Adapting your newsroom to the new era of audience-driven economics


Once, the answer was so obvious that the question wasn’t even asked: The local daily newspaper dominated.

When I ran the local news desk at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in the mid-90s, my partner and I had 75 reporters and editors covering Broward County — more than every other news organization in the county combined. And that was before we counted the reporters on the business, features and sports desks.

That dominance was the result of economics, not some God-given right. Newspapers like mine had monopolies in certain ad categories — used car and help wanted classifieds and Sunday retail inserts. Those monopolies gave them the cash to hire a big staff, which helped them grow circulation and create a virtuous circle for those ad monopolies. In other words, the economics drove staff size.

Today, the situation is reversed: Staff size can drive the economics.

That’s because virtually every local news producer increasingly relies on revenue from the audience (not ads) to pay the freight. Getting that audience revenue (via subscriptions, memberships or donations) requires having distinctive content that no one else can produce — which is where large newsrooms come in.

Already, interesting examples are emerging in local markets around the country:

In Vermont, the nonprofit VTDigger lists 21 reporters and editors on its staff directory — far surpassing the largest newspaper in the state, Gannett's (diminished) Burlington Free Press, which is down to just nine in its newsroom. (Vermont Public, the merged radio/television/digital public-media organization, has more than 25; the once-dominant statewide newspaper isn’t even No. 2 in the market!)

In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Lehigh Valley Public Media’s combined NPR station and digital site,, has 26 newsroom staff. Tribune’s Morning Call in Allentown has 20; Advance Local’s Express-Times in Bethlehem has fewer than 10.

The Florida Times-Union once had more than 150 in its newsroom in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s down to 22 today. But First Coast News, TEGNA’s two-station combined newsroom in Jacksonville (WTLV/NBC and WJXX/ABC), has 27. Coming up fast on the outside is the local public broadcaster WJCT, which launched a digital-first project, JaxToday, in 2021. It has 13 journalists contributing to its site (counting content-sharing partners) and continues to expand (versus the ever-shrinking Times-Union).

This matters because all these newsrooms are trying to get audiences to pay them directly — via donations to nonprofit and public media organizations, subscriptions to legacy print organizations or a mix of cable carriage fees and streaming service sign-ups for legacy broadcasters.

For commercial organizations, this is a massive sea change from the old model of “build a big audience/sell ads around it.” Everyone is now pursuing the classic public media funding model.

“You have to have great content to attract the readers,” notes Anne Galloway, the founding editor (and newly retired CEO) of VTDigger.

Through trial and error, she built a newsroom to produce distinctive content, leading to larger audiences and more donations. She didn’t start that way, however. Like many news nonprofits founded during the Great Recession, Digger initially focused on publishing occasional long-form and investigative pieces.

“While the stories were terrific, we couldn’t build the audience,” Galloway recalled. “We could never fulfill the business model.”

So, she pivoted and began publishing daily, especially on topics other media outlets weren’t covering.

“People saw what we were doing, and they started giving us money,” she said. By 2014, Digger was emerging as the must-read news source in the state. It had deep coverage of state government and the Legislature, and the long-dominant Burlington Free Press was going through cutbacks.

“We were just beating the pants off them, and they laid off” the Free Press’ two state government reporters. “They had no coverage of the Legislature. … We had undying loyalty and could raise money because of that.”

Fast forward to today, and Digger has the only reporters in the state who specialize in covering climate issues, substance abuse and housing, for example.

The trick is that donations build slowly — so other sources of funding (like foundations or investment capital from a parent entity) are needed to seed the newsroom’s growth. That's the stage Lehigh Valley News finds itself in, said Yoni Greenbaum, Lehigh Valley Public Media’s chief operating officer.

CEO Tim Fallon and his boss built the newsroom on a mantra of “first, best, only.” The goal was to focus on stories that no one else was covering and be the best source of information on those topics — particularly those abandoned by shrinking legacy newspapers.

“We have the only environment reporter in our coverage area. We have the only dedicated health reporter, the only dedicated political reporter, the only dedicated arts & culture reporter,” Greenbaum noted. “I think newsroom size is pivotal — but how to afford it?”

“Raising that money really is the challenge,” said Greenbaum.

That’s the trick for public media and nonprofit news leaders.

Newsroom size doesn’t automatically mean more money. Distinctive original content creates the conditions for a successful subscription or fundraising pitch.

Connecting content to economic support requires plenty of hard work: turning casual visitors into habitual users, nurturing that habit into the sort of organizational love that can inspire donations and working through the difficult logistics of gathering contact information to deliver the donation ask.

But with ever-increasing competition for audience dollars, carving out distinctive beats — and growing your newsroom to do it — just might be one path to financial sustainability.

Tom Davidson is a consultant for public and nonprofit media organizations, and an adjunct lecturer in media entrepreneurship and nonprofit news management at the University of Maryland. He can be reached at


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