ProPublica experiments with running ads
ProPublica's revenue strategy is changing a bit. The Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit newsroom, has started to fill the gap caused by closing investigative units around the country, by running ads and offering sponsorship of its emails starting today. They have laid out their Advertising Acceptability Policy here.
Investigative journalism depends on trust and fearlessness. Some of the commenters on the site have already expressed some skepticism that the hard-charging investigative site might be compromising some of its independence in going after advertisers. "I think we’ve been diligent—and successful—in this respect with regard to donors these last 2+ years, and we’ll make sure we are no less diligent with advertisers as well. If need be, we’ll decline particular ads," assured ProPublica's general manager Richard Tofel.
While long term stability is the key, ProPublica has always had a game, experimental approach to new methods of raising money. ProPublica describes itself as "a new kind of institution: staffed with top talent but unencumbered by print legacy costs." That said, their senior staff are quite well compensated. Good investigative journalism -- like their reporting on the gulf oil spill and their exposes on tainted Chinese drywall -- has a cost. But is advertising the solution? Will online donors, an increasingly important part of ProPublica's funding, be put off by advertisers?
Revenue at ProPublica for 2009 was $6.4 million, down from $8.6 million in 2008, according to their 2009 Form 990. Previously, foundation support -- from places like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation -- as well as online contributions, which began in 2009, were ProPublica's principal revenue streams. Online donations are up to 1300 in 2010 from 100 in 2009. In an explanation as to why they are running ads, Richard Tofel writes:
"Funding from sources other than the Sandler Foundation came to more than $3.8 million, or more than 38 percent of all the money we raised last year. In 2011, we aim to increase that to $5 million, 50% of the total. Advertising will help us get there."
"Given what’s happened to web advertising in the last five years, on any kind of reasonable projection of the size of our audience," Tofel told Meghan Garber of the Neiman Lab, "we’re not talking about a great deal of money."
One of ProPublica's main aims is to prove that investigative journalism -- so important to the proper functioning of an informed democracy's electorate -- can stand on its own. To that end, ProPublica chooses media partners with an eye to make a maximum impact with their stories and the ultimate goal of reaching "the capacity to publish with impact on our own." As a producer of investigative journalism in the public interest, ProPublica has partnered with many publishers including Yahoo! News, NPR, The Huffington Post and Frontline on PBS between May and August 2010, according to their most recent Report to Stakeholders.