Nonprofit CalMatters Finds Tech That Works For Local Journalism

CalMatters reports nonpartisan, in-depth stories about California state politics on a nonprofit budget – and it needed a tech stack to fuel that vision.

The site is shifting this week to use a suite of publisher tools bundled together by The News Project. Founded last year, The News Project wants to serve the wave of sites that are adopting member-supported, often nonprofit journalism models. CalMatters is its first customer to switch to its platform.

“Local news is collapsing because the business model changed. There is no longer a business model for for-profit journalism based on local advertising that is sustainable in maybe any market,” said CalMatters CEO Neil Chase, who joined this year from The Mercury News and East Bay Times.

CalMatters gains access to a mix of both tech and services through The News Project. Think of it as a value-added reseller, giving clients access to a custom WordPress template from design firm Charming Robot, the loyalty and subscription platform Piano and advertising via Google Ad Manager.

“The News Project is bundling a number of services that are either out of our reach or disproportionately expensive to a publication of our size,” Chase said.

Small for CalMatters means bringing in $3.5 million in donations last year with two dozen employees. The home site averages between 150,000 and 400,000 page views a month, though the publication’s true reach is much higher because local newspapers and radio run CalMatters content for free, which is part of its mission.

The publication wanted to switch to The News Project’s suite not only because it fit its budget, but because the tech aligned with its new strategy. CalMatters is expanding how it brings in donations.

In its first few years, the publication was supported by local philanthropists who saw the decline in local journalism as bad for democracy. Now, the publication is working to stand on its own by asking its readers, midsize donors and corporate sponsors to contribute too.

On the editorial site, CalMatters wants to enable feature-rich infographics and features to support its journalism as it enters the 2020 election cycle.

But CalMatters doesn’t want its calls for donations to feel transactional – a use case it will be able to support with The News Project’s tools like Piano and consulting services in audience development.

“We want to make sure we don’t just see membership as a way to pay the bills, but to be involved in the organization,” Chase said.

Chase wants to focus on encouraging behavior to deepen engagement in a way that’s useful to the reader, like developing strong capabilities in recommending articles and a cohesive newsletter strategy.

“Newsletters are the closest thing we have online to dropping a print publication on your front porch,” Chase said.

Once people sign up for newsletters, CalMatters plans to entice them into attending events and seeing the value of being part of its community. “There is a customer journey we have in mind already, and once we have more tools in place, we will be able to guide people down that funnel much more thoughtfully and effectively.”

The News Project provides ongoing support for clients like CalMatters as they set up and refine how they interact with their readers.

After a sign-up fee in the range of $25,000, they might pay in the range of $5,000 a month for the suite of tech and support, depending on what they want to use The News Project for. They can license articles from the Associated Press (a partner in The News Project) or use The News Project’s audience development services.

The News Project wants to recruit other nonprofit publications to sign up. It’s created a pipeline of 20 interested publications. Between three and six might move onto The News Project this summer, and 10 by the end of the year, estimated Merrill Brown, The News Project's founder and CEO.

Publications lose some flexibility in how they set up their publication in exchange for a much cheaper product, unified by a central platform. But Merrill Brown is betting that a growing group of nonprofit publishers like CalMatters will be willing to make that tradeoff.

“We are entering a whole new era of entrepreneurial news. The products that will replace the local metro newspaper will be done by much smaller newsrooms, and they need the proper tools and tech to create profitable, sustainable businesses,” Brown said.

 

 

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