Philanthropy is not charity. Funders do not give away money. They make strategic investments in communities to drive outcomes aligned with their civic goals. So it was big news when Ford Foundation announced last week it was investing $1 million in NOLA/com/The Advocate and Times-Picayune, through a local community foundation, to help the publisher expand its local investigative reporting team and serve more of Louisiana.

The NOLA team was one of 16 publishers in Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding, made possible with support from Google. Those 16 publishers raised more than $4.5 million during the nine months of the lab, and in July, LMA published a full report, Pathways to Philanthropy, on lessons and best practices.

LMA previously profiled NOLA’s Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund in a case study as an example of the importance of focusing local journalism on what’s essential to the community. The Ford Foundation grant will enable a doubling of the newspapers’ investigative team and expand the geographic reach of the papers’ reporting, according to the announcement. The three-year grant was directed to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, developed in partnership with the news organization.

The three-year grant was directed to the Greater New Orleans Foundation for the Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, developed in partnership with the news organization.

“We are thrilled to work with the Greater New Orleans Foundation and support The Times-Picayune and The Advocate,” said Margaret Morton, director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation. “Journalism is a central pillar to our democracy; it has the power to shape narratives and shed critical light on the issues that matter the most. We look forward to seeing how they continue to build on their rich traditions of insightful and impactful reporting.”

Focus on community and impact

A key lesson of LMA’s 2020 Lab for Journalism Funding was that, for news organizations, the process for earning the support of funders actually sharpens and recenters the newsroom around its community, and on reporting that serves the public good — because those are the projects that funders will support.

In the LMA lab, a focus on philanthropy shifted publishers from “deficit thinking” — their own staffing shortages and business model challenges — toward community service. They refocused on the unique and essential value they provide to their audiences. That is exactly what business transformation looks like for local news: Meeting your audiences when and where they are, with essential information that local news organizations are uniquely qualified to provide.

The story behind the grant: The Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund

LMA asked Judi Terzotis, president and publisher of Advocate and The Times-Picayune, to expand on her team’s plan for increasing their investigative journalism, how it was able to secure the funding from Ford Foundation and others, and the lessons the team has learned about the role philanthropy can play in an overall approach to sustainably funding local journalism.


This funding result is remarkable. What were the key steps in the process you followed that enabled you to secure this kind of support?

Early on, we launched a comprehensive listening tour of key stakeholders in our communities. We shared our mission and goals for doubling the size of our investigative team to gauge buy-in and support. One of the questions we always asked was if the stakeholder could open a door for us to potential funders — local and national. We had identified key foundations and one of our advisory board members was able to give us a warm lead with the Ford Foundation. Asking for referrals as a means of support has paid big dividends for us.

What was it about your proposal that you believe was most attractive to those who have funded the project? Where/how did you find the alignment between the news organization’s goals and those of the funders?

Our local funders are united in their belief that no state needs traditional shoe-leather journalism more than Louisiana. We are locally owned by a prominent New Orleans family, so our supporters could be confident that we will always be accountable to the people of our communities. There is no out-of-state corporate headquarters pulling strings and making demands. And the Ford Foundation is led by a man who was born here, Darren Walker, and who is leading the foundation in new and exciting directions, with an emphasis on supporting institutions in the Deep South.

What were the most valuable/relevant lessons you learned from your participation in LMAs funding lab that you applied to this effort?

That’s a tough one! We learned so much from the funding lab that has been beneficial to our efforts. A few things come to mind. First, listening is key. Gaining buy-in from the community helps cement the mission and provides value for donors. Also, keeping in touch with donors of all levels is important. We launched a monthly investigative journalism newsletter that highlighted our recent coverage. We also hosted Zoom calls with donors of all levels and discussed recent stories and answered questions about how the stories were unearthed. Last, but not least, we developed a cadence around our prospect list. We met internally each week to review progress and to drive urgency.

For publishers that perhaps have not considered philanthropy as a meaningful way to sustain local journalism, what would you say about the size of this opportunity…and the benefits to publishers of exploring philanthropic partnerships? Advice you’d offer?

Investigative reporter John Simerman reports during a demonstration in New Orleans on June 12, 2020. Credit: staff photo by David Grunfeld

I wish we had launched our fundraising efforts years ago. The commitment has to come from the top and has to be a true priority to be successful. We found the process inspiring. It forces you to talk at a deeper level with readers and community leaders. We were energized by their overwhelming support of our mission. We stated early on that the goal was to grow our newsroom. In light of our industry trends, that message resonated with our audience. We swung for the fences with our plan of raising $1.5 million to fund four new positions. But our state needs us. We have significant news deserts. For us, with the lack of sheer numbers of wealthy residents, we knew we had to establish a plan that would be funded by individual donors, local and national foundations and grants.

Second cohort of Lab for Journalism Funding announced

Based on the success of LMA’s 2020 Lab for Journalism Funding cohort, LMA has announced a second cohort of the funding lab, starting in September. Applications for newsrooms are now open through Aug. 8. Thanks to new funding from The Lenfest Institute, the lab will expand to 20 publishers. Read more about the second cohort and apply to join here.