Can local news organizations engage in important journalism that serves their communities and is also worthy of philanthropic support? The answer was a resounding “yes” from a panel of national funders who judged Local Media Association’s “Pitch Day” on March 29, as the newly graduated cohort of newsrooms from the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding presented their philanthropy projects.

Twenty news organizations completed the second cohort of the six-month immersive lab, which includes training from industry experts and one-on-one coaching for publishers. The Lab for Journalism Funding is made possible with continued funding from Google News Initiative, and additional support from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. To date, 36 publishers who’ve completed the lab training have raised more than $7 million to fund local journalism projects.

The 10 judges for LMA Pitch Day included representatives from Google News Initiative, Lenfest Institute, Knight Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, and Report for America. Their feedback offers lessons for any news organization considering funding its journalism in part through philanthropy.

Tackle a problem that matters

Newsrooms in the second lab cohort developed journalism projects to address issues that mattered deeply in their communities. The most commonly identified issue was around public education. Two news outlets in the Northeast focused on the local effects of climate change and growth. Inequality, especially around education and economic opportunity, was a theme of many projects.

Involve the community

Judges made particular note of the fact that these newsrooms engaged with their communities to develop their projects. Newsrooms based their proposals on feedback that affirmed which issues mattered most to their audiences. Judges praised this practice of grounding the journalism in community listening.

Show how your journalism can make a difference

Journalists are trained to tell the stories of others. Judges noted that these news organizations also took the time to tell their own stories — the value that their local journalism provides to their communities. Journalists may take this for granted, but these funders stressed the value of making the case for how local journalism supports the civic good.

Celebrate your successes

Many of the news organizations that pitched their project had already secured initial funding support. Funder judges encouraged calling this out, noting that funders are reassured when they see others supporting a newsroom’s work. A number of newsrooms also were able to point to specific examples of how their journalism had directly impacted laws. Judges liked these examples that demonstrate the impact local journalism can have in a community.

The top four projects at Pitch Day earned stipends totaling $6,000. Each project stood out in a way that made it uniquely strong. In their feedback to newsrooms, funders commended the news organizations for prioritizing community listening and selecting journalism topics that truly mattered to their communities.

“I really appreciated, for funders who are not familiar with funding journalism, pointing out that in other communities this [philanthropy-funded journalism] is happening,” said Karen Rundlet, journalism director, Knight Foundation. “Some local funders are still not familiar with this [model].”

Rundlet also lauded newsrooms that called out how “information powers solutions,” the strength of journalists sharing their personal stories, and focusing on “what success would look like.”

“It was wonderful to hear about all the great work going on at so many news organizations,” said Annie Madonia, chief advancement officer with Lenfest Institute. “It was really an honor.”

Ben Monnie with Google News Initiative congratulated the group on “really terrific work.” He stressed the importance of thinking about sustainability past initial funding.

“I really liked when folks were able to articulate ‘what is success?’ and thinking about it both from a journalism point of view but also from a sustainability point of view, i.e. once the philanthropy goes away.”

“It was great to see this group of news organizations truly put the community at the center of their work, identify an essential community need, and then connect the dots with a plan to use their journalism as part of an effective response to address the problem,” said Frank Mungeam, LMA chief innovation officer, who leads the lab.

Pitch Day winners

Conecta Arizona earned first place from judges for its initiative to reach Latino communities using mobile messaging including WhatsApp, Messenger and SMS to combat COVID-19 misinformation. Conecta Arizona’s approach personified meeting the audience where they are, delivering trusted information the community needed, when and where they needed it. View the presentation.

The Seattle Medium earned second place for its program that focuses on educational inequalities in Seattle. Judges praised the strength of the reporting done by the Medium, demonstrating the specific ways in which Seattle’s public education system was failing Black youth, and the Medium’s plan to address those issues through investigative reporting. View the presentation.

In the second pitch round, The Sumter Item earned first place for its plan to partner with the University of South Carolina on a digital news literacy project. Judges praised the news organization for forging this key partnership, and for tackling an urgent need in their community for better digital literacy as a way of combating misinformation. View the presentation.

New York Amsterdam News earned second place for its project to tackle the problem of gun violence in New York City, and reduce gun deaths in the Black community. Judges praised the publication’s courage in tackling such a critical issue and for its bold vision to drive real change. View the presentation.

Newsrooms interested in applying to join the next cohort of the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding are invited to contact Lindsey Estes, director of strategic initiatives and member services. The third cohort of the Lab for Journalism Funding is made possible through continued support from Google News Initiative.