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December 7, 2020

Courtney Hurtt is building a better future for nonprofit newsrooms via NewsMatch. Here’s how.

Photo Credit: Justin Milhouse

Editors’ Note: This is part of an occasional series highlighting local news entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders who are making their communities stronger. Check out other posts about Coast Alaska, the New Mexico Local News Fund, and Santa Cruz Local.

Courtney Hurtt’s entry to journalism began with telling stories — and solving problems. 

After launching a community-centered blog chronicling the story of Detroit’s bankruptcy and resurgence, Hurtt spent six years at WDET, the city’s public radio station, understanding and unpacking the operational challenges facing local news in the city.

She now digs into these challenges for the entire journalism industry as the program manager of NewsMatch. Through the nationwide NewsMatch campaign, which ends December 31, foundations match donations to hundreds of nonprofit newsrooms to increase end-of-year giving. Partners like the Institute for Nonprofit News, where Hurtt is based, and the News Revenue Hub help train the vetted newsrooms with coaching to learn how to fundraise and build local support along with the match dollars.

Starting with 57 newsrooms in 2016, NewsMatch has helped hundreds of nonprofit newsrooms raise $100 million from hundreds of thousands of people — a 750 percent return on investment for every philanthropic dollar contributed. More than 250 nonprofit newsrooms are participating in the 2020 campaign, a 35% increase from last year. 

As NewsMatch is in full swing, we thought we’d check in with Hurtt to get her take on the campaign, what drew her to it in the first place, and what she’s excited about in the future. (Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)  

What does it mean to be the NewsMatch program manager? What does the role hold for you?

Coming from a local news outlet and really working through the kinks of establishing programs and content that reaches a broader audience in public radio, it means being able to figure out how we support that type of work. I love the fact that I’m now in a position where I’m looking at that scenario at scale. I’m able to see how organizations that are doubling down on serving communities with information they need or whether that be a regional community or on a specific topic. I love the opportunity to see at scale how they’re answering the question of “How do I sustain my organization?”

I love the opportunity to see at scale how they’re answering the question of “How do I sustain my organization?”

Courtney Hurtt

Why does the resilience of journalism matter to you?

When done well, journalism brings to the forefront different perspectives and ideas and puts them in context and conversation with one another. That’s really where my passion lies in journalism. The power of that is to build understanding and empathy within a community and also to help to identify opportunities for positive change.

One of the questions we ask ourselves is how are we going to restore a sense of community. For the past four years it feels like America has gotten more and more divisive. What is the role that journalism will play in creating opportunities for there to be understanding across different perspectives and experiences? How will it create an opportunity for those ideas that have traditionally been silenced or misrepresented to be understood? It’s incredibly important.

The NewsMatch campaign this year, with the theme of “news for the people, with the people” really gets to the heart of that. You joined NewsMatch in July. What does a day in your life as NewsMatch program manager look like?

I spend half my time structuring the program, making decisions, gathering information and the other half is providing advice and support to newsrooms, pretty explicitly. Some days I’m making sure that all the stakeholders are well informed about what’s happening or I’m trying to gather the information so that a decision can be made amongst all the engaged stakeholders. 

The part I really love is being able to speak 1:1 or in groups with newsrooms and provide really concrete answers to their questions, really concrete solutions to their problems. For instance, I helped a member of one organization who was working on a letter for high-level donors. She had a written letter and we literally walked through it and edited it together: framing it to build incentive, creating a narrative for those donors to take action and support her organization. I love really getting to get my hands on the questions and issues that the organizations face and being a thought partner.

A reporter from inewsource stands at a distance from a man in a red shirt, holding a microphone on a pole while wearing a mask as she interviews him on the sidewalk in front of a white wall.
A reporter for inewsource conducts an interview during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Zoë Meyers

Often we hear there aren’t enough people with those sorts of business and fundraising skills in the field of journalism. A lot of your experience is on the operations or marketing side of the newsroom. What in particular brought you into journalism and what motivated you to stay? 

It was nothing I sought out or looked for or imagined myself in. At the time that I began to work at WDET [in December 2013] I had switched from a full-time to a contractor role in marketing with a bike company in Detroit. 

At the time, Detroit was undergoing a huge transformation in terms of entrepreneurship but also a change in the type of folks moving into the city and why. [I developed a] blog that was a kind of cultural analysis, an ongoing analysis of the transformation but the unique element was that it did it through essays and documentary photography. I worked on this in my spare time and even participated in a startup accelerator to see if I could make it a business. But as I was working on it, the WDET general manager reached out to figure out if there was an opportunity to partner. But I didn’t consider what I was doing journalism at all — it was really content in my opinion. It was about shaping the narrative of a rapidly transforming city. That aligned with what WDET was trying to do, too.

My first role at WDET was operating the social media and marketing channels for promoting the station and membership, not involved with editorial content. Working at a news organization was a huge learning curve for me. My reaction and interaction with the news was not typical for most public radio consumers that grew up listening to public radio or subscribed to publications. That wasn’t the type of person I was when I began working in journalism so I really had to be educated in journalism. Part of that learning curve has been frustrating and I’ve questioned if this is even the field I could see myself working. But what’s kept me in it are always the opportunities for me to play some part in advancing and challenging it in a productive way.

Did you ever have a hankering to get involved in the editorial side? 

The exciting part to me was the challenge in advancing the concept of journalism. The biggest opportunity, the biggest challenges were not in editorial but in product, marketing, framing the content but not necessarily making the content. At the time the innovation wasn’t around how to report but around how to make reporting accessible and how to create mechanisms to get folks’ input into our reporting. All that was not in the art of being a journalist.

Now it’s changed — those conversations are happening across the organization. In the early onset when it came to engaged journalism it was the digital person’s responsibility to think about that, not the person reporting the story. That responsibility has expanded slowly, but considerably.

What kind of communities, tools, or mentors or resources did you find supportive in your career growth? What helped you think differently?

The systems thinking workshop hosted by Democracy Fund and Journalism+Design in 2015 was totally an eye opener. I’ve gravitated toward the concept ever since: the notion of there being a lot of activities happening at the same time and how these things are interconnected. These really helped me to realize where my work contributed to advancing WDET and news and information in Detroit, and now for advancing the industry. When you work in a news organization, especially when you’re the first of your position, your purview is so limited to what you deal with every day that it could be discouraging if people don’t understand what your role is. You’re forging your way into a purpose at the organization especially if you don’t come from journalism or you’re trying to challenge it or take a new approach. In systems thinking, even if the day-to-day feels like a grind, you’re able to put your role into perspective and see the impact you’re having. So that was really encouraging. 

 If new forms of journalism allow us to interact with more diverse audiences in ways that are really valuable to them, how do you convert that into revenue for your organization?

Courtney Hurtt

WDET’s general manager at the time, Michelle Srbinovich (now managing director for civic news organization success at the American Journalism Project), was the type of person who really was encouraging and empowering to me. If I had an idea of something that was really outside the box, she was like “go for it!” That made a huge difference for me to have opportunities where I could learn about the field. One of those was doing Framed by WDET, a photo project which seems really off the beaten path for a radio organization, but we learned a lot through that in terms of audience and revenue diversification. In 2018 a grant from Democracy Fund was instrumental in us beginning to answer the revenue question: If new forms of journalism allow us to interact with more diverse audiences in ways that are really valuable to them, how do you convert that into revenue for your organization? That was the first time we asked ourselves that question. We knew engaged journalism had value but we couldn’t articulate how it had value to our bottom line. That really prepared me for the work I’m doing at NewsMatch. 

As you became more familiar with NewsMatch through WDET’s participation in it, what about it appealed to you as a participant and now as program manager? What energized you to join the team?

It was what we would call low-hanging fruit. You engage with it, you activate, and then you reap a pretty significant reward. I loved that aspect of it. Sometimes there are so many hoops that you have to jump through to get funding and support, and NewsMatch made it super, super simple for participants.

As a program manager, it is so cool to see the whole landscape and to have a bird’s eye view of how nonprofit newsrooms are working to sustain themselves at every single level. I’m realizing that so much is untapped that as the program year over year progresses and gets to strengthen these organizations. It gives me a lot of hope for the future. Once organizations are able to learn and leverage these opportunities, it shows how a sustainable ecosystem for nonprofits news could eventually become the norm. 

El Tímpano’s sandwich board for socially distanced outreach, with art by Daniel Panko. Credit: Madeleine Bair

What aspects of the program, especially in the funder area, do you think are strongest? Where do you think it has the biggest area for growth?

One of the opportunities that is the strongest is by far the pooled fund concept. It’s a very smart way to scale support for an investor or funder to support nonprofit news. It is so designed to be able to easily scale and have a significant impact for the field. It’s almost a no-brainer if you’re interested in funding journalism. That is a unique component to it. 

The fact that it’s supporting nonprofit news is a hugely unique component to it. The revenue models for nonprofit news are very different. Editorially there are a lot of similarities between for- and non-profit, but when it comes to building sustainable businesses those strategies are different. I like the fact that it focuses on that component. 

For instance, NewsMatch is one-dimensional in the sense that it’s arming newsrooms with resources to get donors in the door but it doesn’t address retention; it doesn’t address levels management of moving people up from making a $10 donation to a $15. It’s focused just on making a gift to support which is the first step. Once you have a database of donors there are all these strategies you can apply to grow beyond getting folks to give you a gift. That’s a huge opportunity for growth. 

What gives you hope about the sustainability of journalism going forward?

People are learning more about the different types of nonprofit or community news outlets. There are different needs. Bettina Chang from City Bureau did a TedX talk on this concept and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that a bunch of us have been thinking about over the past year.  The concept says there is information in news that can be produced at every level, from the basic level of what people need to survive all the way to self actualization or being connected to your community that helps you to just thrive in life. There are certain types of information in news that caters to each of those levels. What I love about this concept is that it helps organizations start to think about where they fit and whether they’re imbalanced on purpose or without even realizing it. Should we be thinking about different revenue strategies for organizations that are primarily serving or producing news and information at these various levels? That’s one really exciting thing to watch over the next two to three years. 

When we talk about sustainability of nonprofit news, we could start to think about it in segments so it’s not a one-solution-fits-all. The conversation is shifting for us to explore which best fit certain types of newsrooms and certain types of communities. That’s one exciting thing that I feel like NewsMatch has the ability to begin to think about, too. How could we imagine opportunities for different types of newsrooms to make sure they can take advantage of our offerings as a program? Maybe it’s different for different types of organization, and that’s what I’m taking a moment to listen to and figure out through this year’s campaign. 

Learn more and get in touch with NewsMatch: The 2020 campaign ends December 31.

  • For funders: Contact Courtney at courtney@inn.org and Josh Stearns at jstearns@democracyfund.org if you would like to learn more about the funder match and opportunities for local, topical, and DEI-supportive funds.
  • For newsrooms: Become a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News to participate in next year’s campaign. The 2020 deadline was July 31.
  • For ecosystem builders who don’t quite feel like they fit in their organizations: We see you! The niche work you’re doing in your communities and newsrooms is not unnoticed. Sign up for the Local Fix, a weekly roundup of inspiration and ideas to build more connective communities for people who care about local news.
  • To learn more: How NewsMatch Makes a Difference for Nonprofit Newsrooms Around the Country — Knight Foundation 

NewsMatch is generously supported by Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project, the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust, the Inasmuch Foundation, the Independence Public Media Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Present Progressive Fund at Schwab Charitable, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation.