Liz White is the publisher and fifth-generation family owner of the 156-year-old RJ Media Group in central Connecticut, which includes one five-day-a-week newspaper, eight weekly newspapers, two websites and a digital agency.
When we graduated as a participant in the first cohort of the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding in April 2021, we had raised $0. Yep, $0. But Frank Mungeam and Joaquin Alvarado, our coaches in the lab, reassured us: You’re doing all the right things, just stick with it.
A little more than two years later, we have raised over $1 million, with a mix of 71% philanthropic funding and 29% new sponsors and advertisers. This is all to support the mission of our Latino Communities Reporting Lab: to amplify the voices of our local Latino communities.
And it wouldn’t have been possible without tremendous support, in many forms, from our community.
What are the “right things,” you ask? Here are some strategies we learned from our coaches and our experiences:
1. Listen! Listen! Listen! If you don’t do this first, then nothing else will matter. Start with listening and then build it into your ongoing infrastructure.
In preparation for launch, we conducted a five-month listening tour, including 82 individual conversations, four focus groups and 51 survey responses.
[Case study written about our listening approach: Built to last: Record-Journal creates Latino Communities Reporting Lab funded with philanthropy.]
We asked community leaders, community members and funders locally and nationally to give us feedback and ideas. We took over 100 pages of notes and boiled them down to two pages of takeaways that help guide our Latino Communities Reporting lab news coverage every day.
We’ve also created a Community Advisory Board, which meets monthly, built from key stakeholders from our Listening Tour. And we created many new partnerships with Latino media outlets and event organizers statewide to continue listening.
Our second year, we launched a 12-month in-depth listening, engagement and data gathering project funded by the Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge to gather a high volume of data and feedback through surveys. One of the main results was our Latino Communities Listening Playbook for Actionable News Strategies. This playbook is designed so that other media companies can replicate this listening model across the country as the Latino population growth occurs nationwide.
2. Partner with a local fiscal sponsor if possible. This helps when talking to funders because you have instant credibility that your community supports your concept and is partnering with you to help it succeed.
Before we launched, we had several partnership conversations with the Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation, which then became a tremendous supportive partner in our journey. This fiscal sponsorship allows us to accept grants and donations. Maria Campos-Harlow, the executive director of the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford as well as the secretary of the board of the MWCF, was instrumental in making this happen. We consider Maria a founding partnership of our lab because she has done so much to help us and continues to do so.
Here is Maria speaking at the Google News Initiative Community News Summit in August 2022 about the importance of community foundations supporting journalism.
3. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate… and then do it again. – We have a high volume and variety of partners, which has led us to so many great things, including story ideas, sources, new partnerships and new funding.
Three quick examples:
- The Spanish Community of Wallingford was part of our original listening tour and soon after became our translation partner.
- Our Launch Partner Sponsors helped us launch, including our Complimentary Access Sponsor, Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Specialty Metals, which is still sponsoring to this day so we can provide all our Latino Communities Reporting Lab articles for free to our community.
- Collaborating with other Connecticut Latino media outlets to distribute our content more widely and expand the audiences we reach, which is also important to funders. Countless other partnership examples supported and continue to support our growth.
This graphic shows our logo, featuring our fiscal sponsor, the Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation, and our sponsor of complimentary access to our Latino Communities Reporting Lab content.
4. Be creative. Think of new and different opportunities and projects to attract funders and do the work you heard needs to be done.
During our listening tour, one theme we heard again and again was the injustices and inequities that Latinos face in all areas of life, from employment to education to health. A health equity reporter stood out as an immediate need for our community in order to shine a light on these inequities and highlight solutions, especially during the pandemic. So we approached funders and ultimately paired national support from Report For America with local support from the Connecticut Health Foundation, both excellent partners, to fully fund this position for three years.
5. Demonstrate impact early and often. Find ways to generate outcomes you can show to build your track record.
Demonstrating impact is key in order to show funders what outcomes their funding can produce. In April of 2021, we completed a collaborative 12-Week Vaccine Reporting Project called “Providing Trusted COVID-19 Vaccine Information for Latino Communities.” We had six local collaborative partners: two hospitals, the United Way, the Spanish Community of Wallingford and a Latino media outlet. During that project, 82% of visitors were new to our site, so we were reaching new audiences.
We’re thrilled to share that we were able achieve collaboratively both of our objectives:
- Provide trusted COVID-19 vaccine information because vaccine misinformation is disproportionately impacting the Latino community
- Help create equity in the rate at which Latinos receive the vaccine compared to white residents in CT
At the beginning of the project there was a very wide gap in the rate and by the end of the 12 weeks the rate was the same and we had helped achieve equity in the vaccination rate! This was an extremely exciting outcome for all of us collaborators and our community. And none of it would have been possible without all of the collaboration.
6. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. No can mean just for now, not forever! And the more nos you get, the closer you are to getting a yes! If you truly build things grounded in listening to your community, in the long run, your community will support it.
We heard many nos at first and we didn’t get any big wins in the beginning, but we are proud of how far we’ve come since.
7. Think big and explain long-term sustainability. Be ready to explain a larger long-term vision and the total needed to fund all parts of that vision and budget over several years, from the journalists to the technology, marketing, translation etc.
Our coaches told us to create a larger fundraising goal to use when talking to potential funders, and for us, that was $2.1 million to fully fund our lab for four years. We wouldn’t have thought so big without this advice, and ultimately, we think that helped funders see our long-term vision.
8. Make philanthropy a priority in your company
This graphic shows our company’s five strategic pillars of transformation. You’ll see that the foundation of our company is trusted local journalism, our strong brands and legacy and our relationships in the community in all areas. Our teams in all departments are represented in the circles and we’re all collaborating together everyday.
The five pillars represent revenue growth areas that will help us support trusted local journalism into the future. We’ve been working on these first four for more than five years: digital subscriptions, owned-and-operated revenue, events and our digital agency. Three years ago we added a fifth pillar, philanthropic funding for journalism, because that’s how important we feel it is in supporting trusted, local journalism into the future.
9. Pursuing philanthropy can attract new traditional revenue. This helps as you’re building your lab as well as with long-term sustainability.
The more listening you do, the more creative you are and the more open you are to collaboration, the more a variety of funding paths will present themselves. So when you’re doing community listening and listening with potential funders, make sure to explore all ideas, which can also lead to traditional and creative sponsorships and advertising revenue. We have eight philanthropic funders, as well as over 40 sponsors and advertisers.
One example of this for our lab is a local bank that has been a sponsor since launch that runs branded content about financial literacy in both English and Spanish next to our Latino Communities Reporting Lab content. Another example is that when people started seeing our lab content published in print in Spanish, they started calling us to advertise around it. Yep, THEY called US!