More news organizations will realize they are in the business of impact, not eyeballs

In 2023, more news organizations are going to realize they are in the business of impact, not of eyeballs and attention, leading to shifts in the way they plan their work and attract revenue.

I realized this as I looked back over my first year leading the Center for Public Integrity, and saw the impact that our investigative reporting has delivered. For example, the ACLU renewed its push for federal legislation after our series showed school policing was disproportionately criminalizing children of color. In Georgia, our reporting on the impact of consolidating polling places led to changes that may have affected the midterm elections.

The traditional model of news is a business of eyeballs and attention. Prior to the internet, the news industry monopolized both content creation and distribution. Advertisers were interested in reaching as many people as possible, thus news and advertising were the perfect union. As we all know, the internet broke up that marriage and wreaked chaos in the news industry.

Since then, the entire industry has been trying to reinvent itself. Some think advertising is still the way to go, others have doubled down on subscription revenue, and many more have embraced nonprofit models, powered by a combination of philanthropic and earned revenue. For the most part, though, the fundamental driver of these news business models is still audience reach.

At Public Integrity, our goal is delivering impact. When I ask who that impact serves, and who is prepared to support it, I realize Public Integrity is NOT in the news business. We’re in the business of making American capitalism more inclusive. We’re in the business of strengthening multiracial democracy. We’re in the business of equal opportunity for children. We are in the business of capacity building.

As a follow to my prediction last year on building business infrastructure and not business models, this year, many news leaders will realize they are no longer in the business of eyeballs and attention. Instead, more news organizations will position themselves as social-impact business, while adhering to journalistic values in the execution of their missions. This will lead to new ways of working and raising revenue:

A deepening relationship with audience. Earlier in the year, we hosted an event with OpenNews on how to center working-class women’s voices to avoid perpetuating the status quo. This event taught us how to learn from our audience and center our work to better serve them. This process helps news organizations focus on how their journalism and products can better serve their audience.
Journalism with intent. With a deeper understanding and engagement of the audience, we can plan our journalism to have impact. For example, Public Integrity added “equipping the public with knowledge to drive change” as part of our mission statement. Even though we are not in the business of advocacy, our content must be created with the intent to galvanize others to take action, from policymakers to decision-makers to parents to everyday individuals. If no one acts based on our investigations, then our mission to counter the corrosive effects of inequality will fail and we fail as an impact-making business.
Diverse revenue sources. A few large news organizations dominate the business of audience reach, but Public Integrity can compete with much larger players when it comes to mission and impact. Anyone who cares about tackling systems of inequality is a potential funder, sponsor or donor for Public Integrity, not just those who are passionate about journalism. When funders ask why they should support Public Integrity, we can clearly state how our work goes beyond news to combat systems of inequality.

Paul Cheung is the CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

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