The growing Rivard Report staff will celebrate the fifth anniversary of publication in early February, but a more important milestone is passed on Dec. 31 as we complete our first full year as a 501(c)3 nonprofit enterprise.
The change from a for-profit (or no-profit, as I have readily and often admitted) to nonprofit proved transformative, thanks to a visionary board of directors, a dedicated editorial and business staff, and an outpouring of support from individual readers and businesses alike.
The second year looks just as promising. More on that in a minute.
Why We Turned Nonprofit
The Rivard Report is now a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Washington, D.C.-based organization that serves as a network for more than 115 city and state-based nonprofit news and information websites that publish in virtually every major city in the country. Most, if not all of these news sites were conceived and started by longtime journalists, many of them former newspaper or magazine editors. The Rivard Report story is told with a different name by a different editor in many different places.
For the first year, Monika Maeckle, my wife, and I operated as a two-person blog thanks to our sponsors. Then people started asking if they could advertise as our audience, and along with it, community awareness of the new media site grew. For years 2-4, our small staff subsided on advertising and sponsorship revenue, which was sufficient to support our first editorial hire Iris Dimmick, our Photo Editor Scott Ball, and Jaime Solis, our first advertising director. Monika and I were the uncompensated owners and by year two she had left to work full-time for CPS Energy.
No one said a startup would ever be easy, but we would have never made it down the runway much less off the ground without the support of two great San Antonians: Graham Weston, the co-founder and then-chairman of Rackspace, and Charles Butt, the chairman and CEO of H-E-B. Both had their own singular visions for a better San Antonio, and both were as generous and supportive of the Rivard Report as they have been with so many other organizations and individuals in San Antonio and beyond.
While we teetered on the precipice of profitability, ad revenue alone would not fuel our growth or long-term stability. Venture capitalists who looked at the Rivard Report admired the people and the product, but not so much the balance sheet. We would never make the kind of money investors sought, even if we jumped into the deep local media pool of click bait, crime reports, sexy slide shows, perp photos, and other sensational fare. That stuff sells, but if we followed suit – well, we wouldn’t be the Rivard Report.
Several potential investors we sought out also happen to be philanthropic, and it was they who convinced me to make the move to nonprofit status. No one deserves more credit than my good friend, John “Chico” Newman, no stranger to funding nonprofit journalism over the years from Texas to Washington, D.C. He and fellow board member Lew Moorman, the former president of Rackspace and now owner and investor in multiple tech startups, were instrumental in guiding me through the transition and setting an example as generous board members.
All three of us agreed the chances for success depended not only on the quality of the journalism and story-telling, but also on the credibility of the board, and we all knew the single most credible individual in San Antonio to become chairman would be Richard “Dick” Schlosberg III, if he could be convinced.
Schlosberg’s resume is so deep it defies summary, but he was the last great publisher of the Los Angeles Times when the Chandler family still ruled with benefice, and he went on to head the Packard Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation and serve on the board of eBay. I was fortunate to know Dick all the way back to 1977 and our mutual time at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times under its great owner and publisher Ed Harte of Harte-Hanks Newspapers.
Dick has business and charity interests across the country, so I was prepared for rejection. Not too long ago, for example, the former fighter pilot led the drive to launch the endowment at his alma mater, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. There is, literally, a discreet monument to him on the campus that I’ve visited and seen.
Dick, in fact, said yes, and he was quickly followed by Katy Flato, a founder of the San Antonio Book Festival and former managing editor of Texas Monthly; Dan Goodgame, vice president for executive communications at Rackspace; and Laura Saldivar Luna, the founding executive director of Teach for America in San Antonio.
Ever since, it has been “fasten your seat belts.” We quickly began to grow our staff, our daily publishing volume, our audience reach, and with it, our revenue sources. We finish the year with more than 1,000 individual and business members, multiple financial commitments from local foundations and philanthropists, and advertising and sponsorship revenue that grew by more than 100% for the second straight year.
We published 1,800 stories in 2015, an average of five per day. We finish this year with nearly 3,000 stories, more than eight per day. Site traffic and new users both grew by more than 50%, and reader engagement, a measure we consider more significant than clicks, also grew.
Still, the Rivard Report‘s story is more about the people than the numbers. Iris, Scott, and Jaime all shared a great sense of dedication and selflessness throughout our early years, a commitment no amount of startup compensation could equal. Jaime was hired away recently by WP Engine, a fast-growing WordPress hosting enterprise based in Austin with a strong presence here. We will miss Jaime, but we are proud of what he accomplished here and we will announce his successor next week.
One year ago, Scott found Kathryn Boyd-Batstone, a Southern California native and recent graduate of the University of Oregon. Her portfolio of still photography and video made her the only candidate of interest as we grew our visual staff to two people. Kathryn produced and published more than 90 videos in her first year here, an astonishing rate of productivity and creative work.
Camille Garcia, a San Antonio native and UT-Austin School of Journalism grad, was returning home from Argentina after spending six months teaching English and working on her Spanish in a small town there. Friends warned her how tough it would be to find work as a full-time journalist. She was home less than one week before joining our team to cover Bexar County, Latino arts, and a host other subjects.
Bekah McNeel, our education reporter, works on a contract basis and took off time earlier this year as she and husband Lewis, a Lake/Flato architect, welcomed baby Asa into the world to join three-year-old sister Moira. Bekah has been remarkably prolific this past year before and after her maternity leave, an essential skill given the enormous challenges covering education from pre-K through higher ed in the city.
Mike Monroe, who I first met 15 years ago when he was covering the NBA for the Denver Post, retired from that same work at the Express-News earlier this year and joined us to cover the Spurs on a seasonal basis. Mike’s wife, Nancy Cook-Monroe, also is an established writer and journalist in the city and contributes here on a freelance basis.
We have too many regular freelance contributors to thank individually here, but as we add new reporters in 2017, I will have an additional opportunity to write more about our highly valued contributors.
Rocío Guenther, a Guadalajara native and recent Trinity University alumna, joined us first as an intern and then as a full-time editorial assistant this year following her May graduation. Rocío translates into Spanish her articles and the work of others to help us broaden our audience reach. It’s a testament to her own talents that she writes for our publication in English and Spanish.
Rocío isn’t our only foreign-born talent. I first met Hanna Oberhofer, an Austrian native, when she was earning her graduate degree in mass communication and journalism at Texas State University. She became a full-time production and story editor at midyear, continues to teach yoga at Southtown Yoga Loft, and as I write, is enjoying her annual visit home for the snowy holidays.
Our last three full-time hires have been Trinity grads, and when we announce our new advertising and marketing director that number will grow to four. Several of our freelance contributors also are Trinity grads. It’s hard to argue with the fact that students there learn critical thinking skills and how to write, regardless of their area of study.
Jenna Price Mallette joined us as our development director and is proving to be an invaluable partner as we prepare our 2017 budget and set growth goals in all our revenue categories. She was joined in our successful march to our first 1,000 members by Mason Stark, our membership coordinator who came from the same graduating class as Rocío.
It’s a young but committed and ambitious team. We know we have to improve on all fronts: reporting, quality of writing and editing, geographic reach, and subject matter. And we have to learn to say no to people pitching stories that don’t add real value for our readers. That, we have learned, is not so easy to do, especially with our more persistent friends. But 2017 will mean more in-depth stories here rather than a dramatic increase in volume.
I will close by thanking all of our readers, advertisers, and now, our first 1,000 members. Some of you have already renewed your annual support and we will be asking the same of everyone else who made this past year possible. We hope you agree we delivered a good return on your investment and we hope you are energized by our pledge to be even better next year.
Happy New Year, San Antonio. It’s a great time to be living, working, and playing in our growing city.