Of all the things I expected to be reading for this column, Rhema Media’s Annual Report wasn’t one of them.
But I have read it and can testify that they’re probably New Zealand’s most successful not-for-profit media group, deriving 73 percent percent of their annual $9.4 million income in 2017 from giving. This funds three radio stations (Rhema, Star and Life FM), Christian television station Shine TV, and two quarterly publications, connecting over 328,000* people on a weekly basis with Christ, as per their mission statement. Only $2.4m of their income is generated via advertising, subscriptions and ‘other sources’.
This trip down the Rhema rabbit hole started via the Charities Register as I wanted to see how prevalent not-for-profit arms of media entities were in New Zealand after making the observation that this year, my partner and I will hand over almost as much cash for media subscriptions and donations to the ‘cause of journalism’ as we will to the arts and social causes we support. I am not a data journalist, so it wasn’t a successful investigation, but a search confirmed something I wasn’t entirely sure of: we will receive no tax credit on the money we’ve given to NZ-based media via PressPatron because the entities we support are not registered as charities.
Every year, Nieman Lab, the future-focused wing of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, publishes a bunch of predictions for the year ahead. Bill Keller, current editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project and former executive editor of The New York Times, made this prediction:
“As Facebook and Google suck up the ad revenues and all but a handful of media companies find digital subscriptions a hard sell, more and more will turn to philanthropy.”
Rhema are not the norm when it comes to media companies and exist within a religious subculture that is known for being pretty skilled at getting people to part with their cash. There are a few NZ media organisations who are running either as not-for-profits or have a not-for-profit arm. e-Tangata, a website set up under the Mana Trust whose purpose is “to strengthen the Māori and Pasifika voice in the New Zealand media” is wholly not-for-profit. The Scoop Foundation is a charitable trust. There may be others but unlike our media brethren overseas, the main media outlets haven’t established not-for-profit arms through which to attract large philanthropic donations from individuals or trusts and foundations.
Putting aside the fact that Rhema have God on their side, it’s clear they have a captive audience and have mastered an art typically reserved for traditional charitable and philanthropically funded entities – that of demonstrating clear intrinsic and extrinsic value to their audience and those who give.
People give philanthropically for a range of reasons, but it generally stems from the belief that both the extrinsic and intrinsic value provided is worthy of support and is not able to be provided purely through a reliance on commercial or transactional revenue streams or government funding. Extrinsic reasons fall into the ‘making the world a better place’ category, while intrinsic reasons are usually about what an individual derives through involvement and association with the organisation they give to.
It’s for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons that I give to the Guardian and they know it.
Extrinsically my support of the Guardian is just about believing that what they do is vital. But they’re savvy to my intrinsic needs as well, utilising many of the same plays charitable organisations have been executing for years. I have a little certificate for my fridge that tells everyone I am a good and wise citizen of the world and belong to a like-minded community. I get some special access on their site, I get emails addressing me by name and if I lived in the UK I’d get offers to attend events. Just as the arts organisations I support invite me to opening nights and give me an early preview of the programme making me feel included, close and vital, the Guardian understands that I am still a human driven in some part by a need for status and validation and, when it comes to attracting support and donations, you have to play to both the good heart and the big ego.
The Guardian launched the membership scheme to which I belong in 2014. The membership coupled with the group’s 185,000 subscribers means the total number of paying readers to the Guardian sat at more than 400,000 as of August last year. Last year, they also launched a not-for-profit in the US. The New York Times followed suit and, two weeks ago, The Guardian Civic Journalism Trust was launched in Australia. The US arm raised more than $1m in grants in its first months of operation and have since added $6m in multi-year funding commitments from the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Australian Trust has raised over $700,000 to date.
The Guardian’s membership scheme and not-for-profit arms have been launched to counter a nearly 60% drop in print readership over the last ten years and falling advertising revenue. They are not alone in facing these challenges and philanthropy is only one option for diversifying revenue streams. Digital subscriptions and paywalls also offer some reprieve from a reliance on advertising revenue and print sales. But all of these methods require deeper audience engagement and understanding and robust audience development strategies.
So what of NZ media? How well placed are they to explore new revenue streams or cater to a base of givers? How big of a base is there for them to tap into? Is it a viable or sustainable source of income for them? Does philanthropic giving compromise an organisation given the rub between giving as a means to further an agenda versus the independence required of media? Most importantly, irrespective of the form diversification of revenue streams take, are NZ media organisations ready for closer relationships with readers and supporters?
It’s clear to me that the media organisations in NZ using crowdfunding platforms like PressPatron, paywalls and subscriptions understand the extrinsic value they provide. “News you can use!”, “Analysis and insight, not opinion” are some common catch-cries. What is perhaps unclear is whether they have mastered the art of understanding the intrinsic value in what they deliver. There isn’t the same culture of philanthropy in NZ as there is the US and we are a small country, so issues of size and scale will always plague us. There is great competition for what philanthropic dollar already exists and in the case of paywalls and subscriptions, competition from a large buffet of news and media that we don’t need to pay for.
Whatever the route to security and sustainability looks like for media, it will involve greater proximity to readers, listeners and viewers. If we are being asked to open our wallets, we must first understand and value what we’re paying for and how it not only makes the world a better place but makes us better people. It is this area that media could learn the most from their not-for-profit counterparts. Moses may need to come down from the mountain and mingle instead of broadcasting from on high.