Over the past 18 months, I’ve worked directly with 36 different local media outlets on ways to fund essential local journalism through philanthropy, and also had the opportunity to talk about these opportunities at a number of conferences.
The types of funded journalism projects are remarkable in their diversity, from a racial equity reporting lab, to a dedicated COVID-19 vaccine reporter, to initiatives designed to better serve Spanish-speaking and bilingual audiences; at the top of the list are reporting efforts around education and investigative work.
Our first and second cohorts of the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding raised nearly $7 million collectively to support local journalism, so I often get asked questions like: What’s the right kind of journalism to fund through philanthropy? Or, even more directly: What’s the secret?
As the range of topics above shows, there is no secret – no one topic that’s the perfect marriage of journalism and philanthropy. The right project should emerge through a sincere community listening process that uncovers the areas of reporting most needed, and we coach newsrooms through that process in our funding lab.
Instead, the real answer is to identify unity of purpose, as one Lab for Journalism Funding alumnus calls it. With this beautiful phrase, Sacramento Observer Publisher Larry Lee improved on my recommendation to seek the sweet spot where funder and journalism goals align. It contains within it our sense of purpose as journalists, and guides us to that intersection point of the needs of our community, the interests of funders, and our own journalism efforts. That is why, in one community, the right project might be the Latino Communities Reporting Lab where the Latino community is both growing rapidly and at the same time poorly served by traditional news outlets; whereas in Biloxi, Mississippi, the true need was for more and better reporting on COVID-19 and vaccinations.
So why are funders increasingly seeing partnerships with local news organizations as a powerful way to further their goals? The best local news organizations bring three critical strengths to a partnership with funders – strengths many of us in journalism take for granted, but should not. Understanding these strengths and leveraging them, in partnership with funders, is essential in order to seize this moment in time to act on behalf of our communities in these areas where we find common purpose.
1. Audience reach
We all know the saying about delivering a great sermon to an empty church. No matter how noble the message, it has no impact because it has no reach. Impact requires the ability to connect the message with an audience. News organizations may take for granted that one of their strengths is their established audience reach, which makes a news organization a great potential partner for a funder looking to have impact in a community.
2. Trusted messenger
It’s not enough to have an audience. Communicating information in a way that is clear, compelling and — especially in these times — factual, is essential. This is the core skill set of journalists, and what news organizations excel at: telling stories in ways that connect with audiences; taking complex issues and making them accessible; and sifting through information to identify the facts. Even with recent assaults on media and a broader erosion of trust in institutions, local news sources continue to be seen as the most trusted, according to Pew Research Center. For funders, a news organization is a powerful partner because of this role as trusted messenger in their community.
3. Track record of community service and impact
“Legacy newsroom” is a phrase that has come to have only negative connotations in recent years. To the extent that some long-time news organizations have been slower to adapt to digital disruption, that’s fair. But it’s incomplete. Reflect for a moment on the true meaning of the word, and the best local newsrooms also have a positive legacy: a legacy of community service and journalism that has had impact, from righting wrongs to holding the powerful accountable to changing laws. In the funding world, it’s easy to promise impact. But in practice, the best predictor of future impact is a strong track record of past community service and impact. This is where legacy local newsrooms have excelled, and why they make great funding partners.
When it comes to developing philanthropy as another pillar to sustain essential local journalism, the type of journalism project matters. It must first and foremost address a real community need, and the journalism response must include solutions as well as problem-reporting, and engage audiences across platforms, rather than simply be a plan to “do more stories.”
But at a more strategic level, local news organizations often underestimate three strengths they bring to any partnership with a funder on community initiatives where they share a unity of purpose: the ability to reach significant audiences, as a trusted messenger, with a track record of impact.
The the Lab for Journalism Funding, a project of Local Media Foundation, is operated by LMA with continued support from the Google News Initiative and new funding from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.