Philanthropy has emerged as one pathway to funding essential local journalism as news organizations seek to adapt to disrupted legacy business models. In 2020, 200-plus newsrooms raised more than $1.7 million through the COVID-19 Local News Fund; later that year, 16 publishers in the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding, made possible with support from Google News Initiative, raised $5 million in nine months to fund journalism projects.
This fall, LMA launched a second cohort of the Lab, with continued funding from Google and additional support from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Led by LMA, with coaching and curriculum developed from the success at The Seattle Times, 20 publishers have already raised nearly half a million dollars for their journalism.
The LMA Lab for Journalism Funding regularly features guest speakers who share their insights and lessons. The Fresno Bee, like the Seattle Times, is considered a model for what’s possible when journalists and funders partner to serve their communities.
Joe Kieta, executive editor of The Fresno Bee, spoke to the publishers in the lab recently about the launching of the Fresno Bee Education Lab, and the opportunity around journalism funded by philanthropy. Here are six lessons relevant to any news organization developing funded journalism projects.
It is a pillar, but not a panacea
“Roughly 10 of 34-35 newsroom positions are now funded through philanthropy,” according to Kieta. That’s about 30% of the Fresno Bee newsroom. The Bee modeled its first project, the Education Lab, on the success of the Seattle Times’ Education Lab, and has built out additional initiatives and funding over time. For anyone questioning the role that philanthropy can play, these numbers answer that question definitely. While philanthropy is not a panacea, it’s clearly one pillar for sustaining essential local journalism going forward.
“We saw it as a way to go beyond what was already being covered,” said Kieta.
The Fresno Bee Education Lab includes a four-person team: two K-12 education reporters, an engagement reporter and a team editor who oversees the work and the initiative. The Lab was launched in 2019 with $600,000 in initial funding to support the first two years of reporting and has since expanded its funding to continue the work of the team.
Identify and understand the core challenge facing your community
Kieta attributes much of The Bee’s funding success to the choice to focus on education.
“It is a foundational problem to Fresno. Educational attainment is what holds our region back,” Kieto said. He cites the example of Apple not having operations locally because Fresno doesn’t have people who have the training to do the type of jobs that they would locate in their community.
The Bee’s Education Lab was about “unlocking the door to try to improve the socioeconomics of Fresno and raise the level of education in this community where we will be able to diversify our economy and change things,” he said.
Community listening and engagement is key to success
Early on, The Bee gathered community stakeholders for an in-person session to gain feedback. Kieta believes it was key to the success of the Education Lab.
“One of the things that The Bee, I don’t think, has done a particularly good job of through the years is showcasing, and also listening to, the diverse communities that we have here. I mean, this is a very diverse community,” Keita said. “We wanted to reflect that (diversity) in that meeting, and we were able to get some great feedback. And that’s where we realized that we were on the right track with what we wanted to do with the Education Lab, and some of the issues that we would then be able to surface in the community.”
Another big takeaway from the community listening event, Kieta said, was the decision to hire at least one reporter as a dedicated engagement reporter — “somebody whose sole job really would be to do that listening, to do that deep dive, to hold events and to really get into places where we hadn’t been before, and who would be able to speak Spanish and speak other languages and be able to help better-inform our journalism, even if they weren’t the reporter who is on that story.”
Kieta said key elements of the Education Lab were conceived, and the need for the initiative was validated, through the effort to engage with the community.
Focus on responses and what’s working, not just the problems
Kieta also attributes the success of the Education Lab to The Bee’s intentional choice to report not only on the problems around education but also the effective responses to those problems.
“One of the things that we really wanted to center our content and journalism around is solutions journalism, not just something that’s pointing out all the flaws, but showing what’s working and how it can be amplified,” Kieta said. “So we’ve taken that into a number of projects that we’ve done with the Solutions Journalism Network.” A number of the Bee’s education stories are featured in SJN’s popular Solutions Story Tracker.
The focus on solutions “also appealed to funders” who care about impact, notes Kieta.
Diversity and inclusion build trust
“We also have to look like the communities that we cover,” said Kieta, noting that the diversity of The Bee’s newsroom has increased dramatically in the past few years, “not just because of Education Lab, but because of a concerted effort to make sure that we are better immersed in our community, and we are able to then build trust.”
Kieta acknowledges “there’s a lot of skepticism about the work that we do” and that having a more diverse team and a commitment to community engagement is key to building that trust.
“Some of [the reporting] just has to be in Spanish,” Kieta said. He cites the example of The Bee’s bilingual education engagement reporter going on the local Spanish language television and radio shows as part of the overall effort to better serve its audiences.
Also, funders expect more from a news partner than just “stories published,” Kieta said. They want to see reporting that reflects the community, and engagement strategies that ensure that reporting will reach the intended audiences.
Focus on impact
The Bee’s Education Lab is already seeing funders renew their support for the initiative. The reason, Kieta said, is impact.
“I do think one of the reasons we are getting renewals is we have had impact.”
Kieta cites one of the first stories reported with funding for the lab, which highlighted a bus pass program that enabled students in the State Center Community College District to take a city bus to campus.
“The college system there wanted to get rid of that,” said Kieta, “and it was inexplicable to a lot of people. … And because of the outcry that happened as a result of our reporting on it, they rescinded that” and the bus program continued.
“It was great because when we started Education Lab, one of the things we wanted to do was help highlight issues that would then lead to greater educational attainment. And there is nothing more foundational to that than actually having students show up at class,” he said. “And there were a good number of them who were using that program and would not have been able to use the parking lot because they don’t have a car. … And so that kind of set the bar for where we needed to go, and we’ve been able to build upon that over time.”
Kieta is often asked “where does your funding come from?” Initial funding came from a few key founding supporters, including the College Futures Foundation; The California Endowment; James B. McClatchy Foundation; The James Irvine Foundation; Central Valley Community Foundation; Susan McClatchy; Paul Gibson and Joan Eaton; State Center Community College District, Dr. Paul Parnell; Don & Sally Clark Foundation; Deborah and Greg Lapp; Murray and Francine Farber; Pete Weber; and Joaquin Alvarado, Studiotobe, who is also a coach in LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding. A key to success, Kieta said, was establishing expectations of editorial independence and a clear funder-newsroom firewall early on.
The Education Lab also accepts donations from the community, with funds managed through a partnership with the Central Valley Community Foundation.