For the traditional media industry looking to survive in the digital world, it can look at the nonprofit world for new solutions, according to Sam Ford and Jeff Pundyk, authors of this opinion piece. For-profit media companies can learn from them — if they are willing to collaborate in unconventional ways.

Sam Ford (@Sam_Ford) consults with organizational leaders in entertainment, news, civic engagement, and marketing on understanding culture and experimenting with approaches to storytelling, engagement, and audience participation. Over his career, he has pondered these questions of sustainable media business models. Jeff Pundyk (@jpundyk) is a fellow and advisory board member at The Conference Board. He was senior vice president of global integrated content solutions at The Economist and, before that, was publisher of The McKinsey Quarterly.

The reach of The Christian Science Monitor is relatively small among news organizations. But the place CSM has in the lives of its audience is the envy of much larger media players. “We have a very solid, loyal base of readers who will follow us through fire,” notes CSM associate publisher David Grant. He emphasizes that CSM’s readers include both church members and a wide readership beyond it. “They get what we are trying to do. They have been with us for a long time, and they care.”

Circulation for CSM’s subscription-only weekly print magazine was 40,000 in late 2016, and, according to Quantcast, monthly unique visitors to have ranged between 3.3 million and 1.5 million thus far in 2017. Those sorts of numbers don’t typically command attention in the publishing industry. Still, for-profit newsrooms — big and small — should be fixed firmly on this 109-year-old news organization, as CSM moves away from programmatic advertising and sponsored content to focus entirely on the relationship between the publication and its audience.

This break from convention underscores a new reality of media — and, indeed, for business in general. Innovation is being led by non-traditional organizations. In the case of media, that is increasingly nonprofit organizations, rather than for-profit media brands. It is a trend for-profit media companies can learn from, if they are willing to collaborate with the nonprofits in unconventional ways.

“For-profit newsrooms should explore the audience-driven models coming from public media and academia.”

At the heart of the Monitor’s experiments has been this question: “If the Monitor were to vanish, what would the world lose, really?” Or, asked another way, “What role does the brand play in the lives of its customers?” In today’s customer-driven world, this should be a guiding question for all companies, a lens on both how to create distinctive value for customers and how to build business models that enforce that value.

For the not-for-profit CSM, the risk of innovation is offset by a deep-pocketed sponsor in the Christian Science church. For traditional media companies, the trade-off is not so easy, as media companies cling to significant-but-declining revenues while trying to develop new, growth businesses. Those declining revenue streams may still be essential for meeting quarterly goals but can misdirect on the path to long-term business solutions. Thus, for-profit media companies would be well served to pay attention to what nonprofit media organizations like CSM are doing. They should view nonprofit publishers in part as the innovation labs they cannot sustain in-house, and should find ways to partner and learn from them.

As a case in point, consider what could arguably be the most visible recent nonprofit/for-profit partnerships involving ProPublica, which has had several high-profile collaborations with big, mainstream brands. More recently, that has expanded to deeper sorts of relationships, such as hiring Pam Colloff to a joint writing position at ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine and hiring a Vox/ProPublica Video Fellow who will work from the Vox newsroom but be funded by ProPublica. According to Benjamin Mullin at Poynter, small donations to ProPublica rose from $450,000 in 2015 to $2.9 million in 2016, to $600,000 in just the first month or so of 2017. This is funding this year’s plans to expand the news staff from 45 to between 60 and 70 journalists, with an eye toward further expansion after that. How’s that for “audience development”?

In today’s world of diminishing trust in traditional journalism, for-profit media organizations must be mission-driven — and in doing so, must put their audiences first. To do so, for-profit newsrooms should explore the audience-driven models coming from public media and academia.

Rebuilding Trust

They should watch closely the projects being funded by the Democracy Fund, MacArthur, Knight, Adessium, and others. (One good place to start is Ellen Hume and Susan Abbott’s recent report on “The Future of Investigative Journalism”.) They should follow experimentation from members of organizations like the Institute for Nonprofit News. (See their April 2017 set of Engagement Case Studies.) And they should learn from the nonprofit Voice of San Diego, which developed a system for targeting, converting, and maintaining paying members, and has now spun off News Revenue Hub to help niche news organizations build membership programs of their own.

They can also learn from WyoFile, a 10-year-old digital platform that provides deep local coverage of Wyoming, which switched to nonprofit status in 2009. While it is funded through a combination of grants, donor support and membership, it is WyoFile’s deep understanding of local communities that is its greatest asset, and its syndication strategy can be instructive. The small editorial team welcomes collaboration with national publishers and sets up the opportunity for broader distribution.

“Traditional for-profit publishers are not well-positioned to take the lead in innovating while they are under intense short-term pressure.”

Publishers may also want to take into account initiatives happening from new types of for-profit news organizations. They might look at the work of Discourse Media in Canada, which aims to “look for gaps in reporting” from outlets focused on “conflict-driven daily news cycles” and focus energy on stories “that have potential for impact.” They may want to watch closely the Membership Puzzle Project, a project between New York University and for-profit news organization De Correspondent, focused on the question, “How do we build a sustainable news organization that restores trust in journalism and moves readers to become paying members of an online community?” Or News Deeply, which convenes expert communities to take a deep dive into issues that are only covered on a surface level elsewhere. And, they may want to look toward the growing number of local publications that are experimenting with new business models built around membership.

Imagining nonprofit newsrooms as the innovation leaders may run counter to conventional wisdom, but on the issue of finding new and sustainable business models, we have had a couple of decades to confirm that for-profit publishers struggle with the way forward, largely because they are more beholden to failing business models than to their readers. They have stopped asking that key question that CSM put at the center of its strategy. What the world would lose may be of less concern to some traditional publishers than what shareholders stand to lose.

CSM turned away from advertising after much introspection: “You’re racing, racing, racing, pressing the gas pedal harder and harder and harder, to get more pageviews, to write faster, to produce more,” Grant notes. “And the horizon keeps receding away from you, and the CPM rate keeps going down, and the world keeps getting tougher. It’s not sustainable, or you’re sustainable only if you drive your cost of content even lower.” Instead, at the core of CSM’s new focus is a daily news product, comprised of an editorial, a religious article, and five news stories. CSM’s goal is to have 10,000 paying subscribers for that product by the end of 2017.

And, with that customer focus comes the need for new skills that every publication should be thinking about, including the speed and depth of response when subscribers reach out to the publication with a query or a problem. “We’re a mission-driven organization; we need to be a very efficient machine at getting to know people, learning what they like and don’t like, and serving that to them, in service of our mission,” Grant says.

With few exceptions, traditional for-profit publishers are not well-positioned to take the lead in innovating while they are under intense short-term pressure. But they can be fast followers — and they can support the innovation that is happening around them through strategic partnerships, shared resources, financial contributions, and other creative relationships with nonprofits and startups. To do so, for-profit publishers need to learn how to truly partner, recognizing that their smaller counterparts can bring great value to the relationship.

For CSM, Grant believes the biggest advantage is a unified sense of purpose: “Who are you here for, really? I can look any reader in the eye and say, ‘I get up every day thinking about you and how to make your life better.’”

That is a question every product manager in every industry should be asking, and answering.