Tuesday, June 05, 2018

How VTDigger became a rising star in nonprofit news

Revenue makeup and growth at VTDigger (INN chart; click image to enlarge)
Vermont nonprofit news outlet VTDigger, which started with one employee in 2009, has made a name for itself as an online watchdog juggernaut with with nearly 300,000 monthly users, a full-time staff of 19 and an annual budget of more than $1.5 million. Its recent accomplishments are heady stuff for a publication of its size: "Its three-year, 250-stories-and-counting exposé into alleged fraud at the Jay Peak Resort has stamped it as a major investigative force in the region," Tim Griggs reports for the Institute for Nonprofit News. "It hired the first-ever Vermont-focused D.C. bureau chief to cover the state’s delegation in Washington. It has been featured in the Columbia Journalism ReviewNiemanLab and The New York Times as a new model for success in the nonprofit news movement. And it has secured a multimillion-dollar investment to dramatically improve business, technology, and reporting to bring it to a new level of sustainability."

Griggs outlines VTDigger's history and highlights reasons it succeeded for the benefit of other nonprofit startups:

The first lesson is to understand your market. When VTDigger's founder, Anne Galloway, decided to create a nonprofit news organization in 2009, she first spent a considerable amount of time asking locals if they wanted such a news outlet.

The second lesson is to expand your network: make connections with local organizations that can help you develop relationships with community leaders, philanthropists and others. That can help with fundraising and with getting access for stories.

The third lesson? Start small: Galloway raised $12,500 in seed capital. She didn't want to rely only on foundations, so she secured sponsorships from local businesses. The first big donor was dairy co-op Cabot Creamery, which gave $7,000. Griggs recommends that other nonprofits make small requests at first, prove their value by delivering a good product, and then increase the "ask." In the earliest days of fundraising, when there isn't much product to show, it's important to be able to sell donors on an idea or vision.

The fourth lesson: Prioritize business-side investments. Most of Galloway's seed money went to web development and paying freelance reporters; she didn't pay herself for her 80+-hour workweeks for at least two years. But the first person she hired after she started bringing in some money wasn't another journalist; it was a someone to manage donations and accounting. "Nonprofit news site founders often think they should invest all their time and funding in the journalism in their early years," Griggs writes. "They can end up hobbled by scarce resources far longer than founders who stretch to hire business staff or consultants. . . . These positions help sell the mission."

And the fifth lesson is to invest in good sales people. The second person Galloway hired was Michael Knight, a sales director she had worked with as editor of the Times Argus in the state capital of Montpelier, population 8,000. She needed someone who could sell sponsors on the mission, not just sell ads based on page impressions. Theresa Murray-Clasen, Digger’s director of underwriting since 2015, told Griggs: "You have to know if this person has the capacity to blend mission and ROI and know in any given circumstance how they’re going to pitch a potential underwriter."

Griggs provides a solid, granular look at VTDigger's success; click here to read more. The Institute for Nonprofit News will host an online Q-and-A with Galloway on June 27. Register for the free event here.

No comments: