Elements of Nonprofit News Management Chapter 1: Getting started

By Richard J. Tofel

October 4, 2022

Editorial vision 

All great news products must in some sense begin with a visionary editor.  

Many news nonprofits reflect the vision of a founding editor; some, like The City in New York, the new Baltimore Banner and the forthcoming Ohio Local News Initiative and Houston Local News Initiative, may start instead with committed donors on a mission. That’s fine. But even if the money comes first, there is no substitute for a clear editorial point of view and an analysis of the gap you are seeking to fill in your particular news ecosystem. That analysis should cover what is missing that you intend to supply as well as what is not, or is at least beyond your scope. Here’s the most important part of that: 

My own journalistic hero is Barney Kilgore, who built The Wall Street Journal in its modern form, running it first as editor, then effectively as publisher, from 1941 until 1967. I had the privilege of writing his biography, and began the book by describing a meeting Kilgore attended in 1958 with a group taking control of the New York Herald Tribune in what turned out to be a last (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to save that publication. The Herald Trib was then one of the nation’s two leading general interest newspapers, the voice of the establishment Republican Party; the meeting was specifically encouraged by President Eisenhower. But the paper was in trouble, having effectively lost its battle for local dominance with The New York Times during and just after World War II. 

Kilgore brought a short memo of critique to the meeting. Its most devastating lines were these: “It is not, as it now stands, a bad newspaper. But it is a little too much of a newspaper that might be published in Philadelphia, Washington or Chicago just as readily as in metropolitan New York.” 

As journalists across the country seek to build and rebuild a raft of new and renewed news organizations in the wake of a business crisis that has now lasted more than 17 years, this is, I think, the most critical point. Successful news offerings must be distinctive. It is no longer possible to prosper with a product or service that feels commoditized. As Kilgore understood more than six decades ago, readers don’t have time for it.  

When people approach me about how to shape a successful publication, this is always the first thing we discuss. The most promising ideas and teams have already embraced this challenge; with those who have not yet fully focused on distinctiveness, this is the critical dimension on which I seek to help them sharpen their thinking. 

It’s especially important not to convince yourself that you’re simply going to do something that’s already being done, only better. That way lies self-delusion. Visionary editors seek to do things differently, to cover beats newly discovered or long since abandoned, to serve audiences that are just emerging or have been neglected, to present stories in new ways, using new tools or techniques. 

Such editors also have a vision for how their work is going to break through — how they will not only do excellent journalism, but also capture attention for it. “If you build it, they will come” is not an editorial strategy for the 21st century. 

And editorial vision these days also requires a strong sense of what sort of team is to be assembled: What are the key roles? What sort of newsroom culture is sought? What news values will inform the work? 

If you have begun with an editor who has cogent answers to all these questions, great. If not, your first essential task is to find one. If you have (or are) an editor of talent and promise whose views on some or all of these questions remain unfocused, it’s critical to sharpen them before you embark on the adventure. 

Mission: What’s the aim? What’s not? 

The most important thing for a successful nonprofit of any sort is a clear mission. This is a simple and direct statement of what you are in business to do — and, by implication if not explicitly, what you are not trying to do. Your mission is not the place for buzzwords or euphemisms. Nor is it the place for compromises, especially not of the “let’s do both” variety. 

A well-crafted mission statement, tightly phrased and properly promulgated, can inspire companies and the people who work in them. It can help managers remember what they’re trying to accomplish and what’s beyond the scope of their enterprise. It can guide a company’s decisions about allocating capital. But to do so it must have content, and far too many mission statements lack that. 

Some years ago I reviewed a short book on mission statements for The Wall Street Journal. My review began with some of the nonsense that clouds these waters in corporate America: 

Alcoa is a big company. They make some of the best aluminum on Earth. Once upon a time, they made all of the aluminum, but that is another story. Our story is about vision. What is Alcoa’s vision? “At Alcoa, our vision is to be the best company in the world.” What? 

Hershey is a less-big company. They make some of the best chocolate on Earth. Hershey has a 65-word mission. It includes “Undisputed Marketplace Leadership” and “top-tier value creation” from a “portfolio of brands.” Not one of the 65 words is “chocolate.” Huh? 

Gillette used to be yet another leading corporation. It once said that its vision was to “build total brand value by innovating to deliver consumer value.” Its vision did not seem to include anything about shaving. Perhaps a mistake: Today Gillette is a part of Procter & Gamble. 

People were presumably paid zillions to serve up this pablum. Don’t be like them. 

Big for-profit companies can often get away with euphemistic mission statements because they are, especially if they are publicly traded, ultimately in business to make money. The laws that create them say that’s their purpose, although they soften it a bit by providing that the goal is make money “in the long run.” 

But nonprofits can’t fall back on that. They need to be in business to accomplish something, and they are much better served when it’s something specific. That sounds simple, but it can be quite daunting, and here’s why: The more specific you make your mission — the more you narrow your aim, the more you focus your efforts — the greater the chance that you won’t achieve your objective, and that people will know you didn’t. 

That’s scary, but it can also be very helpful. The discipline that comes with accountability is considerable. Conversely, while it’s tempting to fuzz up your mission in order to obfuscate any failure to achieve it, the first person you risk fooling this way is yourself. 

In crafting a mission for a news nonprofit, try to make as clear as possible what you are seeking to accomplish and, at least by implication, what you are not. Are you hoping to serve a particular group of people, defined by geography, interest or personal characteristic? Say so. Are you hoping to employ the full range of journalistic processes and techniques, or only a few? Say that, too. How will you determine whether you are successful? Include that as well. Hard thinking, up front, on these hard questions will greatly simplify your work as it unfolds. 


How do you measure whether your work is succeeding?  Or, to put it in a way that makes nonprofit publishers more nervous than it should, what are your metrics for success? 

Often this question arises because a funder, typically a foundation, requires some quantitative way to determine whether its investment is paying off. But you shouldn’t wait for that; you should establish your own metrics before anyone else asks for them. And you should make sure they are closely tied to what you are trying to accomplish — to why you got into this in the first place. 

That is why I always stress that a conversation about metrics should begin as one about mission. Once you have a clear mission, the best metrics should follow pretty naturally. I wrote a long “white paper” nine years ago about how this worked for ProPublica. I did it at the request of the Gates Foundation and to help clarify my own thinking, but mostly because I knew that if we set the standards by which we wanted to be measured, we could get ahead of others substituting their own, less well-grounded notions of how we might determine success. Simply put, if you can set the rules of the game, you are much more likely to prevail.  

That is the spirit in which you need to fix your own preferred metrics. 

Make sure not to be too cute about it. As with mission, metrics aren’t meaningful unless it’s possible not to attain them. There is a great temptation to articulate so many criteria for success that some are almost always met. Some stories may get a large audience, and others have great reader interaction; still others inspire creativity, while a few yield change. That’s all nice, but which was your goal at the outset?  Defining all of them as equally desired results is dilutive at best. You risk creating a Lake Wobegon of journalism, where “all the children are above average.” Again, as with mission, you might fool yourself this way, but you won’t fool many others. 

Money: How much do you need? 

Other than identifying a mission and an editorial vision, this is probably the most important issue a would-be nonprofit news entrepreneur should tackle at the outset. If you don’t ask how much money you need, you’re making the most basic error in starting a business. Moreover, to answer this question, you need a comprehensive initial expense budget, charting how much you’ll spend on everything from salaries (and taxes and benefits) to freelance to office space (if any) to photos to publishing tools to marketing and beyond. 

In my view, it’s a mistake to begin operations without at least 18 months of spending on hand; two years is even better. This is hard, and quite likely daunting. But I believe it’s the better part of valor.  

It’s much harder to get people to contribute to a dream than to a reality; as an analogy, consider how homes that require substantial renovation sell at a considerable discount to those in pristine condition, even after taking into account the cost of fixing them up. Not everyone can envision what the finished product will look like, what a difference your news organization will make. But one set of prospective donors — the “show me” set — will likely not be motivated until you have been publishing for some time, and the donor cultivation cycle (easily six months) will further slow their eventual contributions.  

So if you can’t raise enough to cover 18 months in advance, you run a real risk of not being able to raise much more before your initial funds are exhausted. In addition, launching a startup may be a passion play for you, but many prospective employees will think of it more as a risk, and two years’ worth of expenses in hand goes a long way toward curbing their anxiety, especially in an industry where uncertain futures abound. (ProPublica had the advantage of beginning with three years of funding guaranteed, and we were well aware of our unusual good fortune.) 

This is a business: Someone needs to run it (or two someones) 

Generally speaking, there are two possible models of top management reporting relationships in nonprofit news organizations. In the first, the most senior editorial executive, often called the editor-in-chief (EIC, although the person might have another title) would report directly to the board of directors. In the second, the EIC reports to the most senior business executive (often the president, but sometimes someone with a different title, such as publisher).1 

Shared ultimate authority in any organization of meaningful size is unusual, and tends to be frowned upon in traditional management theory. When Steve Engelberg and I assumed joint leadership of ProPublica in 2013, we flouted the convention. At the time, Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance, who grew that company from 100 employees to 28,000 and founded The Management Center for nonprofits, told us he was deeply skeptical of any such model. He grilled us for 90 minutes about how it could work, but finally conceded that it might, given the unusual circumstances of the news business, with its tradition of independence for the creators of the “product.” We thought then that it was viable and still believe that it was, and the structure remains in place at ProPublica after a transition to a new president. 

But I can’t say this is the best answer for every organization, or perhaps even for that one; I am too close to the case to be certain. 

It does seem clear, however, that one can outline advantages and disadvantages for each model. Proponents of a single leader reporting to the board cite a number of key factors, principally the need for a unified organizational vision and the avoidance of intramural tension between two executives at the same level. They also note — surely correctly — that the choice of model has important implications for the role of the board. Having two people reporting to the board may confuse directors and tempt them to greater interference in editorial questions, while, in this view, a business executive may shield editorial operations from such interference. More broadly, having two reports gives the board more to manage, which will require a degree of agility, and perhaps operational involvement, for which some boards may not be suited. 

It seems noteworthy that most proponents of a president alone reporting to a board often, either explicitly or implicitly, envision such a person being a former editor, as is currently the case at CalMatters, The 19th and The Texas Tribune. I do worry a lot that this enormously narrows the field of possible candidates for such jobs; in my experience, very few leading editors also have strong business capacity, although these three friends of mine are exceptions. Building a business model that requires too many such people may effectively assume a larger supply of such unicorns than our industry can produce. 

Proponents of two reports to the board cite a variety of factors, including an advantage in recruiting stronger EICs (and perhaps in turn an advantage in recruiting journalists throughout the organization), less institutional risk in dependence on one person (and a decreased risk of burnout) and the ability to manage succession less disruptively, as it can be staged by position. A number of observers also note that, given decades of discrimination and lack of attention to diversity in recruiting and developing editors, it may be substantially easier to achieve executive-level diversity if business leadership is separated from editorial leadership.  

Separate reporting relationships may also give the EIC greater credibility with major funders, who will almost all insist on some contact with the EIC. And having a president and an EIC as peers could effectively force them to work truly collaboratively more than they might otherwise, in an era when collaboration between news and business sides, especially on issues related to audience and platform, has never been more important. (Much of the impetus for collaboration will stem from a mutual desire to avoid coming to a deadlock, and placing questions on which agreement has proven elusive before the board.) Finally, a higher-ranking EIC may give top management a better sense of the delicate pulse of a newsroom, which seems especially important amid current cultural upheavals, including a substantial increase in the unionization of nonprofit newsrooms. 

If two executives are to succeed in such parallel roles, mutual respect and mutual self-restraint are essential, allowing each to defer to the other’s prerogatives and responsibilities. It is not realistic to expect that senior executives will always agree. It is realistic — I have lived it — to expect them to agree on who is ultimately responsible for what, and to accede outside their areas of direct responsibility. For instance, it should be the president’s job to decide how large an expense budget is affordable, and how much of it is required for business operations, while it should be the EIC’s job to decide how the remaining funds — the news budget — are deployed. At the same time, if optimal decisions are to be made day to day, people in such a structure must have both a capacity for compromise (most of the time) and a tolerance for interpersonal conflict (on the rarer occasions when that is necessary). 

Moreover, if both executives are to report to the board, they need to be selected (if simultaneously) very much as a pair, and then replaced, over time, with a keen eye to the compatibility of the individuals involved. It would also be an important responsibility of a board operating under such a model to constantly be assessing whether the partnership of the president and EIC remains functional. 

Of course, the decision we are focusing on here does not occur in a vacuum, apart from the personalities and experiences of the human beings involved. In particular, if a former editor with successful business experience, or substantial demonstrated business acumen, is available, it may be compelling to make that person a sole chief executive, especially initially (as was the case at ProPublica and The Texas Tribune).  

In the absence of such a figure, and in the abstract, my own inclination is toward having both the EIC and president reporting to the board. But, as I hope the paragraphs above make clear, there are significant arguments to the contrary. 

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