigative (and), in-depth original reporting in communities that are not wealthy.
We have 70 some members in a rural news network. National philanthropy has been really critical at dramatically expanding coverage of rural areas for rural communities. So, I think there are key areas like that where it’ll continue.
Vince: Before we go, is there something that we didn’t ask about or didn’t talk about that you wanted to make sure to say as a sort of valedictory point?
Sue: Speaking to funders, and we’re an intermediary: Don’t be afraid of the unknown. The media that is developing is really innovative. It’s connecting with people in new ways. It doesn’t look like the Tribune Tower. It doesn’t look like institutional media of the past. And that can feel really funny and scary. Like, is this journalism? Is this not? Will it survive? Will it not? Now’s the time to invest, to seed a lot of the startups and exploration and exciting new things being tried because out of that, things are really growing and developing.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.