The Lenfest News Philanthropy Network hosted three days of panel discussions Nov. 3-5 about fundraising for local journalism. Participants included local newsrooms big and small, for-profit and nonprofit, as well as funders, development officers, community foundations and more. The discussions offered a snapshot of the dynamic and evolving work being done to support journalism via philanthropy.
For newsrooms looking to diversify their revenue streams and build sustainable funding models, there were many takeaways. Here are 10 that stood out for me.
1. Philanthropy is a pillar, but not a silver bullet
“We talk about philanthropy as the ‘third revenue stream,’ and that’s both to encourage newsrooms to think of it as a revenue stream, and also to underscore it’s not the only revenue stream,” said Steve Waldman, co-founder/president, Report for America.
2. Funding journalism projects via philanthropy takes time
“It can take 18-24 months,” said Sharon Chan, who’s been vice president of philanthropy at The New York Times, and before that was instrumental in building out philanthropy-funded journalism projects at The Seattle Times. “In every meeting I had at The New York Times, I had to start with: ‘You do realize it will take 18-24 months before you see anything?’”
3. “No” doesn’t mean “never”
“A ‘no’ is not a ‘no,’ it’s just a question of timing,” said Fraser Nelson, co-founder of the National Trust for Local News. “You don’t know what else is going on. A ‘no’ is just a time to deepen the relationship to learn more about a funder’s goals.”
4. First, ask for advice
“Don’t go in guns a’blazing asking for money,” said Nelson. “Lead with asking for advice, not money, and then you’ll get money.”
5. Align editorial and fundraising teams
“Plan ahead … and bring me in early … even when an idea may not be fully informed,” said Terry Quinn, chief development officer at the Texas Tribune. “If I don’t know what the news team or leadership team is thinking about, even if it’s only half-baked … I can’t make those connections with funders.”
6. Focus on local funders first
“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of local funding,” said Quinn. “Everyone wants the ‘silver bullet’ — that big national funder. At the (Texas) Tribune, the core of how we’ve sustained our work is local funders.”
At the same time, national funders can open doors to local support.
“Can securing a national funder like Democracy Fund encourage local funding support?” asked Lizzy Hazeltine, coordinator at the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. “Spoiler alert, yes it does!”
7. Timing counts
Elinor Tatum, publisher of the New York Amsterdam News and Nancy Lane, chief executive officer of Local Media Association, told the story of the beginnings of LMA’s Digital Transformation Lab for Publishers of Color. “We made 10 pitches and got 10 ‘no’s’ in late 2019 and early 2020,” said Lane. But in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and an overdue reckoning in the U.S. around racial justice, more than a half-dozen national funders have stepped up to support Black publishers via the work of Word In Black.
8. Tell the story of the value of your journalism
“It’s about raising the profile of journalism as a cause worthy of funding,” said Rashad Mahmood, co-director for the New Mexico Local News Fund. “Sharing the connection of how journalism makes a difference in people’s lives.”
9. Foundations support journalism that supports communities
“For me, it’s been a recognition that healthy local journalism is just as important as the local library and local community centers,” said David Mengebier, chief executive officer, Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation in Traverse City, Michigan, in explaining why his and other community foundations are increasingly supporting local journalism. “These are all essential elements of a healthy, vibrant community.”
Jim Brady, recently hired vice president of news at Knight Foundation, encouraged newsrooms seeking funding to also answer the question: “How will this grant help other news organizations?”
10. Now is the time to make the case
Rashunda Mahone, assistant dean at Emory College, walked conference attendees through research from Giving USA that showed that giving is up from almost every sector, and in almost every category of need. And seeking philanthropic support for journalism remains, for many, a novel idea. So there’s a huge opportunity for making the connection between civic health and a healthy local news ecosystem.
“Funding news is not a zero-sum game,” commented Jim Friedlich, CEO and executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which hosted the three-day event.