The First Year: Lessons From the INNovation Fund

One year later, the first INNovation fund grantees have produced projects we can all learn from. Credit: JD / flickr

One year into the INNovation Fund program, the grant is accomplishing exactly what it set out to do: spur innovation and experimentation for creative revenue models in journalism. Each of the grantees has come away with valuable lessons for the nonprofit news sector.

The INNovation Fund, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and administered by the Institute for Nonprofit News, has one main goal: to help bring nonprofit newsrooms closer to sustainability. The first round of eight INNovation Fund winners received grants of up to $35,000 in April 2014 and completed their final reports for INN and Knight this summer.

The projects range from hyperlocal reporting apps to backend systems that track impact and reader data. Nearly all of the organizations reported revenue gains, and just as importantly, nearly all reported reaching new audiences, growing membership and increasing engagement.

The detailed reports are now available at journo.biz/innovation-fund, or at the direct links below. Here are three major insights gleaned from the first year of the program:

  1. The most common theme is that many grantees had to spend a significant amount of time, money and energy to create the infrastructure within which their projects could operate. Naturally, this was sometimes more of an undertaking than the grantees anticipated. For example, WXXI’s community reporting app Yellr spent the majority of the year in construction and development and is now moving into deployment.  In many cases, these organizations would never have been able to embark on their projects without the seed money to cover overhead-related costs, or without the leeway to take extra time, especially when staffers are often occupying multiple roles within their organizations.
  2. This process also has brought together people from multiple departments within organizations who normally would not have collaborated, as well as outside contractors who brought in fresh perspectives and ideas. Chalkbeat turned to two outside entities, Salesforce and PressPoint, to build what they needed in a tool that will help them learn more about readers. The Food and Environment Reporting Network wrote in their report about the events FERN Talks & Eats: “Because we could not point to past examples that demonstrated our expectations, the writers were understandably concerned about fully engaging with the creative team … Having now produced the event, we can much more easily describe it — and have materials forthcoming, including a highlights reel and videos of the individual performances, that will allow us to show rather than tell.”
  3. The projects forced leaders at organizations to adapt, learn new skills and solve problems in ways they had not previously attempted. San Francisco Public Press noted that in their street outreach program, “people who initially dismiss the offer of a free newspaper often stop and grab a copy when they reach a second or third news ambassador. It’s a pattern we see again and again, which is why we always try to have at least two ambassadors spaced at an effective distance for ‘echo’ impressions.” Naturally, this was not always the easiest or the smoothest path, but that is a salient point in this experiment — to move news organizations outside of their comfort zones and encourage leaders to think more globally about their ultimate goals of sustained growth in audience and revenue.

Of particular note is Public Herald’s project, which set out on a screening and discussion tour of its investigative documentary “Triple Divide” through several key areas where hydrofracking is proposed across the U.S. Since the launch in 2014, they’ve held 34 events with five more scheduled before the tour’s official close, gained 330 new subscribers and 105 new members who continue to be engaged through monthly exclusive member updates and social media. Public Herald conducted the tour in a donated Tesla Model S, covering more than 14,000 miles without the use of gasoline and without emitting greenhouse gases — an added hook to attract like-minded and environmentally conscious readers.

In contrast, Southern California Public Radio’s (SCPR) Community Connection native advertising project is still in the development stage, and the organization has requested an extension on their final report. Still, there are plenty of great lessons to learn from what they’ve done. SCPR brought together people from their editorial, digital, development, and underwriting departments to form an internal taskforce. They consulted other nonprofit newsrooms that had attempted smaller-scale versions and compiled market research they used to improve the model. They are confident they’ll be reaching their revenue goals by the end of the year.

Each of the eight organizations spent all their grant dollars, with the exception of Chalkbeat, which also received an extension on their final report and plan to spend the rest of their funds. In some cases, the organizations exceeded their budgets and made up the difference with other donors or funds in hand. Some used the funds resulting from their projects to make up the difference. However, all but two organizations ended up in the black with revenue gains. Most significantly, nearly everyone grew their audience through new memberships and subscribers.

These eight projects set the bar for innovation and creativity. The organizations were able to reach the people who needed to know about their reporting the most, providing education while elevating the status of their organizations and expanding their loyal readership bases.

Read the roundup of each grantee’s final report: