By Frank Mungeam • LMA Chief Innovation Officer
Want to know if you have a compelling case for the value of your journalism? Try persuading someone to pay for it.
That premise inspired an unusual “graduation day” for the 16 publishers in Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding: Pitch a panel of national funders on their idea.
On April 20, each publisher presented its local plan for journalism funded through philanthropy to judges from Google, Knight Foundation, Walton Family Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. To add to the stakes, Local Media Foundation offered stipends to the top three pitches. The journalism projects addressed a diverse set of community needs, from homelessness and affordable housing to investigative reporting and better covering underrepresented communities.
What the publishers learned from “Pitch Day” included three key lessons — and several pitfalls to avoid — for any local news organization looking to develop philanthropy as one pillar of sustainable journalism funding.
Start with listening
“The key is to start by listening to your community, gathering as much feedback as possible and building or strengthening partnerships,” said Liz White, publisher of The Record-Journal, Meriden, Conn. “This creates a long-term foundation for philanthropy and your community partners become invested in and part of the growth and success over time.“ The Record-Journal’s plan for a Latino Communities Reporting Lab, one of the prize-winning pitches, emerged from its community listening tour.
Address a community concern
“There has never been a more important time for local news. I was honored to go through all the incredible pitches from the Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding and was heartened to see the diversity of innovation and the creativity newsrooms are bringing to their communities around everything from affordable housing to the COVID vaccine rollout,” said Chrissy Towle, head of news/Americas partnerships solutions at Google. The lab was funded with support from Google.
“Having grant supported projects like this is an essential way for news organizations to diversify their revenue and I’ll be eagerly following what all of these projects do in the future.”
Focus on impact
“There was a lot of heart and soul among the 16 projects. The top three winning projects had a clarity of focus and didn’t try to boil the ocean. The problem they seek to solve was well defined and their solution was precise and measurable.” said Paul Cheung, director, journalism and technology, Knight Foundation.
Pitfalls to avoid
Funders at LMA Pitch Day also noted four mistakes commonly made by newsrooms seeking philanthropic support. First, the pitch should not be focused on “saving journalism jobs” but on serving the community. A well-constructed plan to address a community problem through journalism will likely result in funding journalism jobs, but the focus needs to be on the community.
Similarly, when making the case for the value and importance of local journalism, it’s vital to showcase community voices. Journalists talking about why journalism matters can seem self-serving. It’s more compelling to have people in your community make the case for the value of what you do.
Third, especially for newsrooms that seek funding to better serve underrepresented communities, it’s crucial to “walk the talk” and be sure the newsroom itself reflects the diversity of the communities it proposes to serve.
Finally, funders at Pitch Day noted it’s not enough to have a content or reporting plan. Newsrooms, especially traditional newsrooms whose primary platform has been print, need to also describe their distribution strategy to ensure the reporting reaches the communities they intend to serve.
Takeaways for publishers
“The LMA Lab for Journalism Funding leveled the playing field, as we learned from expert coaches and from each other how to advance local journalism through philanthropy,” said Frances Toni Draper, publisher and chief executive officer, The AFRO, Baltimore. “This was especially eye-opening for The AFRO and many other ‘for profit’ participants in the Lab who want to provide more local coverage, but do not always have the resources to expand our newsrooms. ” The AFRO’s plan for Be More Me, a partnership with the Baltimore public schools to improve esteem and educational outcomes for Black youth, was another of the award-winning pitches.
Detour Detroit, another of the top projects as voted by the judges, focused on leveraging its expertise in local newsletters to scale to other local publishers. The team’s idea was to help small local publishers better support the cost of journalism by creating sustaining revenue through email newsletters.
“Our biggest takeaway was learning from the shared experiences of each media outlet in the cohort,” said Maple Walker Lloyd, director of development and community engagement, Block Club Chicago, whose plan to embed a community reporter on Chicago’s South Side was also voted one of the top projects. “We’re all in different places on our journey – whether it’s meeting half of your 100-day goal for funding in seven days, curating your first newsletter, or publishing your first impact report. There were several beneficial tools and resources from those shared experiences to use and implement in the future.”
Overall, the 16 publishers in LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding had raised more than $1.8 million by April to support local reporting, and the group was poised to exceed the lab’s June goal of $2.25 million.
“What’s clear from the success of these publishers is that philanthropy can be one pillar for funding local journalism going forward,” said Frank Mungeam, LMA chief innovation officer and project leader of the funding lab. “The key is to identify a true community need, create a clear plan for how to address that need with local reporting, and focus on solutions and impact.”
Pitch day results: Top philanthropy projects
- Detour Detroit (Hyperlocal Newsletter) — $2,500
- Block Club Chicago (South Side Community Reporter) — $1,500
- (tie) The AFRO (Be More Me educational partnership), The Record-Journal (Latino Communities Reporting Lab) -—$1,000 each
More case studies from LMA Lab for Journalism Funding
- Sizing the opportunity for journalism funded by philanthropy
- The power of listening
- Start with why
- Focus on what’s essential
- Built to last