No Vacations, No Sleep, but Good Journalism: What It’s Like To Start a Nonprofit Newsroom

A new study explores the working conditions of journalists who leave commercial journalism to start digital-first nonprofit news outlets.

By Hailey Reissman

With the industry business model failing, American journalists often aren’t sure if they’ll be able to support themselves in the next week, month, or year. Contract-based and temporary positions are on the rise, while stable, permanent jobs are scarce.

Some journalists, when faced with the ever-present precarity of newswork, choose to leave commercial journalism altogether.

Louisa Lincoln, doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, recently spoke to more than 20 journalists who created their own nonprofit, digital-first outlets in hopes to avoid the pitfalls that face traditional journalism, like dwindling advertising revenue and a lack of paid subscribers.

Her study, published in Digital Journalism, found that even after abandoning the unsteady working conditions of commercial journalism, nonprofit news founders continue to be precariously-employed, especially when it comes to finances. Even so, they keep at it because they find great satisfaction in providing high-quality news and information to their communities, Lincoln says.

“The nonprofit news field offers an exciting alternative to the commercial model for journalism that frankly, hasn’t worked for a long time,” she says. “It is growing and changing and evolving in really interesting and exciting ways, but I feel that the working conditions of nonprofit journalists themselves hasn’t received much attention to date, which is why I wanted to do this study.” 

The Rise of Nonprofit News

In recent years, nonprofit newsrooms have become a prominent force within the American journalism industry, winning Pulitzer Prizes, and growing in numbers. Just this week, nonprofit outlets City Bureau, Invisible Institute, and ProPublica were awarded 2024 Pulitzer Prizes.

Over a third of the 400 plus nonprofit newsrooms that belong to the Institute for Nonprofit News, have been founded in the last seven years, Lincoln says. A majority of these newsrooms are digital-first — focusing on digital rather than print publishing.

When Lincoln spoke to founders, many told her that they saw nonprofit newsrooms as an answer to commercial journalism’s financial failings — a way to escape layoffs and to feel control over one’s employment. 

But becoming your own boss brings new challenges: financial, mental, and physical.

Louisa Lincoln
Louisa Lincoln

“The number of people that I talked to who said they didn't take a salary for a certain period of time, who said they sold their home or downsized or delayed having a family or delayed retiring to keep their newsrooms going really struck me,” Lincoln says.

Founders described “sleepless nights” worrying about fundraising, about paying their employees, about the ways their decisions would affect the newsroom.

“Non-profit newsroom founders occupy a really unique position,” Lincoln says. “When they leave commercial journalism, they are thrust into leadership roles they might not have wanted to take on otherwise and become responsible not only for their own pay, but also for others. That can take a mental toll.” 

Lincoln found that what kept founders going when faced with this extreme precarity was a commitment to journalism that serves their community. 

“Founders’ perceptions of nonprofit journalism as a community service were closely intertwined with the perceived impact of their work,” Lincoln says. “They saw nonprofit journalism as a community service and their own precarious self-employment as an inevitable side effect in pursuit of a larger mission. They were aware they were choosing a different form of precarity that allowed them more autonomy, more personal satisfaction, and a way to help their community.”

Reducing the Burden on Founders 

This study suggests two ways to help digital-first nonprofit news founders feel like they can  focus more on news instead of finances.

One is the creation of multiyear, unrestricted grants to support early-stage nonprofit news startups. 

“This kind of funding would provide stability during the precarious startup phase, allowing founders to focus on operational and strategic planning, rather than day-to-day funding worries,” Lincoln says. “It would enable them to focus on launching their organization without having to forgo a salary or work another job at the same time.” 

The second is the establishment of a variety of fully-funded fellowship programs to support individual founders, enabling them to dedicate themselves to launching their organizations while reducing financial strain. Some already exist, like the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, but in order to sustain journalism, more should be created, she says.

“These programs should offer a livable wage and benefits to ensure meaningful impact and equity,” Lincoln says.

Understanding Life as a Journalist

Next, Lincoln hopes to interview individual journalists working in nonprofit newsrooms to understand their lived experiences and particular labor conditions.

“I think it's really important and necessary to just consider the material conditions under which journalists operate,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know any journalists — haven’t ever met a journalist or been in the newsroom. It's vital to document the pressures that newsworkers are under, in terms of time and resources, so people know how they live.”


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