Want to improve journalism? Make journalists ask for money.
That’s the surprising lesson I’ve learned after working with more than 100 local newsrooms in the Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding.
It turns out most journalists hate asking for money. “It feels like a handout,” they say. “I feel like a failure,” they say. But there’s another reason they don’t say.
As journalists, we hold others to account. We decide what’s news. We set the agenda. We talk about freedom of the press. The power of the press.
Asking for money is about giving up power — admitting we don’t have all the answers, admitting we need our community’s support as much as it needs our journalism.
Fundamentally, it’s about trading hubris for humility, about moving from journalism that can be self-serving to reporting that serves communities. Seeking philanthropic funding shifts the focus from being about us and our needs to being about the community and what the community needs from us.
In our fundraising lab, we make newsrooms engage in community listening to hear what their communities really need, rather than what we as journalists think they need.
We then coach them to create journalism projects that address those needs. We look for “unity of purpose” — that sweet spot where good journalism, community need and funder goals align.
Asking for money actually changes the way we do journalism, because if it bleeds it may lead, but it won’t lead to funding. Seeking philanthropy is transformative not just for nonprofits but especially for newsrooms that are for-profit. Here are just three examples from our lab:
- The state of Louisiana ranks high in public corruption. So The Advocate/The Times-Picayune partnered with local funders and the Ford Foundation to expand its local Pulitzer-winning investigative and reporting teams to cover all of Louisiana.
- The Record-Journal in Connecticut learned through community listening it wasn’t serving its fast-growing Latino population. The team built partnerships, hired a team of bilingual journalists and helped shift Latino COVID vaccination rates in the area from lagging to leading.
- The Observer is a Black-owned publication that has served the Sacramento Black community for 60 years, including breaking the story of inequity in the use of county COVID funds. Publisher Larry Lee has tripled his editorial team through collaboration and funder support, enabling more of this kind of vital reporting.
Note that these are all for-profit newsrooms. This is the real power of the press: to drive impact for our communities. We create outcomes that matter to civic health when we focus on unity of purpose.
So how do we press forward, together? Here are a few key lessons gathered from LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding as we’ve worked with 100 newsrooms in the past three years, helping them develop reporting projects worthy of both philanthropic and community support.
Philanthropy rewards cooperation over competition; inclusivity over division; and impact over output, page views or awards.
Another lesson? In the words of the esteemed 20th-century philosopher Barney the Purple Dinosaur, “please” and “thank-you” really are magic words. So, thank you: To the amazing coaches in our lab; to the 100 newsrooms for doing the work to center around community, and in the process raise $19 million to fund essential local journalism; and thank you to Google News Initiative for its continued support of the lab.
Through our lab, I’ve learned this phrase, famous in fundraising: “Ask for money, and get advice. Ask for advice, you may get money.”
So, for newsrooms, I offer this advice: Ask for money.
It will help you do better journalism.