By Frank MungeamLMA Chief Innovation Officer

If every great journey begins with a single step, then sixteen publishers took their big first step toward sustainability this past week. This diverse group will explore ways to fund local reporting via philanthropy, in all of its forms, over the next six months through the Lab for Journalism Funding, operated by the Local Media Association with support from the Google News Initiative. The lab seeks to collectively raise $2.25 Million among the participants to fund critical local coverage and develop scalable lessons to share across the news industry.

Participants in the lab span the country, from the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska to the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi, to the Nogales International on the U.S.-Mexico border. The cohort includes a range of publishers, from two-year-old digital start-ups like Detour Detroit to major-market dailies and fourth-generation family-owned publishers like the Afro-American newspapers.

Their past experiences with philanthropy as a source of journalism funding are equally varied. A few have already won grants from large funders. Others have earned small, one-time grants to support a specific project. For others, this is their very first time seeking funding.

The opportunity: A new source of funding 

Several publishers said their participation in LMA’s COVID-19 Local News Fund is what opened their eyes to the potential of philanthropy as a funding source. Judi Terzotis, publisher of The Times-Picayune, called the COVID-19 Local News Fund experience a “toe in the water” for funding and was “blown away” by the response. Toni Draper, publisher of The Afro, added that it wasn’t just how much people gave, but why: “We were blown away by the comments of the donors.”

One of the lessons this group has already learned: philanthropy can take many forms. During the six-month lab, participants will explore everything from foundation support to community funds, grants, individual large donors, and even small donations from individuals in a community.

From charity to partnership 

There’s just one problem. “We are embarrassed to ask for a handout,” said one local publisher at the lab kick-off, speaking for many who may think of philanthropic funding as charity.

“The community funding model in local journalism is never about charity,” said Joaquin Alvarado, “it is about redesigning the relationship between the newsroom and the community.” Alvarado played a key role in the successful development of philanthropic funding at The Seattle Times and will provide training to the LMA cohort on best practices from the Times.

As publishers engage and invest their time, people and resources, they will discover an extraordinary number of opportunities to collaborate with their community,” Alvarado said. “This collaboration is the point. These relationships are the reason for the model. As they evolve, the channels for support will emerge for publishers to pursue.”

Defining success 

Each publisher in the lab has specific fundraising goals. Some, like the Tampa Bay Times, already have established funds for investigative projects and are looking to grow those efforts. Others are looking to begin.

For Manuel Coppola, managing director of Nogales International, there’s a second goal beyond fundraising: “to educate the public on the value of community journalism.” It’s a goal shared by David Hulen, editor of the Anchorage Daily News: “Our focus is sustaining meaningful journalism.”

Sustainability is also the focus of Detour Detroit, which has previously earned several one-time grants. But publisher Ashley Woods Branch calls that the “win a grant or die” stage; “we need sustainable (funding) methods now.”

Scalability is the other big goal. The Record-Journal is among the publishers that hope to export whatever they learn to other publishers in their group. It’s LMA’s goal as well.

The road ahead 

The cohort of publishers in the Lab for Journalism Funding is diverse in many ways. But they share in common an unprecedented disruption to the news business model and a willingness to explore how philanthropy might fit as one component of a long-term business strategy for sustaining local reporting.

The Local Media Association has contracted with a team from The Seattle Times to serve as faculty and develop curriculum for the Lab for Journalism Funding. As chief innovation officer for LMA, I’ll lead the lab and coach the individual publishers.

Is there a magical formula? Unlikely. But there are sure to be best practices and maybe even a few “cheat codes” to shorten the adoption curve for publishers. We’ll learn together as we go. And I’ll share those lessons from the journey of our lab members here on the LMA website and Accelerate Local newsletter as part of LMA’s mission to innovate new revenue streams to help local news organizations develop sustainable business models for the important work of local journalism.