By Frank Mungeam • LMA Chief Innovation Officer

Is philanthropy-funded journalism right for your newsroom? It’s a question 16 publishers are exploring through LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, which launched in late September.

Local Media Association regularly leads Innovation Missions for members to visit industry leaders and learn from their successes. The idea for this philanthropy lab came from one such visit.

“The Innovation Mission visit to The Seattle Times in June 2018 inspired us to look at journalism funded by philanthropy as an emerging business model,” said Nancy Lane, chief executive officer of LMA. “When COVID hit, the opportunity really exploded. Our COVID-19 Local News Fund raised $1.7 million for 200 publishers in a short period of time.”

During the first weeks of the Lab for Journalism Funding, philanthropy program leaders from The Seattle Times have been sharing what they learned from their own efforts. The headline: While philanthropy is not a panacea, it can be one part of sustainably funding important local journalism.

Sizing the philanthropy opportunity

“For a newsroom with 10-50 people, one-third [funded via philanthropy] is a reasonable goal,” according to Joaquin Alvarado, executive director of Project Accelerate Seattle at The Times.

Alvarado said The Seattle Times now has roughly 18 newsroom positions funded through philanthropy, and “we can sustain that for 10 years,” adding “don’t forget – this model has worked for public media.”

Alvarado shared how the Times achieved this level of philanthropic support, and three lessons he said can be applied by any publisher.

A case study in philanthropy

The Seattle Times’ journey began with an issue its publisher was passionate about: problems with funding higher education in the State of Washington. That passion led to a public service campaign called Greater Good that involved many partners, including nonprofits, policy experts and more. The effort led to a proposal for an Educational Fund, and Gates Foundation stepped up. Solutions Journalism Network also became involved. The success of that first lab, launched in 2013, paved the way for others. The Traffic Lab was launched in early 2017, enabled by corporate sponsorships. The Times launched Project Homeless later in 2017 with the support of the Seattle Foundation. In 2019, the Investigative Journalism Fund was launched, aimed at individual contributions.

While the funding methods have varied, all the projects align with the publisher’s mission.

Lessons for publishers

Alvarado said there are three keys to the Times’ success that apply to any publisher considering philanthropy as a funding source.

1. Internal unity of purpose

Internal alignment and support is essential for any successful philanthropy-funded initiative, Alvarado said.

“You’ve got to have ownership behind it. They have to help drive it” because of their personal networks and their community influence, he said.

But newsroom buy-in is equally essential.

“The newsroom not only has to be OK with it, they have to want to provide this extra public service. They have to have this passion.”

2. Trust of the community

Legacy newsrooms face myriad challenges, especially in terms of traditional revenue. But most traditional newsrooms retain one huge advantage over today’s more nimble, cost-competitive digital start-ups: a hard-earned and trusted brand and reputation in their community.

‘You’ve got to have a community that trusts you” in order to ask the community to support your journalism, said Alvarado. “Some newsrooms will need to build or rebuild that trust — because if the community doesn’t ‘buy it,’ it will be a lot of work to convince them you can deliver.”

3. Alignment with local community funders

It’s not enough to have your newsroom convinced that a reporting project is worth funding. The news organization must also be addressing a problem that matters to funders. What newsrooms can’t do, Alvarado said, is make their pitch based on their internal needs.

 “You don’t want the narrative to be ‘we used to have 30 and now we have 10.’ That’s not the case to make. The case to make is: imagine if we invested in this. Here’s what we could do for the community.

“You’ve got to have unity of purpose between the publisher and the funder and the newsrooms.”

Ironically, one benefit to publishers of exploring philanthropy is that it compels the news organization to focus on delivering value to the community, because that’s what funders require. As journalists, we tend to take it as a given that what we do is a benefit. But the rigor of the funding process compels us to truly listen to our communities, identify real needs, and specifically articulate how our reporting will address those needs to serve our communities better.

Philanthropy as a pillar, not a panacea

Despite the success of The Seattle Times at pursuing funding, Alvarado cautions to set realistic expectations.

“There’s not enough philanthropy funding alone to save local journalism,” he said.

Funders also bring expectations a traditional newsroom may not yet be ready to meet, as well as additional requirements for performance reports.

“You feel pressure from this extra mandate [to deliver on the grant],” Alvarado said.

And not all these funding relationships work.

“I have seen newsrooms get a grant, and not do it again,” said Alvarado, who notes there has to be consistency in communicating to funders what you’re doing and why. And that takes resources, too. So all the work of business transformation is still necessary.

“To their credit, the Knight Foundation has done a good job of educating the community funds about the value. So you’re not starting at zero. But the road can be long and winding, and it does take perseverance.”

So, is it worth it for your newsroom to explore philanthropy-funded reporting? For Alvarado, based on his experience with The Seattle Times, the answer is yes.

“There is no ‘silver bullet.’ But this does need to be part of an overall approach to sustainable ways to build community.”