When it comes to funding journalism projects through philanthropy, size doesn’t matter. That’s the message three small, local publishers shared at the Radically Rural conference in late September. In fact, these publishers may have an advantage in seeking this support; and donations and grants can have an outsized impact for smaller news organizations.
Hosted in Keene, New Hampshire, the Radically Rural summit has a noble mission to provide “a platform for thinkers and doers across the nation to shape and share ideas and lead the charge to create vibrant, robust rural communities of their own.” One conference track focused on journalism, and the growing role philanthropy is playing in supporting local news.
Leaders from the Biloxi Sun Herald (Mississippi), Nogales International (Arizona) and Bozeman Daily Chronicle (Montana), all participants in Local Media Association’s 2020 Lab for Journalism Funding, shared five lessons they learned from seeking funding for local journalism projects.
1. It’s OK to ask for money
“It’s OK for editors to ask for money,” said Blake Kaplan, executive editor and general manager of the Biloxi Sun Herald, noting that large publishers ask their audiences for money all the time. Kaplan said it was strange initially to ask for funding, but “everything’s changing” in publishing.
Manuel Coppola, publisher of Nogales International in Arizona, also admitted to being initially reluctant to ask for funding. In fact, he had asked to have the “donate” button placed on all Wick Communications news sites to be removed from his. The big shift in mindset, according to Coppola, was to think of funders as partners to help address community needs, rather than a source of handouts.
2. Personal relationships matter
“Leverage your network. You’ll have more success starting with people you know rather than approaching strangers,” Kaplan advised. He shared that his parent company had a staff member dedicated to funder relationships, but that person didn’t really have local relationships on the Mississippi Coast. In the end, Kaplan says he personally knew all but one of the local funders who eventually signed on to support the news organization’s vaccine reporter.
Manuel Coppola had a similar experience in Nogales. In some cases, he knew funders and simply had not asked them for support. When given the opportunity, they signed on. Coppola also authored a direct appeal to readers via an editorial in the paper. That call to action generated direct donations and support because of Coppola’s long-term relationships in the community, and appreciation for the work of Nogales International.
The same was true in reverse in Bozeman. Traci Bauer, working for owner Adams Publishing Group but not based in Bozeman, didn’t have those personal relationships in that community and had to rely on the local publisher.
3. Make the ask meaningful
All three publishers agreed that a crucial component to getting funding for any journalism project was to make an “ask” that was meaningful to both funders and the community.
For Bauer, community listening turned out to be critical to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s efforts to fund a project called “Growing Bozeman.” The paper learned from its listening tour that there were issues related to Bozeman’s rapid growth in terms of cost of living, housing affordability, and divisions between haves and have-nots, that needed to be part of the plan.
For Kaplan, “having a meaningful ask is the most important part.” Kaplan and his team looked at the statistics showing that Mississippi ranked near or at the very bottom for vaccination rates in the U.S. So they went to local businesses, who were also being impacted, and pitched a dedicated reporter to do vaccination stories. It was the right ask at the right time.
Likewise, Coppola identified an unmet need to report for and to monolingual Spanish speakers in the Nogales area. This was a community that was being left out of the process, and contributors rallied to fund a reporter dedicated to that beat.
Both the Sun Herald and Nogales International raised enough money to fund their reporting projects for six months.
4. Deliver on the promise
At Radically Rural, both Kaplan and Coppola shared some of the impressive early work done by the reporters they hired with community funding. Kaplan’s vaccine reporter produced a series of stories ranging from documenting “compassion fatigue” among health care workers, to a surge in COVID-19 cases among young people, to a heartbreaking story of a family’s plea to others to get vaccinated after they lost an unvaccinated family member to COVID-19.
In Nogales, one story called out a lack of access for making public comments, and resulted in a change in that practice that gave monolingual Spanish speakers more access. It was exactly the kind of impact that journalism is known for, and why that reporting position was created. The result? Coppola says the local community foundation has already approached him about renewing funding for the next year.
5. No quick fixes
The biggest lesson the Bozeman team and Adams Publishing learned was that building a solid foundation for a journalism project funded through philanthropy takes time. It’s not a quick fix. Bauer emphasized the importance of a “community listening tour,” not only to refine the focus of the project but also to assess whether there is community support to fund it, and if the news outlet has the community’s trust.
Manuel Coppola put it concisely, noting that funding journalism this way is more of a long-term relationship. “It’s not an ATM,” Coppola said.
“Make sure your ask helps solve a large community problem,” added Kaplan. “You’ll have success by saying, ‘We’re in this together. Let’s fix this.’”