Many of the native digital news organizations are small, nonprofit and young. Of the 438 smaller sites examined, more than half (241) have three full-time staffers or less. It is also clear that the nonprofit business model is an attractive option for many of these outlets. In our sample, slightly more than half of the 402 organizations where we could identify a business status were nonprofits (204.) And many of them are very new. Nearly 30% (120) of the smaller outlets for which we have starting dates have come into existence since 2010. Fully 85% were started since 2005.
Many of the smaller digital organizations focus on filling reporting gaps in local news and investigative journalism. Among the smaller organizations studied, more than half (231) identify themselves as primarily local or hyperlocal outlets—often covering events at the neighborhood level. Nearly four dozen (45) identify themselves as investigative in nature. In addition, several of the largest nonprofits—ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting—produce investigative journalism, often in collaboration with legacy news organizations.
Among the larger digital outlets, a number are investing substantially in global coverage. The editorial focus of the 30 larger sites ranges from sports (Bleacher Report) to tech (Re/Code) to investigative (ProPublica.) But some of the general interest outlets are expanding overseas in a significant way: The Huffington Post wants to grow its reach to 15 countries from 11 this year; Vice has 35 overseas bureaus; BuzzFeed hired a foreign editor to oversee its expansion into such places as Mumbai, Mexico City, Berlin and Tokyo. The two-year old business-oriented Quartz has reporters in London, Bangkok and Hong Kong and its editorial staff speaks 19 languages.
Digital news organizations are hiring a mix of legacy and non-legacy journalists, with a clear emphasis on new storytelling skills. One area where legacy skills are in demand is investigative work. The Investigative News Network estimates that at least 80% of the journalists working at its 92 outlets are from legacy jobs. At ProPublica, 25 of its 41 staffers are legacy transfers. But increasingly, editors of digital natives say they are hiring younger staffers with better digital instincts and skills. “The training of traditional journalism is not perfectly suited to what digital audiences are looking to read,” says Quartz editor-in-chief Kevin Delaney.
The loss of legacy media jobs in recent years has been concentrated in the print sector. The American Society of Newspaper Editors counted 38,000 full-time newsroom jobs in 2012, down from more than 54,000 a decade earlier. And in 2013, there were hundreds of new layoffs at such companies as Gannett and Tribune. The Ad Age Data Bank, which tracks all magazine industry jobs, said 26% of magazine jobs were lost in the past decade. That does not include more recent layoffs such as the 500 overall Time Inc. cuts recently announced as part of a corporate restructuring.
For all the expansion, it is far from clear there is a digital news business model to sustain these outlets. First Look Media founder and funder Pierre Omidyar has acknowledged that solvency is at least five years away. The Huffington Post has 575 editorial employees, but is still only “flirting with profitability” according to analyst Ken Doctor. Global Post, which recently signed NBC as a content partner, has never operated in the black. Asked if the explosion of hiring suggests that digital news has figured out a successful business model to sustain those jobs, one veteran industry observer responded simply: “No. That’s the irony.”