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New Jersey news site finds revenue in topical events

by: Julia Scott |

Can a news start up launched with grant money become self sustaining? 

In the wild, wild world of online journalism, the answer is, we don’t entirely know – yet. But we have glimpses of how future news organizations might pay their bills, and even make a profit. 

One revenue model that is working for the award-winning news site NJ Spotlight is events. 

A ninth of the NJ Spotlight’s site’s revenue comes from roundtable discussions about the issues the site covers. Topics have included solar energy, teacher evaluations, and charter schools. Videos of the events can be viewed on the homepage.

The events are public, but targeted invites are sent to influential stakeholders, like legislators, corporate leaders, and policy wonks. The idea is to connect those in the know with leaders who could stand to know a bit more on a particular issue. 

The events are free, so to generate revenue NJ Spotlight founder John Moooney has brought in sponsors whose mission dovetails with the topic at hand. Sponsors have included Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, NJ Educators for Reform, and Verizon. So far the news group has put on 12 such roundtables. It is on pace to hold eight this year. 

Another ninth of NJ Spotlight’s revenue comes from content sharing agreements with WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, and Philly.com, the website for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Traffic boosts from these relationships are another perk.

Advertising on the site brings in another ninth of Spotlight’s $770,000 annual budget. A site redesign in the works will create more capacity for advertising.

The remaining two third of revenue comes from grants. Mooney’s goal is to have three-quarters of revenue from earned sources rather than charitable ones in five years.

To meet that end, Mooney is exploring webinars, creating discussion groups around issues, and expanding the roundtables to be day-long mini-conferences that would attract bigger sponsorships.  

Mooney is not sure the site will ever not need some kind of foundation support.

But are foundations interested in supporting journalistic endeavors long term?

“With Knight’s leadership, there has been a huge increase in the number of foundations that are looking at media funding,” said Hans Dekker, president of the Community Foundation of New Jersey. “A lot of foundations are coming to it through the lens of caring about certain issues, not caring about the media.” 

Mooney founded NJ Spotlight with Dunstan McNichol in May 2010, two years after both men left the Star-Ledger during a massive buyout. 

It was McNichol’s idea to create a statehouse news service. The men received $10,000  from the Community Foundation of New Jersey to create a business plan. That led to a Community Information Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation for $350,000. 

Soon after, funds rolled in from the Penn Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A second grant from the Community Foundation arrived. 

All total, Mooney and McNichol, who died in January 2011, had more than a million dollars for NJ Spotlight. (The site recently secured a second grant for $250,000 from Knight.)

“To do this kind of journalism, the foundations are critical,” Mooney said during a phone interview. “We’re still going to need them to a degree, but we need to find ways to make ourselves as sustainable as we can.”

Initially, NJ Spotlight focused on education, energy, and the environment. A core of freelancers covered general news. 

Money from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was earmarked for a health care beat. "You plug these things in, it becomes quite modular," Mooney said. "If you don’t get funding for something, maybe you pull back on that for awhile."

Mooney hasn’t faced a foundation with an agenda, but talking to him you get the distinct sense that his editorial independence is a thick coat that he clings to, even in the steamiest of summers. 

The site has four to six new posts each weekday, with headlines like “With Christie’s Veto, NJ Towns Risk Losing Affordable Housing Money,” and “Charter School Leases Struck Down In Newark, For Now.”

Not exactly fluff.

A typical month attracts 80,000 unique visitors. NJ Spotlight has 2,000 email subscribers, 2,849 Twitter followers and 1,184 Facebook friends. 

In 2011, the site received the Online News Association’s General Excellence award for its independent statehouse reporting, which ONA called “the best example in the nation.” 

Julia Scott founded the money saving and coupon blog, BargainBabe.com.

The Community News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Julia Scott

Julia Scott is the founder of BargainBabe.com. The site helps people save money on everyday expenses like groceries, gasoline, and
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