Student researchers: Successful “watchdog” websites focus on audience engagement, distribution partnerships, diverse revenue streams

Nonprofit “watchdog” websites find success by building connections with people, engaging them through online conversations, establishing distribution partnerships and diversifying revenue sources, a team of graduate journalism students reported today.

Nonprofit Watchdog News: What’s Working?” was produced by seven journalism students at the Medill School at Northwestern University. The students researched and conducted interviews with the leadership at nine local news organizations focusing on investigative and public affairs coverage, including the Bay Citizen, St. Louis Beacon, and Wisconsin Watch.

From this research, writers Diana Novak and Brian Warmoth divided up the sites into three groups: broad-based news websites, partnership-based investigators and print-first publishers.

Broad-based news websites, such as the Bay Citizen, make an effort to cover a wide range of news in their communities in addition to their investigative components. Some have publishing partnerships with other media, such as The New York Times.

Partnership-based investigators, such as Wisconsin Watch, concentrate on investigative projects that are mainly published through news partners. These outlets maximize their reach by working with traditional media.

Print-first publishers, such as the Chicago Reporter, include the oldest “watchdog” organizations examined by the class. Historically they focused their energies on publishing in a print magazine; now they also have to adapt to digital platforms.

“We hope this report will help similar investigative news organizations understand what it takes to survive in the changing media world,” Novak said.

The students identified eight “lessons from non-profit watchdogs” that other sites might emulate to maximize their impact and sustainability:

  • Build audience connections and revenue through in-person events
  • Devote attention to managing comments
  • Go beyond articles to meet audience needs
  • Reach out to readers for story ideas and content
  • Plan editorial strategy based on the resources available
  • Extend reach through partnerships with other media
  • Track the distribution and impact of the journalism
  • Diversify revenue sources, with a focus on small donors

The students are enrolled in Medill’s Community Media Innovation Project class, which is trying to strengthen the website and digital strategy of the Chicago Reporter, a publication that focuses on investigating issues related to race and poverty in Chicago. The class has been documenting their work and what they’ve learned at

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