“What if … instead of … threatening to shut off access to news they actually need, we simply admit we need their trust, understanding, and investment to provide great journalism?” These words from Mary Walter-Brown of News Revenue Hub set the table for asking your community to make voluntary contributions to support your local journalism.
1.Explain your business model and the gravity of the situation. Your organization is on the front lines of providing life-saving information to the community, and at the same time dealing with a sudden collapse of advertising revenue. At least in broad terms, explain how your business model works and the amount of resources that go into making the news happen every day. In a frank “we need your help” message recently, Robyn Tomlin, executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., explained that readership was way up, but because of the dynamic with advertising right now and decisions to put COVID-19 journalism outside the paywall, that doesn’t translate to money to pay reporters.
2. Talk about the impact of your COVID-19 coverage. Cite examples of COVID-19 coverage that has had a tangible impact on the community, exposed wrongdoing or previously unknown threats and problems, or helped readers navigate the crisis. If you have statistics about the number of staff and hours they’ve put into it, cite them.
3. Explain how the money will be used. If your goal is based on funding a specific project related to COVID-19 coverage, of course, talk about that. If not, pull back the curtain a bit on how you are approaching coverage of the outbreak … what you have reporters and editors working on, your process for gathering, verifying and presenting information, the hours and other expenses that go into it.
4. Invite conversation. Don’t simply ask for money … start a conversation with readers. Ask them for their input advice, suggestions, questions about your coverage. Ask about what gaps they see in local information about the outbreak, and problems your news organization can help solve for them.
While not a requirement, we recommend that you set a fundraising goal to appear on your fundraising page, similar to GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaigns. There’s a psychological benefit to having donors feel like they’re helping you get to the finish line.
Rather than pull a number out of thin air, you could set a goal based on the cost of a specific project you want to pursue around COVID-19 coverage (ex., purchase of live-streaming equipment, or additional freelance expenses to bolster reporting), or an estimate of the cost of your coverage over the next few months (ex., the salaries of reporters who are covering it).
It’s not an exact science, but you can also come up with a goal based on the size of your audience, or engaged audience. If you average 100,000 monthly unique visitors, and half of 1 percent of them gave an average of $25 each, a goal of $12,500 would make sense.
You don’t want a goal that’s unattainable, nor do you want to set one that under-shoots the potential you have to raise money in your community and the message you want to send about the level of need. It’s not an exact science. You can adjust your goal after launch based on what you learn from the response.
Getting the word out
Writing about your mission and work: Write an article about your launch of the fund. Or write about it with a column from the publisher or editor. Consider a series of articles going behind the scenes about your mission, business model, how you’ve decided to approach COVID-19 coverage, and the local human beings who are doing this work while juggling concerns about their own families and daily lives. Each piece of content like this is an opportunity to make the case and ask for support.
Email: Whether it’s subscriptions or a one-time donation like this, asking via direct email message generates the most effective rate of response. And because of the nature of open rates and competing for attention with so much else, don’t be afraid to ask multiple times, looking for different ways of approaching it: a message directly from the editor, for example, or sharing the impact that a particular coronavirus outbreak story had on the community.
Publishers with larger and more engaged email newsletter lists will likely get a larger response, but it also depends on what you do with those lists. It’s great to include an ask within the copy of your regular newsletters, but the most effective vehicle will be sending emails devoted solely to the ask. Just like any email campaign, it is important to experiment, do A/B testing, and follow best practices you know work for you regarding subject lines, length of emails, graphics and time of day to send.
Social media: Good advice for anything related to social media is remembering the “social” part, but it’s especially important when you’re asking people to give you money to support the work. Be personal, engaging, creative. It means something to readers to hear directly from the publisher or editor, to know their faces and personalities and that they’re local human beings sharing their experiences in this crisis. And remember that in many cases, your reporters, columnists and photographers each have a personal following. Enlisting them to articulate the message and spread the ask to their social networks can be pretty effective.
On your site: It makes sense to include this appeal for support and any columns or articles you write explaining the mission and work with roundups and collections of your COVID-19 coverage. A link or embed on the home page can’t hurt, and we’d also suggest including a tagline with all COVID-19 articles that includes a sentence about supporting the work with a link to your fundraising page.
If you have the capability, serving an interstitial or overlay making the ask when someone visits your site, that they have to close before proceeding to your content, can be as or more effective than a dedicated email. Again, follow your best practices about how they look and how often to serve them (capping for individual users at no more than once a day or week, for example).
The COVID-19 Local News Fund sends an email automatically right after someone donates, providing each donor a receipt and acknowledgment for tax purposes. It can be customized, and we encourage you to provide a message unique to your news organization. We’d also strongly encourage you to include some kind of call to action in your thank-you emails. If you are publishing a special e-newsletter highlighting your COVID-19 coverage, incite them to sign up for that. If not, a signup link for your regular e-newsletter will do. You might also consider sharing your own email address or even phone number with an invitation for feedback.
Do you have questions about getting started?
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