Do I look tired? Because I am tired. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t regret a thing about my four years building an independent news nonprofit for Columbus. Not even the insomnia and stress wrinkles. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little burned out. At the same time, there’s been new life breathed into Matter and I am more optimistic than ever.
That wasn’t the case just a couple of months ago. This past August, my cofounder and our outgoing editor Jaelynn Grisso was preparing to move across the country, and I told our team that Matter was going into a chrysalis. I quietly worried it might never be resurrected.
But at the 11th hour, the stars aligned for us to hire Andy Downing and hatch a plan to refresh our publication with him at the helm.
Andy has been a journalist for two decades, and for the last 10 years he’s won awards for creating some of the most captivating coverage of arts, culture and community issues in the city. He left Columbus Alive earlier this year, just weeks before national media conglomerate Gannett laid off numerous Columbus staffers and closed Alive, the city’s only remaining alt-weekly.
In case you don’t know, things are dire in Ohio. Our state lost 43 percent of its journalists from 2012-2018 (and that was before the most recent layoffs). As corporations continue to slash the staff at local publications, community investment is absolutely necessary to save the local news. And if Columbus doesn’t answer this call, more corruption will go unchecked and less of our vibrant community will be celebrated.
So, it just made sense that our fledgling startup news nonprofit would become the new home for Andy’s work, especially at a time when quality coverage was disappearing from our city.
We at Matter have learned tough lessons related to burnout in our startup years, and to keep this nonprofit and publication running we know we need to adapt our model and fund a small staff. We have set some ambitious revenue goals for 2023, and we need support from more Columbus donors, foundations, grantors and businesses to help us fund key staff positions so we can grow sustainably.
We aim to raise $47,000 during this winter NewsMatch campaign to support an editor position for Andy through 2023 (the $30,000 we are raising from the community will unlock $17,000 in matching funds from NewsMatch). Plus, we still have a revenue fellowship from LION Publishers that will allow us to hire someone into a part-time fundraising role in the new year. Having a small staff will be a game changer for us and allow us to grow naturally.
We are asking the Columbus community to help us raise $7,000 more before January 1 to help us hit our goal. We are more than two-thirds of the way to our community fundraising goal and we are putting faith in Columbus to help us start 2023 with the resources we need. We need small and large donors, foundations, business sponsors, organizations and all others passionate about our work to invest in our plan for sustainability and to help us spread the word.
There are many reasons it’s a worthwhile investment.
First, there’s Andy - the person you’re investing in.
I knew from being familiar with Andy’s work that he is well aligned with Matter. He shares a passion for providing humanizing community news from a more grassroots perspective. What I didn’t expect is just how smart, strategic and energetic Andy is.
He’s continually impressed me over the past months as he’s carefully crafted changes to our model, coverage, website and team that align with Matter’s mission to provide engaging local news that compels locals to be more active in their communities. And he’s proven his ability to get small donors and businesses to back it, as he’s raised the majority of the $20K we’ve received so far this campaign. On both the editorial and fundraising fronts, he’s simply crushing it. Just imagine what he can do with even more job stability.
Second, there’s strong evidence our new model can succeed.
We’re publishing on a near-daily basis now and we have broadened our coverage under three new sections: community issues, culture and overlooked voices of Columbus. We are even more holistic now as we are still covering serious community issues, but now we are also celebrating the artists and others who make this a dynamic city.
When we set out, our mission was to go deep on the issues that mattered. We spent months tracking down stories and creating multimedia presentations to support our work. And we worked hard to meet our audience where they’re at, including community events, protests and on social media. But this detailed, nuanced and on-the-ground reporting was incredibly labor intensive for a tiny startup, making it hard to publish regularly, which stunted our audience and revenue growth.
To address these pain points, we launched our publication refresh on November 1. By increasing the scope of our coverage beyond development and policing, we are able to serve an even larger part of our community. And switching from multimedia to primarily written features allows us to produce more content. We are excited about these changes, and we’ve seen a 180 percent increase in web traffic since we refreshed on November 1, as well as an increase in interest from sponsors and advertisers.
We’re not surprised by these results, as we’ve seen how our peer news nonprofits in other similarly sized cities have excelled in building sustainability with the kind of model we are now employing. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest a publication like ours has potential in a metro area of 2 million people with limited independent city news.
We currently have 150 members and if we can work to secure just 1,000 regular donors at the average $13/month donation, we can fund a small staff of three. With 2,000 monthly donors, we can fund a full staff of six. 20,000 folks give to WOSU annually, so I think 2,000 is feasible for us in this market. Just a couple of local grantors, foundations or businesses making a large commitment could easily help us fund a staff as well, or at least provide a runway to give us the time needed to build up our membership base.
Lastly, there’s evidence our new model is demonstrating value and attracting local investors.
A big shout out goes to our 65 new members (monthly donors) and the organizations who have sponsored this campaign so far including the Johnstone Fund for New Music, Spacebar and the Columbus Arts Marketing Association.
One of the primary challenges we’ve faced has been the lack of news philanthropy culture in Columbus. Nonprofit news is a huge national trend, but it hasn’t hit Columbus the way it has peer cities. For example, there are no Columbus funds, grants or foundations that fund news, whereas a city like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, has its own news philanthropy fund. So, it’s important you help us spread this message of the news crisis and why investment in community news matters to a growing city like ours.
Now through the end of December, any single donation to Matter News will be doubled, while new monthly memberships will be matched 12 times (up to $1,000).
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