How do non-profit news organisations pay their bills? The Texas Tribune had a fundraising goal for 2009 of $3.5 million, and managed to end the year with close to $4 million. In a note on the Tribune's website, chairman John Thornton has explained where the money is coming from.
First, it's helpful if the co-founder has deep pockets, or if someone else who does is prepared to chip in. Thornton and his wife contributed $1 million to the Tribune, and financier T. Boone Pickens has donated $150,000. Foundations have also helped out to the tune of around $1.1 million, including a total of $750,000 in grants from the Houston Endowment and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Next, membership is a key source of support. The Tribune has 1500 members, and each one has contributed between $50 and $5,000, with an average donation of $98: this works out to around $147,000. "Membership is perhaps our most important revenue line," Thornton writes, "both because of the dollars attached and because this is how we will demonstrate the breadth of our support to our prospective sources of equity."
Corporate sponsorships have brought in the funds as well. Most of the 68 corporate sponsors made a $2,500 commitment as co-founders of the publication, and it seems that this figure has not grown substantially since the launch. "In the coming months, we intend to become far more sophisticated in the way we market corporate sponsorships of both our site and our events series, TribLive," Thornton writes.
And finally? Specialty publications. The Tribune acquired the Texas Weekly, a newsletter for government and politics in Texas, which has around 1,200 subscriptions at $250 a year, which works out to around $300,000 a year. And another targeted subscription publication is in the works.
Sounds great, but some observers are sceptical. Staci D. Kramer writes on the paidContent blog that "the post-launch slowdown and the static corporate donations suggests the low-hanging fruit is in the basket."
"The Tribune has enough for two years money if it sticks to the budget Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith told us about at launch: $1.6 million for year one and $2 million in the second year," Kramer writes. "Now they have to raise--and earn--$2.3 million for the third year."
Non-profit news organisations are worthy projects. And while this kind of model might not be sustainable for large newspapers, it's encouraging to see evidence that it works on a more modest scale.