When Rob Curley set out to host events as a fundraiser for the The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, he wasn’t aiming to raise money from ticket sales. The events, he said, were “built around the idea that you were going to show the community what it was like to actually come together and talk about things.”
Curley wanted to host talks that were so obviously beneficial to the community that generous donors would give large sums of money to keep them going. And it worked. In the last five years, the paper has raised $1 million from its community.
Spokane, says Curley, is “a really literary town.” So he launched the Northwest Passages Book Club, bringing in high profile authors to speak about their work and tie those conversations into issues of importance to his audience in Eastern Washington.
Tickets were free, and the first event sold out. He told author Nate Blakeslee, who had written a book about the reintegration of wolves in Yellowstone, that the audience was “40% ranchers, maybe 40% environmentalists, and 20% people who had nothing to do in Spokane tonight.” Despite these differences, he said, the audience was engaged, thoughtful and respectful.
“And when the lights turned on, no one left,” said Curley. “I mean, they just kept talking. And that was kind of my idea.”
That night, an attendee wrote a $25,000 check to the paper to encourage more community events. The same thing happened at future meetings, alongside smaller donations from readers.
Curley said the members of the newsroom were initially unsure about the book club plan, which he fully expected. “You’re paying these people to be skeptical,” he said. “I mean, we want them to question everything. And if we think that they should turn that off when we’re talking, we’re fools.” In time, he said, the successes of the book club became clear.
With the extra funding, The Spokesman-Review has been able to do things that are unimaginable for most local newsrooms. That includes running a Washington, D.C., bureau to cover issues through the eyes of Eastern Washington. Spokane’s large military population led its reporters to break a series of articles about problematic electronic health records at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Spokane also boasts the largest Ukrainian population in the United States. When the war with Russia started, the paper sent a reporter to cover local doctors who had gone to the border to help people fleeing the country.
Raising money from the events also made it easier to fundraise elsewhere. Rather than asking a potential donor simply to fund a new project or position, Curley would bring an idea and ask donors to match money he had raised elsewhere.
Although the book club model is particularly suited to Spokane, Curley said, all newsrooms looking to fundraise from their communities could follow The Spokesman-Review’s model of inviting potential funders into the newsroom.
“I think that getting the community to understand what we do is the key. And you would think that they do, but they don’t,” said Curley. “To them, this might as well be Keebler Elves producing this every night, because they have no idea how it really works. And when they find out, they’re way more invested.”
Over the past five years, he said, the physical newsroom has been redesigned to accommodate visitors. The entryway features historical artifacts, like the first publishers’ desk and the newsroom’s first laptop, to give a sense of the history of the paper. The conference room has been made bigger to welcome guests into the daily news meeting.
“All I want to do is just to keep this rolling,” said Curley. “I think the business of journalism is in trouble. And if we don’t try to start solving problems a different way, then it’s going to be really in trouble.”
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