Listen to the episode here:


Sue Cross, the recently retired executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), shares her insights on the remarkable growth and impact of nonprofit news. She highlights the evolving landscape of newsroom founders, the crucial role of community support, and strategies to maintain journalistic independence from funders.

Cross also addresses the challenges of scaling and funding newsrooms in underserved communities, the necessity for national news to be informed by local stories, and the complexities involved in converting from for-profit to nonprofit models. Her reflections offer valuable insights into sustaining local journalism and fostering innovation within the nonprofit sector.

Episode chapters:
(00:02:47) – Growth of INN and nonprofit news
(00:07:21) – The evolving profile of newsroom founders
(00:10:56) – Community relationships and support for newsrooms
(00:15:06) – Maintaining journalistic independence from funders
(00:18:25) – The challenges of scale and funding for underserved communities
(00:23:14) – Unique challenges facing nonprofit newsrooms
(00:27:34) – The need for national news to be informed by local news
(00:34:23) – Converting from a for-profit to a nonprofit newsroom
(00:45:22) – Career trajectory and evolution as a leader
(00:53:04) – Advice for support organizations
(00:56:10) – Rapid-fire questions
(01:03:15) – Local recommendations (Los Angeles)

Links:

 

Bio:

Sue CrossJournalist Sue Cross is a leading social entrepreneur in news media, advising journalists, philanthropists, investors and civic leaders on media development – strategic and practical ways to save and reinvent public access to trusted journalism. She specializes in leveraging networks and nonprofit strategies to sustain and support strong newsrooms. 

From 2015 to 2024, Cross led development of the U.S. nonprofit news sector as CEO and executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News. Under her leadership, the INN Network grew to nearly 500 news organizations supporting more than 4,000 journalists, and funneling more than $13 million a year in strategic philanthropy and investment to newsrooms serving thousands of communities.

Cross previously launched digital video services, expanded Spanish language news wires and developed digital products as senior vice president for the Associated Press global news agency, following a career as reporter, editor and digital business development lead. She serves on boards including Stanford University’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, the State Court Report at the Brennan Center for Justice, the Emma Bowen Foundation and Block Club Chicago.  She lives in LA.

 

Full transcript:

(recorded via Riverside.fm; transcript automated via Castmagic.io, mostly unedited)

SUE CROSS [00:00:00]:And there also was a feeling at the time, oh, these poor journalists, how are they gonna learn to be business people? This is a detriment that they have to overcome this. And there's a great book by a journalist named David Epstein called Range. And he talks about how people are very successful in complex or experimental fields if they have done many different things. And I've actually come to believe that journalists are incredibly well equipped to create experimental new businesses because they will go out and find the information. They don't assume they know everything. They assume they don't. They'll go seek help, figure it out, put it together. If it doesn't work, okay. On the—it's like on to the next story. The combination of skills for those who choose to take an entrepreneurial path, it fits pretty well. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:00:59]: Welcome to the Local News Matters podcast, where we explore pathways to stronger journalism, better businesses, and healthier communities. I'm Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association.  

This episode is another in an occasional series of exit interviews, this time with Sue Cross, who retired in January from her post as executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, or INN. At INN, Sue has played a leading role in shaping the trajectory of nonprofit news in the United States. We delve into her contributions to the sector, her strategic approaches to sustaining journalism, and her transition from the Associated Press to leading INN's expansive growth. Under her guidance, INN expanded to support thousands of journalists across nearly 500 news organizations, significantly influencing the landscape of nonprofit news and local news in general. 

Sue’s perspective sheds light on the unique challenges and innovations within the nonprofit sector. We discuss what those interested in starting a nonprofit, or in converting a for-profit to a nonprofit, should consider. We also explore broader trends affecting local news and how nonprofit models are uniquely positioned to address some of these challenges. 

Listeners will gain an understanding of the importance of community relationships in journalism, the role of innovation at the grassroots level, and the potential of nonprofit models to revitalize local news ecosystems. 

If you like this episode and what we're doing more generally, please follow in your favorite podcast app, leave us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts, and tell your friends about us. This is a side project and a labor of love, and your support means a lot. You can find past episodes, full transcripts, and relevant links, and sign up for our newsletter at localnewsmatterspodcast.com, or for lazy typists like me at lnmpod.com. You also follow us on most social media channels @lnmpod. 

And now I bring you Sue Cross. 

Growth of INN and nonprofit news 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:02:47]: Great. Well, welcome, Sue. Glad to have you on the podcast. 

SUE CROSS [00:02:53]: Thanks for having me. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:02:55]: Yeah. So when was your last day at INN? 

SUE CROSS [00:03:00]: January 5th. So I just came into the beginning, and then Karen Rundlet started the following Monday. But we had kind of a month of planning, so it was a good handover. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:03:10]: And it was you've been there nearly 10 years. Correct? 

SUE CROSS [00:03:14]: Yeah. Eight years. Just a little over eight years, which I think in my journalism career is the longest time I've done the same thing, which was actually kind of interesting to realize. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:03:29]: Yeah. So I think you started in 2015. Right? 

SUE CROSS [00:03:33]: That's right. I started in late 2015, and there were about a hundred nonprofit newsrooms in the country at that point. And it had been growing for a few years, but was still very nascent. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:03:47]: How many members did you have when you left? 

SUE CROSS [00:03:50]: It was somewhere between 450 and 500. And I think now it's just about hitting that 500 point. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:04:00]: Yeah. Quite a growth trajectory there. And that's you know, it's not just that your membership grew. The number of nonprofit newsrooms in the US has grown considerably. 

SUE CROSS [00:04:10]: Yeah. The numbers of newsrooms and also just the numbers have journaled us. While these as startups, they start small, the thing that so struck me by that this year is that there are at least 4,000 journalists out there working out of nonprofit newsrooms, and it may be closer to 5,000 at this point. In any case, it's one of the biggest collective groups of journalists, and they're all doing original reporting. So it's become a really significant part of the whole ecosystem. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:04:47]: And, of course, that's happening in an environment when the number of newsrooms and the number of journalists in those newsrooms is shrinking nationwide. So why do you think the nonprofit sector has gone the opposite way? 

SUE CROSS [00:05:00]: I think there are a lot of different reasons. I do think that being nonprofit in news is—some people say, oh, it's just a tax status, and it doesn't really matter. I don't think that's true, actually. I don't think the tax status matters much. But what it reflects, the relationship between the press and the public, between the newsroom and the community it serves, is fundamentally different. It's saying we belong to you. We're part of this. We're part of your community in the case of local news. 

SUE CROSS [00:05:36]: And everything we produce belongs to you, and we're here to benefit you. And that's a very profound difference. So I think the nonprofits are growing for a few different reasons, but that relationship is at the heart of it. They go to the community and say, okay. What are we gonna do about this news situation together? And that fundamentally reframes things, and communities are stepping up to support them. The second thing is that, yeah, there was this, there was this trending kind of tech tagline for a long time that innovation happens at the edges, and that was a big buzz phrase a few years ago. But the reality is it's true. At the edges, people have more room. 

SUE CROSS [00:06:22]: They things aren't working in big institutions, so they'll take greater risks. Something doesn't work, they're much more able to scrap it. There's no corporate to check with. They're much more nimble, and so they just try different things and different things work in different communities. And then I think the third big reason, and you've seen it there in Colorado, is this sense of collaboration and sense of working together to kind of experiment and try something new. You see that in some states and in some cities, Chicago's another, North Carolina. There's now more than 60 nonprofits here where I am in California, and they're more and more working together and forming networks. And, again, the structure of nonprofits just makes that a little easier, and it's part of the culture. And so I think those three things set them up for success in this kind of wild time. 

The evolving profile of newsroom founders 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:07:21]: And, you know, from what you've seen of these startups, you know, I imagine they run the gamut from, refugees, from legacy media to people with no journalism background who just see a need and wanna start filling it. What do you see in terms of founders? 

SUE CROSS [00:07:39]: Yeah. I did. That has evolved. Back when I started with INN in 2015, and I'd been a little bit involved with them prior to that even though I was still at the AP. Almost all of the founders were journalists and almost all, I mean, had come out of legacy media. If they were in any media, it was it was legacy in one form or another. And I think all of them brought an interest in creating something new to it. Today, it's a little more of a mix. 

SUE CROSS [00:08:10]: I suspect the majority are still journalists, but many more are younger. This might be the first thing. They wanna create something. When they come out of school, they're not aiming to work for the BBC or CNN. There is a really high interest, with Scripps. We created a rural reporting fellowship, and they were overwhelmed with applicants for it. And people are interested in local news and community building and so forth. So it's much more of a generational mix. 

SUE CROSS [00:08:46]: It's much more diverse, in every way, gender, race, income, you name it. And there also are a lot more non journalists. INN runs sessions for startups every couple of weeks. I still volunteer on those with Courtney Lewis who runs the INN Growth Programs. And frequently, there are people on that who are business people, civic leaders. Somebody just saying, alright. We lost our newspaper or they pulled the last journalist out of our community. What do we do? And sometimes I kind of say, how do we hire a journalist or how do we frame this up? How do we create, you know, conflict of interest policies? Just very basic things. 

SUE CROSS [00:09:29]: So the interest is broadening in that. I will say, you know, one of the things when I started at INN, I had come from AP and I had a very typical bias, I think, at the time in news media and technology, which was that scale was the marker of success. Like, you had to reach a certain kind of scale. And I really learned I was wrong on that. We see small outfits do very well. And there also was a feeling at the time, oh, these poor journalists, how are they gonna learn to be business people? This is a detriment that they have to overcome this. And there's a great book by a journalist named David Epstein called Range. And he talks about how people are very successful in complex or experimental fields if they have done many different things. 

SUE CROSS [00:10:25]: And I've actually come to believe that journalists are incredibly well whipped to create experimental new businesses because they will go out and find the information. They don't assume they know everything. They assume they don't. They'll go seek help, figure it out, put it together. If it doesn't work, okay, on the it's like on to the next story. And I actually think they're, the combination of skills for those who choose to take an entrepreneurial path, it fits pretty well. 

Community relationships and support for newsrooms 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:10:56]: Interesting. I hadn't heard it put quite that way, but I would agree. And I'm curious if you've seen an evolution in the way community institutions have related to these nonprofit newsrooms. You know, I think, you know, if you had a Metro Daily, you probably had a love-hate relationship with them and kind of took them for granted. But as that's changed, are you seeing, you know, community foundations and even chambers of commerce, step into the void and say, you know, we need to solve this. How can we help? Who can we fund? That sort of thing. 

SUE CROSS [00:11:33]: Yeah. I think so. Although, I'd put a big asterisk with that. I I think love hate whether it's a big newspaper or a small scrappy startup. There's always gonna be a bit of we need you, but, oh, we wish you hadn't reported that. You know, that and that's probably healthy. So I do see it's interesting. There was a gathering in New York City a few years ago of just journalists, all kinds of people worried about loss of local coverage in New York City. 

SUE CROSS [00:12:06]: There's, of course, all kinds of national and global media based there, but they were losing coverage of the boroughs, the local courts, and so forth. That, ultimately, that gathering was one of the catalysts that led to foundation of the city, which covers New York City itself, and some other good local efforts. But people were the journalists there were shocked that local elected officials and government officials were showing up at that meeting with great deep concern about the lack of local coverage. We've now gotten used to this because they realize what happens. And, also, when you look at the annual news match campaign, which puts up a national match to match local donations to news, small businesses are big players in those local donations. So business and local government officials realize the communities need coverage. And we do I heard from a city manager where a local newspaper is going to close town. He said, I can't be part of the board. 

SUE CROSS [00:13:08]: I mean, they I'm part of local government, but somebody you know, who can I talk to who can help us save something? And he was looking for people in the community foundation. So I think that local powers that be do recognize the need for news, and they see that kind of community weaving aspect of it. That said, I think any news outlet has to be prepared that some of their supporters are going to be annoyed if a story hits too close to home or local funders often are successful people. They're very tied into an established power base. And I do think it is harder for outlets outside established local power bases to raise local funding from organized local philanthropy, whether that's community foundations or big family foundations that are well established. They need a longer runway. It takes longer. They may be serving communities that are less affluent and will support them, but it just takes some added time in thinking. 

SUE CROSS [00:14:16]: And I think everyone's still trying to figure out how those pieces fit together. Community foundations, I think, can play a great role, and I hope they play a bigger role. As a journalist, I've seen them do great good, and the Miami Foundation handles, you know, a great deal of money going to journalism from Knight and others, for example. But we've also seen community foundations wanna have a say in the coverage or be uneasy with more investigative coverage. So I think it varies place to place and that's going to take an evolution in how they think about ensuring there is news, but ensuring it stays independent. 

Maintaining journalistic independence from funders 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:15:06]: Yeah. And I think that that very issue will become increasingly important if Press Forward is wildly successful. How do you recommend that publishers or, you know, development people who are engaging these community foundations and other local funders broach that topic? You know, I think a lot of us would go into that conversation just assuming the best and and and don't even don't even bring it up. What's your recommendation there? 

SUE CROSS [00:15:35]: Yeah. I think they do need to bring it up early and in a non way. I mean, I think the worst thing a journalist can do, and I've seen this happen, is whether they're an official community foundation or anyone, they call and say, hey, I have a story. I'm a donor. I just heard of something that is a story I think you guys should cover. The journalists may think, oh, you're a donor. You're trying to sway our coverage. Often they're not. 

SUE CROSS [00:16:03]: They just heard of a story that's a good story. And so you have to create those structures so they have someone to call who is at the frontline journalists in the newsroom. And the same about having that discussion with family foundations or community foundations. Most people have language in their grant agreement that says we don't influence what stories are chosen to be covered. But it's worth having a friendly discussion about that saying you value it because it's an independent look at something. And that's the very reason that people will come and check what is real here. So help us preserve that independence. And here's the language we use. 

SUE CROSS [00:16:44]: What do you think of that? What's your worst case scenario? What if you think we made a big mistake? Here's how we'd suggest. Here's who you could call. Here's how we suggest we deal with that. But having that conversation upfront before they get going, before they sign a grant agreement or anything is a really good idea because, one, it builds trust. You're talking about it openly. Let's put it on the table. You know, the how do we work through this? And that in itself builds trust. And the later inevitably, there will be a story that makes a mistake or a story that doesn't make a mistake, but exposes wrongdoing or something that just maybe it isn't wrongdoing, but it just wasn't the smartest thing. 

SUE CROSS [00:17:31]: It's holding public officials to account. It gets really uncomfortable. You can come back to that conversation and say, okay. We all sat down and talked about this. So let's kinda go back to our notes and think through this and keep a professional relationship, but keep the independence in coverage. And, usually, I think that works for people, but there are sometimes I do think it's important for all news outlets to have enough different sources of revenue that they can walk away from any source of revenue that seeks undue influence or who wants to suddenly come off the board because something was written about their company. They have to have that ability to walk away. And that's the other big reason for revenue diversity aside from being sustainable. 

The challenges of scale and funding for underserved communities 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:18:25]: You mentioned earlier communities that maybe don't have the resources. And I'm curious what you're seeing, you know, recently in terms of trends on diversity and coverage of under-covered communities, whether that's rural or, you know, economically disadvantaged or communities of color? What have you seen in terms of trends? And what's your hope as Press Forward gets going that, you know, the impact of this new round of, new initiative of focus on funding will spur? 

SUE CROSS [00:19:00]: A good set of questions here. Let me unpack those kind of a bit at a time. I do think the reason local is under such strain is that they don't have any scale. The smaller the community, the fewer companies, people, individuals there are to support news. And we're in this cultural shift where people have thought for generations, news should just be there. It should be free. And most people still think that. Right? But the economics of that don't really work. 

SUE CROSS [00:19:29]: So I think communities have to figure out what news do we most need, how can we afford it, How are we going to fund that? And the combination is a little different in every community. Some have robust retail advertising that flows through underwriting and sponsorships to nonprofits as well as for profits. Others do not. In rural areas, the challenge is distribution. How does somebody get that news? And they can go to a website and find it, but it's hard to really broadcast it out to people. So the challenges vary. But we are seeing people come up with really creative solutions. First of all, in communities that are very well covered, often they were never very well covered by mainstream media either. 

SUE CROSS [00:20:19]: Like, we all know it may seem like a newspaper that had hundreds and hundreds of reporters. Oh, they should cover every community, but that was spread across sports and every section of a newspaper and all those production jobs. They never really got down to neighborhood levels in a great many in most metro areas, I would say. So there's always been communities that haven't been covered. And because affluent communities have been most valuable to advertisers, those generally were covered unless affluent communities are less out of the mainstream. However, by age, race, income, any number of reasons were not. And so in those communities, when people have media that's serving them, they are really clicking in, and there's a high degree of engagement around it. You see that with MLK 50 and Memphis. 

SUE CROSS [00:21:18]: You see it all over the country with local outlets that are serving a community that has just felt like it didn't really have its news source. So they are able to find means to do it. I think the key in the long run we'll be seeing, can they find enough diverse sources of revenue that are practical in these small communities? So, typically, even a quite small newsroom will have three or four. They have individual donations. They have some organized philanthropy, local or state or national, more local and state for local outlets. And they do tend to have advertising and sponsorship. And then some of them hold events and sell tickets or have a variety of other revenue sources. So if they have three or four, they're in, you know, they have a stable base with several legs holding it up. 

SUE CROSS [00:22:15]: What you are starting to see is you're seeing a lot of networking, INN, LION, there are other networks. You have a big one in Colorado. And now it's happening locally. Philly resolved. Philly has a whole network of news outlets working together. Massachusetts has just been on fire with startups in part because they're replacing Gannett as Gannett has pulled back so drastically. And they are starting to work together. They'll call INN, they'll get together, but they're all saying, well, do you have an accountant? Oh, okay. 

SUE CROSS [00:22:52]: We need them half the time. So you're seeing these networks form. Right? And that makes smaller communities able to retain or keep a news outlet. So I think there's we're still in the early days of that, and that's forming up, and that is going to happen. 

Unique challenges facing nonprofit newsrooms 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:23:14]: What are you seeing particularly, you know, now as the biggest challenges that are facing nonprofit newsrooms that are unique to nonprofits? I mean, you know, everybody's struggling with sustainability and, you know, many of the same problems. What is unique to nonprofits that anybody starting one or supporting them needs to be aware of? 

SUE CROSS [00:23:37]: I think the challenge for nonprofits is also tied to their strengths. And that is they do need to invest upfront in those connections to the community. They need to build a board. The board in a nonprofit is not just a technicality. It's really the connection to the community. It's evangelists, fundraisers, a brain trust, someone to be accountable to who's accountable to the community. And so building strong boards and getting people to serve on those is a challenge all start ups face, but it's particular for nonprofits. Those that have a strong board and retain a strong board do well, and they're able to grow and they have brought they're able to build broad community support. 

SUE CROSS [00:24:25]: The other big challenge for nonprofits, it's maybe just a different flavor of what for profits face as well. For profits, you know, have been free based on advertising or just the attention of the audience. And that has been disrupted by technology, I think, globally and irreversibly. So they have that problem in the nonprofit world, a different flavor that is just that none of us are used to paying for news. And so that's a cultural shift. If you want this, just like if you want the high school sports teams, you're probably gonna buy that candy from the booster club, you know, or these things if you want in your communities and you want to live a certain way, you're going to think about how to actively support it. We're not used to thinking of news that way. So that's a big cultural shift. 

SUE CROSS [00:25:20]: And that's when I'm hopeful. I am hopeful about Press Forward in that talking about it and getting the word out to a much broader range of people, I think can help with that cultural shift. Because it is a big cultural shift, and it's global. And it's, while it seems like going from a hundred to 500 newsrooms is fast, it's not a it's not as fast as the commercial models going off a cliff. And so there is a sense of urgency. There is a sense of much more to do. The other challenge that's implicit in all that is that I think Pew has done studies. Most Americans assume nonprofits and charity and philanthropy is a big part of American life. It's like, was it one in every 10 jobs? Is it a nonprofit? It's a huge part of our economy and our life, but most people don't understand how it works. 

SUE CROSS [00:26:19]: And so there can be this assumption, oh, there are some big magical foundations out there, night foundation, but they're just gonna cover everything in our local community. That's not realistic. It is gonna be up to local communities to support local news, ultimately. So I think the key is look at Press Forward, look at big philanthropy as seed funding, as something that enables the innovation that convinces the community to step up and support. I think it needs that leverage. That's one of the reasons I remain very bullish about NewsMatch, which is that national matching program because the success of News Match is not the National Fund's success is how many local dollars does it incentivize? And that's the end game. That's what we all have to do. And I hope Press Forward works the same way. 

SUE CROSS [00:27:17]: I think if people sit back and think, oh, Press Forward gonna solve all the economic issues and we'll have local news. I think that would be an unfair expectation. I think it's a another strategic lever to figure out how do we talk to our communities about local news. 

The need for national news to be informed by local news 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:27:34]: Yeah. Absolutely. And that I think that's a real concern, in terms of how people understand the role of the, particularly, the large institutional funders. I was in conversation with one of the entities involved in Press Forward. And, you know, we asked her, you know, what keeps you up at night? What's your biggest concern about Press Forward? And she said the Mackenzie Scott effect that, when people hear about a large donation or when they hear about Press Forward, they think, oh, it's taken care of. I don't need to, you know, pay my $20 donation, you know, for my membership or whatever. 

SUE CROSS [00:28:14]: Yeah. That's why I think it has to be used very strategically to lift the local funding. The other thing I will say, we talked about the challenges of being in nonprofit. One of the assets that's going along in these mix of things that's making the field grow is that that line between what is local and what is national coverage. Those of us who've been journalists for a long time, that's crystal clear. It's like these segments of the industry is no longer crystal clear, and I think that's actually a very good thing. When you look at local news, it is, of course, vitally important locally. But the other thing is national news really should be and used to be much more informed by local news. 

SUE CROSS [00:29:00]: It trickled up through Gannett, through radio network, through NPR, through AP, through all these things and inform the national conversation, and now they've been kind of bifurcated. So there still is this huge local role, but they're also you are seeing networks form like the rural news network where they're all covering rural issues, and then they all of a sudden connect all those dots and raise a big national story, whether it's a trend story or breaking news. When you look at national news of our border issues and immigration, national news tends to be very, politicized, not in the news reports themselves, but it's reflecting statements of this politicized debate. But then if you look at local coverage of the border and immigration, there are now scores of small newsrooms covering immigrant communities and the actual geographic border region. And they have nuance, and they're going into in-depth and different angles. And so, collectively, you get a much fuller picture. And I think right now, that still tends to not necessarily bubble up to national news, but I think it's starting to more and more. So I think you'll see that play a bigger role. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:30:21]: You mentioned paying for news, and I'm curious whether INN had a strong stance about paywalls. You know, a lot of newsrooms have moved to that, but we've also seen a lot of examples, an increasing number of examples, of for profit and nonprofit not putting a paywall up, but saying, hey. If you wanna support this, pitch in. 

SUE CROSS [00:30:42]: It wasn't a strong—there is a philosophical basis and then there's a pragmatic. Philosophically and this is more me, it's not an I an official INN position, but nonprofits do exist on money that is taken out of the tax base. I think that matters. I think it compels you to be more transparent to tell the public how you're spending that money and to ensure the public good to make sure it's a bit that news is available to people who maybe cannot pay for it or can't easily pay for it. So that's the philosophical basis of, yeah, if you can make this news available for free, that's really serving democratic needs. It's serving civic needs. It's serving public good needs. So, philosophically, I'd rather see the news free, but I think there are place—Block Club Chicago charges in communities that are affluent and not in communities that aren't and makes it all work together. 

SUE CROSS [00:31:48]: I think that's fine. Pragmatically, I think as you said, people keep trying paywalls and then they back off of it. You know, I subscribe to a lot of paid things and I can, but that's kind of my business to subscribe to good news media. So people can, but I think overall, you are seeing a generational shift. There have only been a few studies, but people have found that younger Americans are more likely to donate for media news and less likely to subscribe to it, whereas older Americans are more likely to subscribe. So I think we need to watch that and see what happens and where that evolves just on a pragmatic basis. I think in many communities, the messaging is clearer. We're here as part of the community. 

SUE CROSS [00:32:44]: We're here as an asset, so we're not gonna lock you out if you can't pay for it, but please support it. And that messaging is working. You're seeing donations go up. You're seeing the scale of the industry go up. As long as that's working and if there is this generational shift, I think you are going to see more open news. Yeah. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:33:06]: You know, and early on in this conversation, you talked about how nonprofit is in it's really more than just a tax status. But I've also seen an evolution in how nonprofit newsrooms and support groups and funders think about their role in the ecosystem. And I think there used to be some unnecessary tension. And I think right now, there's the sense that we need all comers. We need a big tent because the needs are so drastic. And, certainly, we should all, I think, come to this with a public service mindset. 

SUE CROSS [00:33:41]: Keep in mind, most my stats may be slightly out of date, but I don't think they've moved that far. In average, the average nonprofit newsroom is giving away its news, providing its news reporting to 20 other news media. A great majority of those are for profit. So there's no us versus them. As resources become more constrained, naturally, you do get ins those tensions of us versus them. But I would agree with you. I don't think they're unfortunate. The public's not looking at it. 

SUE CROSS [00:34:15]: We're in an urgent situation of ensuring there's more news out there, however we do it. 

Converting from a for-profit to a nonprofit newsroom 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:34:23]: And I wanna head into talking about converting from a for profit to a nonprofit. You know, for profits are still a vital part of the ecosystem and particularly in smaller communities where you might have a family owned newspaper. You know, that's just part of the culture there in communities of color. I think ownership can often be particularly important. So I just wanna acknowledge that. But if you are a newsroom who's thinking about moving to for profit, you know, what do you—first of all, why do you think newsrooms might wanna consider that? Or why do they think about that conversion? 

SUE CROSS [00:34:59]: Yeah. I think there are a number looking at that conversion, and almost all of them are family owned or someone who's been really, really dedicated to their community. The biggest reason I hear from talking to family owned pay papers that are looking at converting, the biggest reason is there's no they are family owned and there's no obvious successor. And that goes hand in hand with it isn't really a profit making business anymore at the local level. So if somebody wants to create generational wealth, have a family business, I completely get that. That makes all the sense in the world, except I'm not sure it will going forward. And you're seeing that, and that's why families who are deeply dedicated, who are absolutely public service minded, who could have made much greater wealth doing any of 2, 000 other things, you know, are still doing it. But as they look forward, is it better to have something owned by the community? Or they do tend to get offers, but they tend to be from out of state investment houses that they don't sense has a commit have a commitment to the community or keeping any funds they pull out in the community. 

SUE CROSS [00:36:20]: So I think those are the biggest reasons you're seeing the shift. And then as people look, they just see that the model is shifting and this may be more sustainable. I think it would look different if we were all looking out and saying, oh, if you can just hang on 5 years, this is going to change, and then this will be a breakeven business again. But, unfortunately, I don't know anybody looking out and seeing that. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:36:45]: I know some newsrooms think about the conversion in part so they can have an easier time getting philanthropic funding. Is that, you know, how—what kind of expectation would you set for those who are thinking this? 

SUE CROSS [00:36:59]: There's a lot of that happening, and many have gotten project funding. Some of that, I think, has been okay, and some of it, I've gone on those sites and there's no accounting to the community. We were asked at INN to take part in a state fundraising campaign at the end of the year and combine it with NewsMatch, but it's a state with a number of for profit papers owned out of state. And we said, okay. Will you commit to keeping any of the dollars you raise in the state in the state? And they wouldn't. And we said, no. That so I see good behavior and bad behavior. And I think it just takes being transparent with the community, ensuring that if something's made with donor dollars that stays in the community, can't be sold along with the rest of the paper. 

SUE CROSS [00:37:49]: It's given to the local library or something of that sort. If the for profit company is sold later that there's some return of charitable funds to foundations or the other entities in the community that can put it to charitable use. So I think there's ways to do it, and it's just that people should think through those ways to do it. Again, ultimately, it's for the good of the community and that public service role. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:38:19]: And I know one obstacle that some particularly, you know, family owned businesses might have. They're worried about giving up control and even I was talking to the founder who left a corporate, you know, chain. He's like, look. I left there because I didn't want people on my you know, have their thumb on me. So how do you address that particular issue? 

SUE CROSS [00:38:43]: That is a really fair question. I think you do lose control. You give up control in a nonprofit model, and your board serves as that control for the community. So I always said, you know, I was CEO and executive director of INN, but I worked for the board. The board in a nonprofit is as close to an owner as you come. And even if you're the CEO, your staff. That's a really hard transition for somebody who's run a family owned business. But the reality is most CEOs or founders or owners are picking at least their initial board. 

SUE CROSS [00:39:22]: And then you and you write bylaws, and you create a structure that ensures the kind of organization you wanna see go forward. So I think owners have tremendous power to design the future of their news outlet with the community. They can't do it just go in a room and write exactly what they want it to be. They can, but that makes it harder to build that community support. So I think they need to do it with the community, but they probably have the greatest influence on determining where it goes. So I don't think they're powerless at all to do that. The other thing that comes up that I hear a lot is for profits can endorse political candidates. And in many communities, that's been an incredibly valuable role. 

SUE CROSS [00:40:11]: Whether you agree with the endorsements or hate them, you might vote with them or against them, but it is somebody sitting down and looking at these issues that the rest of us just stick our head in the sand for at least 8 months of the year and then suddenly, oh god. I gotta vote in a month. You know? I'm gonna do this. And so that's been valuable. Nonprofits cannot endorse political candidates. And, again, it's for good reason. They serve a different purpose. They're publicly funded in a different way. 

SUE CROSS [00:40:43]: So some newspapers in particular, I don't think that's been as big a deal for broadcasters, but newspapers have been reluctant to give that up. That said, I think this like many other things is part of a larger sweeping change. And that we're now seeing dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of nonprofit newsrooms produce election guides and hold election candidate forums and be the center of election information without endorsing. And often people say, no. I actually trust them because you don't endorse. You're telling me about them and leaving the decision to me. So I think that is an evolution and maybe public expectations or how the public assigns trust in election information, and we'll see where that goes. But that's the other hurdle I hear of. 

SUE CROSS [00:41:37]: And then the third is just, what do I do with these assets? I've got a building. The heartbreaking, hardest part I hear is that often these are family businesses. They have long time employees. You know, the guy who runs the press, a layout person, and they're trying to save their jobs. And, ultimately, they may not be able to because the product is changing. What the community wants is changing. And those are coming from the heart and the right place, but are really hard decisions. And so they can often save the paper, but it's not going to look like it did or being produced like it was 10 years ago even. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:42:24]: Yeah. The other thing I've heard, you know, I heard this more pre Salt Lake City Tribune conversion was how does advertising fit in this? And I think this is an evolving picture and even lacks some clarity from the IRS. But how is advertising treated, and do you have to worry about the percentage of advertising and all of that? 

SUE CROSS [00:42:43]: You do. For startups, I think this is a harder issue for conversions, and, actually, I don't think it's entirely clear. Salt Lake got and shared very good legal advice around it, and other people are looking at this. But it also some advertising is transactional. Right? A coupon. Right? It's just transactional. It's business. But some is more sponsorship underwriting where you're affiliating brand, but it's not, it's more of a charitable endeavor aligning with this thing. 

SUE CROSS [00:43:14]: So that's a point of development, I would say, and there isn't perfect clarity from the IRS about it. What I generally tell startups is don't worry about it. Of course, you're gonna pay taxes. If you make money and clear a profit on some ad sales, ATAX is on it. What a great problem to have. You know? When it gets up to a big portion of their operation or a big portion of their income, that's where it becomes trickier, and Salt Lake was in that situation. And so you do have to get legal advice and look at it and look at there have been a lot of tangential kind of IRS findings that you can kind of piece together, and people do that. But it's very particular to the circumstances, the share of the business coming from that, the share of the business effort attached to it, and so it is a bigger issue for conversions. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:44:14]: And then just last question on conversions. I assume that if someone is considering this, they should go to INN and there are resources and trainings and that sort of thing to help them get started? 

SUE CROSS [00:44:27]: There is a conversion guide on INN under resources. It is due for an update, but it's still a wealth of good information. And then there are other resources out there, Lawyers for Reporters, which is a pro bono legal referral service. They help with conversions. So do many private attorneys or some at Davis Wright Tremaine. There are ones who work in the documentary industry, which has both nonprofit and for profits, products, sometimes within the same company that can help with it. And, the TrustLaw, which is run and funded by the Thompson Foundation of Thompson Reuters origin also provides some pro bono guidance. 

Career trajectory and evolution as a leader 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:45:22]: And so now I wanna step back a little in maybe truer exit interview fashion. Just talk about your career trajectory and your experience at INN in particular and going from the AP, you know, a very large organization with a lot of resources to jumping in at INN and seeing that grow. How did you change as a leader? And what were some of your biggest learning, you know, highlights? 

SUE CROSS [00:45:53]: It definitely was a huge switch in many regards in just the scale of the dollars. And from AP is looking at things globally, systemically, and has a lot of different businesses supporting its news gathering. The similarity, though, is also there and that AP is overwhelmingly a mission driven organization. I think everybody who works there shares that. And it's the journalist at AP take enormous risks and endure a lot of danger and are dedicated in a way that is rather extraordinary. When you shift to these nonprofit startups, they're not necessarily going into war zones who are taking the risk in that way, but they are risking their family's livelihood. They're risking a lot because the depth of their commitment to producing journalism. So that is akin. 

SUE CROSS [00:46:58]: And the fun of INN, which was enormous, is you're working If you're only working with people who are working on their passion projects, I mean, that's enormously exciting. Like, you're you're nobody's kinda saying, oh god. I have to do this for another Wednesday, and I'm in my cubicle, and I'm not sure when to do it. I mean, they're just bubbling with ideas. Or sometimes it's anger and frustration, but still they're bubbling with this passion for it. And that was really fun. I think the biggest switch for me was going from I do have a systems focus and I think in networks, and it really tried to leverage INN as a network to build this growth. So the bad part was still there. 

SUE CROSS [00:47:47]: But to be perfectly honest, in the early days, when I was talking to these startups, I talked to them and they it's just one person or two people. And I think, oh my god. There's no way they could make it. And many of those, I will tell you that I just thought I didn't say it to them, of course, but I just thought after I'd hang up the phone, like, oh, I just don't see how they're gonna make it. Many of those are thriving today. So you've learned some humility in your own judgment. And that's where I learned to value the experimentation and that people it wasn't clear. Okay. 

SUE CROSS [00:48:22]: And funders immediately and still ask you, well, what's replicable? Do you see the patterns? Is it replicable? You see the replicable pattern that they are oriented and deeply woven into what the community actually wants and needs. That's the only common denominator. We're just starting to see common patterns in how they make money, how they partner, but it's still very early. So those patterns will emerge over the next 10 years or so, but they're still very early and there's still a lot more experimentation than replicating something from one community to another. So it took me a while to figure that out. And I had to come to a point of, I'd say there were two things in leadership. Three. One is we had to build a more varied team as this field was just exploding and the size of it. 

SUE CROSS [00:49:16]: And there were only three of us on the core team initially. So INN had to grow and support thousands of more people in this network and had that. And we, even before COVID, we were all remote because the people who joined INN, if we were able to hire wherever they were at and they had the skills, we were just able to put together a phenomenal team, and they're still phenomenal. And, so that was a huge plus. Building that varied team. The second was realizing the industry was growing into segments. So ProPublica, Mother Jones, Grist—you know, these big players are really critical to the whole ecosystem. They share knowledge. 

SUE CROSS [00:50:07]: They partner. They create subnetworks, but they have a whole different set of economics abilities. Their product is wildly different. Their distribution's wildly different. They do have local start ups. That's a whole thing. And then statewide news has some unique characteristics as well. So I think the balancing act at INN and in leadership was, okay, we're making hard choices every year. 

SUE CROSS [00:50:36]: What do we do that'll move the needle the most for the most people, and be critical. And so I think every year, and I'm sure this continues, there's things you weigh, there's 200 things you wanna do, and you really pick 20 or 12 and do them. And those others stay out there, and then you get to them. And then the final thing was not, you're making those choices where you think you'll make the most difference, and you're very honest with people, about what you think will work and doesn't work or what you're seeing will work and and not work. But I think one of the reasons the field has grown is that we did suspend judgment. We said, okay. If you wanna try that, we will support you as best we can. And that's where those unexpected successes and wins come up that you just people discover something new that works where they are. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:51:35]: Yeah. And just as a quick aside, you mentioned newsrooms that survived that maybe you didn't expect to. In my research, I found where I think you said 94% of your members have— that's the survival rate, which is phenomenal for any startup, particularly in this industry, I would think. 

SUE CROSS [00:51:55]: And that's when I first came the first time we ran those numbers, I thought this just can't be right. You know? Because the rule of thumb for startups is 50% survive. And I actually dug into it. And for nonprofits, it's something like maybe 70 or 80% are still you don't have a definitive closure, but they're still providing services. They're still doing what they do. So I always thought, okay. This will go down. And it did go down over the years. 

SUE CROSS [00:52:23]: It went from 4% to 6% that we found close, but it's still phenomenally high. I do think they're very resilient. I think that the community base of support is extraordinary and that you know, as the field gets bigger, there may be more closures, but I don't know. I mean, we've been watching that again now for almost 10 years, and they're not all easy years. I mean, it's been bull markets more than bear markets, but still the growth is pretty significant. So I am hopeful it's a model that's finally gets its place. 

Advice for support organizations  

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:53:04]: And, you know, I wanna ask about your advice for people in my position and around the country, you know, all the way up to the national foundations. So there's a lot of conversations, certainly, since I started at the press association that are around shared services that we can't have all of these, duplicative efforts on all these small organizations where they're stretched so thin. And so there's with Press Forward and a lot of other initiatives, there's just been increasing focus on support organizations. And so as someone who led a very successful one, what advice would you give to us and the support organizations on how to make sure we're doing what we need to be doing to do give support. 

SUE CROSS [00:53:48]: I think that's fair. I think there's two things. I do think shared resources matter, but I think it's a mistake if they are the primary focus for funders or for anyone because there are more and more. This is where technology can help. There are more and more off the shelf services. Right? You can use Justworks instead of hiring a payroll processor and a benefits person and a good deal of your accounting. So there are really efficient ways for much smaller organizations to operate than was true a decade ago. So you wanna make sure the shared services are something that these organizations really want and have to be beyond what's out there for other small businesses. 

SUE CROSS [00:54:38]: Journalists like anybody always think, oh, were you were unique. Well, your payroll is it? Honestly, really. You know? So you really have to think about what's unique and what needs to be unique to news and what is just out there. And then I think the support organizations, to some extent, are the facilitators of saying, yeah. We vetted these 8 CRM systems or let us collect what our members use them, and here's how they rank them. And you're the facilitator for helping people find the right fit rather than building something yourself. So it takes that constant calibration, I think. The other thing I'd say about shared services, I do think they're very important. 

SUE CROSS [00:55:22]: They can save a significant percentage that matters for all type of news organizations, but they can't be the key focus because they're never gonna save enough. The key focus has to be generating enough support to support original reporting. You can have an Axios. You can have all kinds of organizations that are packaging, rebundling news. But unless you can generate the revenue to do the original recording, none of that, that all kind of falls away. So I still think that the even shared services need to be focused on their cultural shift and that discussion of how do we fund original trusted fact based recording. 

Rapid-fire questions 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:56:10]: And so then the final segment, rapid fire questions. And my questions will be quick, but your answers don't have to be. 

SUE CROSS [00:56:15]: Okay. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:56:17]: So first question is compared to a year ago, are you more or less optimistic about the future of local news? 

SUE CROSS [00:56:25]: Oh, I am more optimistic about it. Much more. One, I've seen continued growth. I still spend half my week talking to startups and people trying to figure out their strategies, because I love doing it and working with them. And there's more and more. I actually think AI what's that? I don't know if it's a silver lining. I mean, I just think we're going to be plagued with these tsunamis of crap and algorithmically generated, I don't even wanna say information, stuff. And I do think you are seeing people go back to, do I know this journalist? Can I go to a meeting? Can I see a live interview? Can I engage? And so I think local news where people know their local newsroom is probably gonna be seen as more important rather than less. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:57:25]: So you may have tipped your hand on answer to this next one, but does AI fill you with more hope or dread when it comes to journalism? 

SUE CROSS [00:57:32]: It's both, and it depends on the day which side of that teeter totter I would be sitting on. I think the tools can be very useful. I think look. I was just thinking about this this morning because I was thinking about which is creepier, the Apple ads smashing all the instruments of creation or Google saying leave the googling to us, which is terrifying because search already narrows what you see in a way that is causing global disparities and really horrible social impacts. Unintended, not their intent. But if you combine that yet more and you're turning over your judgment and what you know entirely to an algorithm controlled by a private company, I think that's very dangerous for not just journalism, but democracy, global peace, go from there. So that aspect of AI, I think of it as regulated. I think if people learn that human judgment is different than algorithmic judgment driven by commercial needs, it could be okay. 

SUE CROSS [00:58:44]: But I think we're in a dangerous in between period here. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:58:48]: Messy desk or clean desk? 

SUE CROSS [00:58:50]: Oh, messy. Very messy. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:58:52]: Do you have a favorite failure? We like to talk about you know, particularly on the West Coast where you are in up at Silicon Valley. Fail fast. It's failure's not a bad thing, but we don't talk about it very much, particularly in journalism. 

SUE CROSS [00:59:07]: Oh, failures. I mean, if I go back to being a reporter, I certainly made mistakes in doing that. I think not to repeat too much, but I do think my early faith of this will all be clear quickly and that there's a system. And if we just detect it thinking that growth happened that way, really was a mistake. And had I valued experimentation properly to begin with, I think we could have done more to encourage more of it and been a louder voice with funders encouraging it as well. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [00:59:46]: It's—this is a very difficult field. Nonprofits can be very difficult. Running a support organization can be challenging. Do you have a favorite place or thing you like to do to just restore yourself and maintain your sanity? 

SUE CROSS [00:59:59]: Yeah. I get outside. I garden in the yard, and then I hike a lot. And, that kind of balances out sitting and looking at the screen, which I do still do way too much. So I think the, you know, journalism for photographers and videographers, it's a very physical job. But for most of us at the keyboard, it's not. So doing something tangible, building something tangible, volunteering in a tangible way that you're not in your head and you're not on your computer is really important. And I have this discussion a lot with people who founded everything from PBS shows to nonprofits to newspapers. 

SUE CROSS [01:00:46]: I do think you always have to be conscious that people in the future aren't going to do things the way you did or that you did in the past, and I think that's truer now than ever. I'm not saying I always did this perfectly. So it might be more advice than what I was able to do, but I do think being open and being more of a coach than a director in times of rapid change is more important than ever. It's not the least bit helpful to tell somebody how you did something 15 years ago and why that was a win or this was a fail because the context has changed a lot. But if you can hear them out and say, have you thought about it this way? Could you approach it that way? Or what seems the biggest problem or the path forward there, then your experience can have huge value, but it's not as it's not a let me tell you what I did kind of leadership. It just won't work in this time. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [01:01:47]: So you alluded to still taking calls, and I know you've got you know, you're still doing some consulting. So I don't know if you consider yourself really in retirement, but what do you—what's the thing you most are looking forward to doing? 

SUE CROSS [01:02:03]: The thing that I'm most enjoying already is just more flexibility. I do spend less time at the keyboard. I'm doing a lot more traveling. I'm about to head to Korea for three weeks, and I have more flexibility to do that. And I really love that because I've worked a lot of hours for a whole lot of years. And so it's that flexibility of time and being able to explore things that interest you the balance of that, what interests you versus, when I have to get done by Thursday at 5, you know, that kind of thing is great. But it is for me I expect to keep working a long time in various ways. I just I don't know that I'll go back to full time or something. 

SUE CROSS [01:02:47]: It's more of a sabbatical and then being able to consult. And I do a lot of pro bono stuff with people who I really admire what they're trying to do in journalism and figure it out because I do feel that sense of urgency, and I feel this is the field's gonna keep growing. So that's enormously fun for me. And I like journalists, so I don't—that line between is it vacation or working with a journalist? But for me, that's pretty blurred. 

Local recommendations (Los Angeles) 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [01:03:15]: So for someone who's visiting LA maybe for the first time or they just wanna discover something new, what do you recommend people do when they come to LA? 

SUE CROSS [01:03:25]: Oh my gosh. LA, I will say first of all, LA is a better place to live than to visit because when you live here, you live in a neighborhood, and you don't spend hours in traffic, and you know where you wanna go. So pick an area, and if you're going to travel across town, never ever ever do it at rush hour. So you do time to avoid travel, but LA is wonderful. The ocean's great. You could get up in the snow in the mountains. So while it's a huge city, the outdoors are fabulous. It's a creative ferment. 

SUE CROSS [01:03:59]: I mean, it's just such a center for music and art. People think of the movies, but you don't actually see that production out there as much. But the amount of art produced and young talent and just coming from all parts of the world, it's a great place. They can and there's pretty good guides. There's a lot of good blogs, and there's a lot of kind of media that are very neighborhood oriented. So I live close to downtown LA. There's the East Sider, which is an independent start up really doing well. LA Taco started as a food review site, but now really covers news, LA Public Press, Witness LA, Afro LA. There's again, like other places, there's all these little interesting startups that give you a slice of the city. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [01:04:56]: Do you have a favorite hole in the wall restaurant? 

SUE CROSS [01:04:58]: Oh, my gosh. I mean, if you're coming to LA, you have to eat tacos. They're so good. They're just everything here. I go to Tacos Delta on Sunset Boulevard, a little family owned hut, and their tacos are fantastic. And that's where I would send people. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [01:05:18]: Well, thank you for your time, and hope, hope you have a fun time in Korea. Is that what you said? 

SUE CROSS [01:05:24]: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks, Tim. 

TIM REGAN-PORTER [01:05:29]: Thank you for listening to the Local News Matters podcast. Never miss an episode by subscribing in your favorite podcast player and sign up for our newsletter at lnmpod.com

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