We’re launching a sponsorship program. Here’s how it works.

The Flatwater Free Press is launching a corporate sponsorship program.

I’m excited to tell you what we’re going to do.

But first, let me tell you a story illustrating what we won’t do. And why.

Early in my career I worked as a data reporter at the Arizona Republic. One of our team’s metrics was page views. Each time a person clicked on one of our articles, we got one page view. 

One day I stole an idea from a so-called “best practice.” I made a calculator that let people see how quickly well-paid, famous Arizonans — the Governor, Shaquille O’Neal, and so on — would earn their salary. 

It was a far cry from the high-minded, public service journalism that I love. It didn’t hold anyone accountable. It didn’t change laws, promote government transparency or spotlight wrongdoing. 

It was the news version of fast food. 

And it worked. Tens of thousands of people clicked on that little calculator. They input their salary and were outraged. They shared it with their friends, who clicked and shared with their friends. For months, that silly calculator led our metrics. 

Thanks to our sponsor

From a business perspective, it was the right move. Online ads are sold based on page views. Each view was, literally, money in the bank. 

Journalistically? It was worthless. 

That same friction has been a throughline of my career. There are plenty of reasons newsrooms have been cut in half. I would argue the slow separation of business and journalistic goals is behind a good majority. It’s warped our journalistic compass. It’s led us to cover things that don’t matter. It’s justification for ignoring things that do.  

When we examined nonprofit newsrooms before our launch, we learned that the most successful generate revenue to support their mission beyond grants and memberships. They do this in a variety of ways: advertising, events and sponsored content, where news outlets write and publish stories for companies.

None of those felt right for Flatwater Free Press. Some seemed to compromise journalism. Others seemed to put us in competition with our legacy news partners, who continue to operate successful advertising-driven operations.

That’s why, back in January, we brought on Karen Borchert. She examined the demographics of our readers. She looked at our various products — our website, newsletter, social media, events.

Our numbers are, frankly, really good. We published eight stories in September. We had 134,000 page views. Our average story has page views on par with the top story of most newsrooms I’ve worked in on any given day.

We have 6,200 newsletter subscribers, and an open rate that hovers around 60%, which shows our audience is incredibly engaged. Our social media following is about 11,000. 

Those numbers allowed Karen to develop what I think is an elegant model for bringing a new revenue stream to our nonprofit newsroom. 

Each month, a handful of companies will appear as sponsors on our site – companies that support our mission and identify strongly with Nebraska and with what Nebraskans care about.

With that in mind, I couldn’t be more excited about our first batch: Alpaca, American National Bank, Ho-Chunk, Inc. and The Platte Institute. Thanks to each of them for their support.

The difference between these sponsorships and traditional ads: Our sponsors support us because they support our mission, and share our commitment to serving Nebraskans. Advertisers, meanwhile, are more narrowly interested in reaching more customers, regardless of our mission.

We’re also unveiling a separate, more unique sponsorship arrangement. 

Flatwater keeps coming back to history. Last December, editor Matthew Hansen went deep on the impact of homesteaders on our state culture, and the cool story of the town built by black Nebraska homesteaders. Contributor Cindy Lange-Kubick explored a famous Nebraska developer, a church defined by immigrants and the history of a cool Lincoln home. Contributor Lori Potter told us about an ancient type of native corn having a resurgence. Jarrod McCartney told us about Toni Turner, one of the last Nebraskans with a real connection to Willa Cather. 

Going forward, History Nebraska will sponsor stories in that vein.

That sponsorship won’t impact our coverage. We retain full control of reporting and story selection. It’s also worth noting that the history sponsorship is unique. We wouldn’t have a similar sponsorship with the vast majority of news coverage.

We project that sponsorships will bring in 15-20% of our bottom line. That’s in line with some of the most successful nonprofit newsrooms in the nation. It means that we can grow and execute our mission with confidence.

There’s one other major reason for that confidence: The 1,000-plus donors who have stepped up to ensure independent journalism has a future in Nebraska. We would not be here if not for them. They are the reason we exist and do what we do. We are extraordinarily grateful.

As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, concerns or ideas. And, of course, if you know an organization that would be a good fit as a sponsor, share the details and have them get in touch. 

By Matt Wynn

Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. He has spent 13 years at news organizations across the country, most recently on the investigative team at USA Today. He lives in his hometown of Omaha with his wife, Sarah, and three children.

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