By Frank Mungeam LMA Chief Innovation Officer

The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) launched a bold initiative on Feb. 14 to fund a local investigative journalism team through community contributions. Its announced goal: Raise $100,000 in 100 days. In the first seven days, the publisher raised $44,993 – nearly half its 100-day goal.

The Post and Courier is one of 16 publishers in Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding. LMA’s funding lab launched in September with support from Google, and with a curriculum developed by Joaquin Alvarado, who has helped guide philanthropic funding of journalism at The Seattle Times.

The premise of the lab is that philanthropy can be one pillar for funding local journalism sustainably. The six-month lab takes participating publishers through the key steps, including engaging with the community and funders to identify a worthy problem to address and audience to serve; a plan for how to serve them, including budget; the outcomes expected; and the case for why the publisher is the right partner to tackle the issue. The Post and Courier applied these principles to raise half its investigative funding goal in just one week.

Making the case

Lead with the journalism. That’s the first lesson to learn, according to Autumn Phillips, managing editor at The Post and Courier. The publisher launched its crowdfunding campaign tied to a new investigative series — “Uncovered” — which documents the growing problem of “news deserts” in smaller communities around Charleston, and uncovers abuses of power that would otherwise have gone unreported. “Uncovered” exposes the harm that results when a community loses the watchdog function performed by local journalists. The stories not only hold the powerful to account but also make the case for the vital role local journalism plays in civic health.

“We’ve learned so much from the philanthropy lab that we realize this has to be one of our major pillars to support journalism,” said P.J. Browning, publisher, The Post and Courier. “We put together a comprehensive plan around ‘Uncovered’ and went public in a big way letting readers know exactly how much this type of journalism costs, where advertising revenues were headed and to keep this type of journalism, we needed their help.  The response has been overwhelming.”

For example, a note attached to one contribution read: “We are happy to contribute to your Investigative Fund, your work is so important! How else would we ever find out about all the things done under the table, and not meant for the public to know?”

Tell your story: The value of local journalism

On its community fundraising page, The Post and Courier lays out what the Investigative Fund is, how the organization will use the funds, and why it is asking for support. In LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, we make the point that journalists are good at telling the stories of others, but often fail to tell the story of the value of journalism. To earn community and philanthropic support, we need to tell the story of both the value of our watchdog role, and the economics of journalism.

A study by Pew Research Center in 2019 found that 71% of Americans believed their local news outlets were doing well financially. The survey concluded there was a “widespread lack of awareness about the revenue challenges facing many local news media operations.”

As The Post and Courier found, there is a latent appreciation for local journalism in the communities we serve. One donor told the publisher: “I have been concerned for some time about the ‘free press’ and its role in our society. You have given us the opportunity to be a part of helping our state. What you are doing is important to the quality of our governmental and private enterprise agencies, which do not have enough oversight and sunshine on their actions.”

Phillips believes that making the financial goal public is part of the reason for the organization’s fundraising success: “This time around we announced our goal of $100,000. In December, we had an internal (fundraising) goal… but didn’t share that publicly.”

Make it easy to support

The Post and Courier partnered with a local community foundation to make it easy for residents to support the Investigative Fund via a donation page. The Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina hosts a fundraising portal where people can make one-time or recurring donations.

In addition to the Investigative Fund, there are two other options to support local journalism, a fund to support climate journalism and one to support education reporting.

Following through: Partnerships, not handouts

In January, The Post and Courier hired Robie Scott to be Director of Development and Community Relations to “focus full-time on community funded journalism and donor relations.” Scott has quickly set out to build meaningful relationships with donors so that the publisher’s funded initiatives are partnerships, not handouts.

“We’ve sent beautiful thank you notes to every donor,” Scott said. “I’m calling as many donors as possible to thank them, introduce myself, engage them, ask for their advice — and ask them to be ambassadors for the fund. I encourage future giving, and, importantly, I ask them to be thought partners in helping us to build a sustainable future for journalism in our community. I get to know them, find commonalities and open the door for future engagement of any kind.”

In January, The Post and Courier launched a monthly email newsletter just for its donors. The newsletter is personal in style, written from Scott to contributors. At its heart is a “Because of You” section which details and links to the specific reporting enabled by community contributions. In just the first few weeks, the newsletter already has over 250 subscribers. The first edition had an open rate of 58% — and the optional “donate” button at the bottom generated an additional $600 in support in the first month.

Reflecting on readers’ response to the campaign, Browning said, “What was most rewarding was they were all responding to the need for journalism.  Our readers and donors see the importance of newspapers to our democracy, they just get it and if that doesn’t give you goosebumps, I don’t know what will.”

More from LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding

Focus on what’s essential: The key to journalism funded by philanthropy

Journalism funded by philanthropy: 5 questions local news outlets should address to prepare for a funder pitch

The power of listening: 6 lessons from the Lab for Journalism Funding

LMA launches Lab for Journalism Funding: Reimagining the relationship between a publisher and its community