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Making Sense of "Supersizing NewsMatch"
We need a harder look, and some changes, before we scale this initiative.
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Big new funding for local news is coming, and so people are looking for big ideas on which to spend the money. One that’s gained a certain amount of momentum is referred to as “supersizing NewsMatch,” and it’s the focus of this week’s column.
NewsMatch is a program, now entering its eighth year, to provide matching funds for year-end appeals by nonprofit newsrooms, attracting new donors and larger gifts from current ones, and thus building both the constituency for and the sustainability of these crucial efforts. It consists of both national matching funds and local matches secured independently by newsrooms.
In general, I like the idea of NewsMatch—matching grants have been repeatedly proven to increase donations (one 2014 study found a 20% lift)—and the program has made a difference for a host of worthy recipients, almost all of them smaller newsrooms, as the average total match per newsroom has been less than $18,000. The folks who run NewsMatch tell me that nearly $40 million has been paid out in matches over seven years, and I very much appreciate their answering my questions about the program over the last few weeks.
The current proposal calls for spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this effort over the next five to 10 years, and that’s also more than fine by me. But it’s a lot of money, and the kind of sum that needs to be spent carefully. The NewsMatch program as it has existed needs a thorough review before it is “supersized.” So, a few thoughts on what that should mean:
What’s the cost of the program itself? The program managers talk about spending 14-15% of all the money raised for it on marketing, overhead and what they call “capacity-building programs and services” that help newsrooms solicit online donations. There’s also additional money supplied under a grant to an intermediary for that “capacity-building,” which I think should count toward the overhead; if it were counted, the total might come to a bit more than 17% by my calculations. Even 15% of a quarter of a billion is more than $35 million that wouldn’t go to newsrooms. In 2022 I chart these costs at more than a million dollars in total.
How effective has the marketing been? There has been no public disclosure of how and where the money has been spent. Before we spend four or eight times more, that needs to change.
Who should be eligible for the money? If one key purpose of the program is to elevate the cause of nonprofit news—as I think it should be—it will make sense to include the largest nonprofits, who have the greatest reach, and therefore the greatest ability to promote the program itself. These would include not only large national and regional nonprofits (such as my former employer, ProPublica, the Marshall Project and the Texas Tribune) that have been excluded from the core of the national program in recent years, but also the nonprofit arms of newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Seattle Times, and even nonprofits that may be created by the New York Times and AP. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a cap on the size of gifts to such entities—very likely there should be. Relatedly, while intermediary INN has administered the program, there’s no reason why INN membership should be a requirement of participation by these larger players.
On the other end of the spectrum, we should take a hard look at whether every small newsroom is a good bet for NewsMatch. Struggling newcomers surely deserve support, but places that are steadily shrinking may no longer make sense as philanthropic investments. (That’s part of why I’m in favor of more mergers in the field.) Over the last two years, I’m told, about a million dollars, on average, in NewsMatch funds have gone to shrinking newsrooms (25% of the total paid out in 2021, 15% in 2022), and almost one in three of the participating newsrooms saw total revenues fall each year.
The fact that NewsMatch is a good thing generally shouldn’t tempt us into making too much of its effectiveness. The organizers now privately pretty much concede this, acknowledging to me that they don’t have any quantitative data on the effect of the program on donation levels. Yet a release just yesterday implied all the year-end gifts received by participating newsrooms were “generated” by NewsMatch, a multiplier effect of “about 10 times the amount of matching funds.” If we’re going to make specific claims for multiplier effects and “ROI” and specific numbers of journalism jobs created, they need to be based on hard analysis, not faulty assumptions. Such numbers don’t yet exist. And we need to grapple with the fact, for instance, that some newsrooms which left the program continued to experience growth in donations.
I hope we move forward on “supersizing” NewsMatch, albeit with more modest claims on its behalf, with greater attention to the costs of the program and whether they might be trimmed (especially as a percentage of total costs as the program scales), and with openness to adjusting which newsrooms get to participate. Careful tweaks along these lines to an initiative that has already done a lot of good could make it not only bigger, but also better.
Second Rough Draft will be on vacation next week. See you soon.
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