By Emilie Lutostanski • Director, Local News Resource Center

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed how local news organizations are appealing to their audiences and sustaining revenue, resulting in promising innovative thinking that is a win-win for local nonprofits, individuals, and businesses.

The Henrico Citizen, a countywide local news organization in suburban Richmond, Virginia, began a campaign in mid-March that goes beyond asking for financial support from the community. With each reader contribution of $25 or more, the Citizen will provide free digital advertisements for a nonprofit designated by the donor.

Publisher Tom Lappas said he wanted to offer more tangible benefits to financial supporters of the free publication, and worked through offers that might appeal to his local community.

“We had to go to people not just with our hands out, but giving them some evidence of what we were going to do then with that support to help the community at large,” he said. “If you give us x amount of dollars as a contribution to support our journalism locally, then we will allow you to name a non-profit and we’ll donate digital advertising space to them.”

A new page was built on the site to explain the offering.

“Initially for as little as fifteen dollars (it’s now $25), if somebody gave that small of an amount, we would give a week’s worth of advertisements to a non-profit of their choice in our email newsletter, which goes out three times a week, all the way up to a $200 plus donation gets them a full month across our digital platforms: our website, email news update, a daily podcast, and all three of our social media platforms,” Lappas said.

Through this effort, Henrico Citizen has been able to connect with new supporters and new nonprofits. Some of the organizations that have been supported by this program include the local Humane Society, child welfare groups, environmental and nature foundations, and church-based organizations.

“What we have actually found is that in some cases nonprofits are essentially buying that space on their own because it’s a lot cheaper than they would be able to buy it from us directly. This way, they’re able to get that exposure that they need critically right now,” he said.

He said the Richmond area has a particularly strong network of nonprofit organizations and an active volunteer and advocate community.

“In this market, I feel like we’re almost inundated with nonprofits and so many of them are doing really good things. We’ve written about dozens and dozens of them over the years, so this is an opportunity to hopefully help them out in another way,” Lappas said. “We are starting now, going to those nonprofits directly to say, ‘here’s what we’re doing; it’s a way that you guys can get that exposure and help us at the same time, and readers seem to really like it.'”

This ad-credit offering for nonprofits was started before Henrico Citizen joined the Local Media Foundation’s COVID-19 Local News Fund program, which supports tax-deductible donations for local COVID-19 reporting. Supporters can contribute directly to the publication, or through the 501(c)(3) foundation program for a tax-deductible option, and designate a nonprofit to uplift through free digital advertising.

“I think this gives people at that extra nudge to say, ‘I’m going to do it today because I know that it’s a benefit not just the news organization, but this nonprofit that I personally am invested in,'” Lappas said. “At a time when everybody’s suffering, it’s tough to ask people to donate. But I think this made it easier. It’s leveraging the platforms that we have to help other people.”