By Frank Mungeam • LMA chief innovation officer
Myth: Only large publishers can realistically hope to fund critical local journalism through philanthropy.
The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., proved what’s possible by successfully funding a dedicated reporter to cover the pandemic vaccination story in the Gulf Coast region.
To be fair, Sun Herald editor and publisher Blake Kaplan was not alone in thinking ‘I’m an editor, not a fundraiser’ as he began the six-month journey with 15 other publishers in LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, made possible with support from Google.
What the small publishers in the funding lab have learned is that size does not matter when it comes to journalism funded via philanthropy. In fact, small publishers have three specific strengths that make them uniquely well-positioned to seek this kind of support, all built around community: Community trust, relationships in the community, and commitment to the community. How Blake leveraged those strengths to fund a vaccine reporter is a blueprint for other small publishers looking to support vital local journalism.
“Legacy” is a term too often attached to media outlets only as a negative. But a community newspaper’s legacy can also be a tremendous asset. That’s the first advantage small-market publishers have when seeking community support for journalism.
The Sun Herald began in 1894 as a weekly publication and has been serving coastal Mississippi ever since. The paper earned a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2006, along with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, for its reporting on the impacts and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In short, The Sun Herald has earned the trust of its community through its legacy. That reservoir of trust was a crucial foundation for The Sun Herald’s efforts to secure community funding for a reporter dedicated to vaccine coverage.
When the team from Biloxi joined LMA’s funding lab, they were – like other editorial leaders in the lab – anxious. They were, after all, journalists, inexperienced in and even uncomfortable with fundraising. But Kaplan discovered he had another of the keys that make small-market newsrooms good candidates for funding: long and deep relationships in the community.
“We are being funded by the local community foundation, the local power company, the local Chevron refinery, a former lawyer and a few other wealthy individual donors,” said Kaplan.
“With one exception, all of the funders are people I knew in advance.”
It’s no accident that, as Kaplan noted, “many of our funders are also major private employers in the area.” The local newsroom and these local employers are all vested in the civic health of their community.
Commitment to community
The third reason that small-market newsrooms are well positioned to pursue funding is they know, live in, and care about the key issues facing their communities. The Sun Herald chose to focus on vaccination rates because of its importance to the community.
“We had learned in the LMA class that often the best pitches help highlight and solve a community problem,” said Kaplan. “Then we saw how low the initial vaccine numbers were and knew this was the issue that made sense to tackle. It didn’t hurt that it was timely.”
The data confirms Kaplan and The Sun Herald team understood what their community needed. As of June 1, The New York Times’ compilation of CDC data on state by state vaccination rates showed Mississippi ranked last in the nation in percent of adults who’d received one dose, and last in fully vaccinated adults.
“When I pitched people on vaccines, it wasn’t so much ‘help us’ as it was ‘here’s your chance to help fix this huge problem in Mississippi,’” said Kaplan.
Size doesn’t matter in philanthropy
There might be fewer funders in smaller markets, but those dollars also go further, and small contributions can have big impacts. The Sun Herald will stretch $36,000 in contributions to enable six months of vaccine-dedicated reporting. For a newsroom with a total staff of nine, an extra reporter is a big boost.
Kaplan cautions that fundraising takes an investment in time, over time: “You need to clearly define what you are asking for, get a pitch ready, get appointments and then get commitments. Then you need to follow-up. It took us 4-6 months [to fundraise].”
About LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding
Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding, launched in September 2020 with support from Google, guided participating publishers through a six-month curriculum developed by a team from The Seattle Times led by Joaquin Alvarado. Through May, the 16 publishers had combined to raise more than $3.1million. Previous LMA case studies detailed the successful fundraising strategies implemented by lab participants including NOLA.com/The Advocate and by The Post and Courier and the Record-Journal. LMA regularly publishes case studies on lessons learned by these publishers and how other local news outlets can apply those insights in order to develop philanthropic funding as one pillar of a sustainable business model for local news.
Full disclosure: Inspired by the Sun Herald’s mission, Frank Mungeam also donated to the paper’s vaccine reporter fund.