Every good media salesperson knows: Overcoming a client’s objections is key to getting to “yes.” The same is true when seeking to fund essential local journalism via philanthropy.

Since 2020, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate | NOLA.com has raised more than $2 million in philanthropy, dramatically expanding its investigative reporting to better serve the entire state of Louisiana. It has grown the number of reporting positions funded by philanthropy from just four in 2020 to 24 full-time positions in 2023.

In the process, the team has learned the most common “objections” — questions funders ask — and how best to answer them. During a “How-To” session at LMA’s Accelerate Local conference in April, Publisher Judi Terzotis shared the five most common questions asked by funders, and what the team has learned about “getting to ‘yes.’”

1. Why do you need financial help from philanthropy for local journalism?

While managers at local news outlets are painfully aware of the financial challenges facing local news, surveys consistently show the public isn’t. Funders often do not understand the ways in which the business model that traditionally sustained local news has been disrupted.

“We talked about how traditionally our business was a two-legged stool,” said Terzotis. “We relied on advertising and consumer or subscription revenue for years, for decades. But thanks to Big Tech, they’re commanding about 80% of all digital revenue. And overall advertising revenue is eroding because of diversification. On top of that, there are tons of news deserts. So really, we have to think about: ‘how do you pivot?’ And we’re pivoting with fundraising. So that’s our third leg of the stool.”

Terzotis pairs information about the changed business model for local news with a reminder about how essential trusted, local information is for a healthy community.

“This money will allow us to continue doing the important work of holding our leaders accountable,” notes Terzotis, “and shining a light on the issues that matter most to our community.”

2. If this journalism is so important, why aren’t you paying for it?

“We have a very wealthy owner who’s very well known in the state,” Terzotis acknowledged. All the company’s publications are for-profit. “So those had to be two big questions we were very, very prepared for.

“Our owners did not come up through media, and they could have taken their money and invested in so many other industries. But they chose to leave a legacy to be able to protect local journalism. John and Dethel Georges [the owners] have literally contributed millions of dollars to the state of Louisiana to save local journalism.

“We talked a lot to our stakeholders about that. If they really cared about community journalism, they needed to come to the table. They needed to be part of the solution.”

3. How much does this reporting really cost?

Terzotis uses this question to help funders understand that some of the most essential reporting — like investigative and accountability reporting — is both more expensive and less self-sustaining than, say, sports, food or other types of reporting that are easier to support through advertising.

“We tell potential donors how expensive journalism is,” says Terzotis. “Our Pulitzer Prize-winning series took a year, and cost us a quarter of a million dollars.”

4. We’ve never funded journalism before. How does this even work?

Even though philanthropic support for journalism is on the rise, it remains new territory for many funders and community foundations. Just as newsrooms have had to learn about how to engage with the philanthropic community, many in the funding community are unfamiliar with how and why to fund journalism.

“We [learned to] explain that this is not new, thanks to our friends at The Seattle Times. They have created a model for investigative journalism funds, and we learned a lot from them,” said Terzotis.

5. We can’t support a for-profit institution, can we? How can donations be tax-deductible?

NOLA.com, following the best practice used by other local newsrooms, formed a partnership with its local community foundation to act as a fiscal sponsor, to receive tax-deductible donations and disburse them to the investigative project.

“You’re not going to give money directly to us. It’s going to go to a community foundation, so it can be tax-deductible,” explains Terzotis. “But we keep really tight reins on what that money can be used for, and it can only be used for incremental reporting hours tied to the investigative team.”

The NOLA team also ensures transparency about who its donors are, and provides updates and reports on how funds are used.

Public examples of well-funded, high-impact local reporting partnerships between news organizations and funders, like those at The Seattle Times, The Post and Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald, can be used to show funders how these relationships can and should be structured.

These success stories also demonstrate how these partnerships can serve the aligned goals of funders, communities and good journalism. Being prepared to share these examples can help potential supporters see the ways in which the strengths of journalism and the goals of philanthropy can align for the good of the community.

NOLA.com is a graduate of the Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding and also its Advanced Fundraising Lab, made possible with support from Google News Initiative.

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