By Matt DeRienzoLMA Consultant

Many local news publishers filled out grant applications for the first time ever this spring in hopes to secure funding that will sustain them through the coronavirus pandemic.

Having a compelling story to tell, something that should come naturally to people in the news business, is at the core of philanthropic funding and grant writing. But as for-profit news organizations turn to philanthropy in a fight for survival, and big national funders and local community and place-based foundations step up to help, there’s a learning curve that must be overcome.

A handful of publishers, including the Seattle Times and McClatchy’s California newspapers, have been dabbling in this world for a few years. The Philadelphia Inquirer is now owned by a nonprofit dedicated to local journalism sustainability, the Lenfest Institute, which has issued grants to for-profit publishers to encourage innovative business model experiments. And later this year, Local Media Association is set to launch the Google-funded News Fuel platform, a matchmaking platform for news organizations and grant funding opportunities.

The COVID-19 crisis was a fast-forward button. As advertising revenue disappeared overnight, publishers who would never have considered such a step in the past have asked readers for donations to support COVID-19 coverage in another Local Media Association program. And thousands of local news publishers applied for emergency grant programs offered by Facebook and Google.

There will undoubtedly be more opportunities for this kind of grant funding, so it’s worth noting some of the characteristics of good and bad proposals.

  • A story to tell. You can respond perfectly well to every question on a grant application, and still fail to make the case for why your project or news organization should stand out against hundreds of similar publishers. What’s your mission? What are the unique needs, opportunities and challenges facing your community and audience, and how are you stepping up to help? You need a compelling elevator pitch, and your entire grant application should tie back to it. “Mission-driven” is a term you’ll hear in the nonprofit world, and it’s not a stretch for for-profit news organizations. The work of local journalism is altruistic at its core. But you need to talk in those terms. “We’re broke because of the pandemic,” although important context, can’t be your entire message.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. Grant applications can be a badly needed gut check for publishers who are really only serving the white parts of the communities they cover. You’re going to get questions in any grant application about how well the diversity of your staff and your coverage reflects your community. If you haven’t cared enough about this to take action in the past, and are dismissive of the question, your application won’t get far. If you’ve made modest efforts or seen only minor gains in DEI, do not oversell it. Outline a concrete path for doing better. Incorporate those plans into your grant request.
  • A path to sustainability. Would you invest in a company you weren’t sure would be around in a year or two? That isn’t taking the steps necessary to survive? Don’t expect to get help from grant funding if you’re not helping yourself and showing a path toward sustainability. If your website, in 2020, is just a PDF of the print edition of your newspaper, you’re not serious about survival. If you’re not already down the road on digital subscriptions or some other form of consumer revenue, or seriously considering it, funders will question whether you’re worth the investment. Part of the reason the same group of news organizations seem to regularly have success with grant funding is they’re a safer bet because of the work they’ve already done to be sustainable, and because they’re good at telling their mission-driven story.
  • Engagement and impact. Incorporate some kind of plan or information about how you are or plan to be engaging your audience in the work that will be funded. Maybe you’ve always been in competition mode, but funders favor collaboration. Are there ways you can work with other media outlets or local organizations? What kind of impact do you expect the funding to have, both on your journalism and on the sustainability and/or growth of your organization and how it serves your community? How will you measure that? How will you know if it’s successful?
  • Walking the talk. If you articulate a clear mission and set of values in your grant application, but none of that is clear from your news organization’s website, or social media presence, it will fall flat. Check out this advice from the Trusting News Project about building a great “About Us” page. It has broad implications on how you are articulating your “mission” to both funders and readers.
  • Following instructions. This might sound basic, but carefully reading the instructions attached to grant applications, taking every question on the application seriously, and aligning your pitch with the priorities that the funder has outlined is 80 percent of the battle. You’d be surprised by how many don’t, especially publishers who are new to the world of grant funding. And pay attention to small details, like testing links to coverage that you provide to make sure they’re not broken, and providing a login and password so the person reviewing your application can get through your paywall.
  • Asking for advice. If you have the opportunity, ask the funder for advice. If that’s not possible, study the types of organizations they’ve funded in the past, look for patterns, and reach out to some of them for advice.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. Have someone more experienced with grant writing or foundation funding read your application and offer feedback before you submit it. Take advantage of what groups such as Local Media Association, LION Publishers and the Institute for Nonprofit News are doing to expose publishers to funding opportunities and help them through the process.

Matt DeRienzo, a Local Media Association consultant, has worked for more than 25 years as a reporter, editor, publisher, director of news and nonprofit news organization director.