By Frank MungeamLMA Chief Innovation Officer

In his New York Times best-seller “Essentialism,” author Greg McKeown makes the case for less, done better. McKeown describes “essentialism” as a “systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter.”

In the Lab for Journalism Funding at Local Media Association, we’ve challenged publishers seeking funding support to ask themselves this same question: What is essential for local journalism to provide uniquely to the communities it serves? How the team at Advocate answered that “essential” question has everything to do with why its audiences in Louisiana have contributed more than $170,000 in just a few months to support the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund. It’s a case study with lessons for local newsrooms across the country.

The essential value of journalism

LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding launched in September with support from Google to develop philanthropy as a new pillar for funding local journalism sustainably. The six-month lab takes the 16 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.

For the team at Advocate, whose publications serve New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette, La., investigative and accountability journalism emerged as the indispensable value the publisher provided its community. “We chose this focus after an extensive listening process with prospective major donors, readers, staff and other stakeholders,” said Martha Carr, New Orleans managing editor. “Expanding our investigative team was the clear winner.”

Solve a problem that matters

Holding the powerful accountable is a critical function of local journalism. But financial challenges and the rise of news deserts have made it harder than ever to perform that role. The team at Advocate used data to make the case why this kind of reporting, at a statewide level, was needed now more than ever.

“Louisiana is a state with a lot of problems,” noted Gordon Russell, investigative editor. “We are routinely ranked among the worst states in a variety of metrics – for instance, health outcomes, educational attainment, incarceration rates, violent crime, to name a few. And we think investigative journalism is a critical tool to identify Louisiana’s problems, explain what’s causing them, and point toward possible solutions.”

In developing the statewide investigative fund, the team hoped to also address the problem of rising news deserts within Louisiana. “We want to bring the light of investigative journalism across the state to ensure that Louisiana’s problems are exposed to the sunlight instead of being allowed to continue to fester,” said Russell.

Going public

The Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund launched in mid-December 2020 with a robust website that explained the need, the amount of funding sought and resources needed, and the kinds of reporting that would result.

“The aim of the investigative fund is to double the size of our investigative team by adding two reporters, a data analyst and a deputy editor,” said Carr. “We also plan to expand our reporting statewide in an attempt to serve many parts of the state where the local press has been depleted due to steep declines in investment.”

The community response has been remarkable. In the first three months, $170,000 has been raised for the investigative fund. Gifts have ranged from as little as $25 all the way up to $75,000.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback from readers, business and community leaders and the non-profit community,” said Judi Terzotis, president and publisher. “It’s clear they value our work and support our mission.”

News as partnership

Critical to the success of the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund is the commitment to keep donors engaged and informed about the reporting their contributions enable. “It’s on us to make sure our donors are informed about the impact of their contributions,” said Jerry DiColo, New Orleans metro editor. “We also want them to know they’re part of a broader movement to ensure local journalism is strong and has a sustainable future.” So far, the team has hosted a Zoom call with donors to talk about the goals of the fund and answer questions; a virtual Q&A with one of the investigative reporters for a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to do an in-depth investigative piece; and an email newsletter will provide monthly updates to supporters, with links to funded reporting. The team hopes to offer in-person events when safe to do so.

Terzotis is realistic about the digital disruption to publishers’ business model, and the impact on journalism. “Our industry has relied primarily on advertising revenue and consumer or subscriber revenue,” said Terzotis. “Our goal is to create a philanthropic model to fund quality journalism across the state of Louisiana for the long term.”

More from LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding

Start with why: How The Post and Courier rallied its community to support investigative journalism

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