These news orgs are building beats from reader donations
Asking audiences to make a donation to support journalism may not have been something many local news organizations — apart from public media newsrooms, that is — had experience (or comfort) doing. The coronavirus pandemic helped change that.
Thrown into severe financial distress at the onset of the pandemic, some news organizations started asking for reader donations and subscriptions, explaining that they needed the funds to stay afloat. Many were quite frank about the financial hits they were taking as advertising revenue dried up, and about the cost of producing quality journalism.
In April 2020, the Local Media Association launched its COVID-19 Local News Fund to give local news outlets critical support as they pursued philanthropic funding, most of them for the first time. LMA took care of most of the work involved in creating a fundraising page for each outlet, using the platform Givebutter.com for processing donations. Newsroom interest in the program was such that LMA just launched the 2021 Local News Fund, which will help independent or family-owned news organizations raise money for local journalism projects via tax-deductible donations from the public. (The launch is timed to help newsrooms take advantage of Giving Tuesday, which falls this year on November 30. Thirty publishers are currently enrolled in the program, says Terese Kartholl, director of journalism funding initiatives.)
At the American Press Institute, we’ve been keeping tabs on local news outlets that seek donations from their audiences — particularly those that are using the funding to expand or launch specific reporting projects or beats. One of our interests is who donates to local news, and what they have in common (or don’t) with subscribers. How might that knowledge inform a good fundraising strategy?
We’ve rounded up some examples of local news outlets that have successfully sought donations for specific types of reporting, and included any insights they could offer about who donates versus who subscribes.
The Seattle Times has an Investigative Journalism Fund that accepts reader donations. The fund is managed through the Seattle Foundation, a local nonprofit organization. The Times began working with the Seattle Foundation in 2013, raising several million dollars to support its journalism. Much of that money has come from local philanthropic organizations, but for its investigative work, the Times also seeks individual support.
It runs online and print messaging encouraging readers to donate to its investigative fund, and includes a small blurb on investigative stories acknowledging that reader contributions helped make the reporting possible. It also does targeted outreach to longtime subscribers, who tend to make up the majority of individual donors, says Kati Erwert, senior vice president for product, technology and public service.
“We regularly ask individuals who contribute in our thank-you’s to them what has motivated their support and inspired their gift,” she says. “Over and over we hear that it is because they believe in the power of local journalism to drive our community forward. We do find that contributors tend to be subscribers, particularly those that believe in journalism and the role that journalism plays in a strong democracy.”
In February 2021, The (Charleston, S.C.) Post & Courier, a participant in the Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding, launched a campaign to raise $100,000 in community donations to support its investigative journalism. The Charleston-based Coastal Community Foundation served as its fiscal sponsor.
“Digital subscriptions can pay for our daily journalism, but the deep investigative work is expensive and needs another funding source to be sustainable under our changing business model,” wrote Executive Editor Autumn Phillips.
Strategically, The Post & Courier launched the campaign at the same time it published the first installment of its investigative project, “Uncovered,” which aimed to examine the loss of local news in the Charleston area and expose abuses of power that would otherwise go uncovered.
“‘Uncovered’ inspired people to give across the state, and we exceeded our $100,000 goal in less than a month,” wrote Phillips. They found that the executive editor’s column about “Uncovered” and the fundraising campaign was very successful in driving donations from subscribers. A thank-you cocktail hour and newsroom tour for donors also succeeded in bringing in even more donations.
Editor also added a “What It Cost” box to each “Uncovered” story, listing expenses for staff time, FOIA fees and travel.
To date, The Post & Courier has raised more than $500,000 for the “Uncovered” project, enough to fund its investigative team for one year. More than 1,600 people have donated, in amounts ranging from $10 to $150,000. Most individual donations are between $100 and $250.
After an experiment in which it dropped national content from its opinion section for a month to focus solely on local and state issues, the Desert Sun found that traffic to its opinion section increased and it received more submissions from local contributors. But there was extra work involved in soliciting and editing those submissions.
The Sun’s opinion editor took a buyout from owner Gannett in December 2020, about a year after the experiment was conducted. To continue the effort to cultivate more local voices, the Sun partnered with the Coachella Valley Journalism Foundation to underwrite the salary for the new opinion editor. Part of the funding for the position would come from individual readers.
“If the Opinion page of The Desert Sun goes the way of the dinosaur, this important forum for regional discussion will go with it,” wrote Joe Wallace, treasurer of the Coachella Valley Journalism Foundation. “Sustaining a professional, full-time Opinion editor for The Desert Sun in 2021 will cost approximately $60,000. We are starting today to raise these funds, and we ask you to join us with a tax-deductible contribution, large or small.”
More than 100 individuals donated, accounting for most of the opinion editor’s salary, said Executive Editor Julie Makinen. In May 2021, the Sun was able to hire longtime journalist Eric Hartley to fill the position. “It is incredibly moving and rewarding to know that scores of our readers and neighbors value these pages so much that they would make a donation to keep this forum alive,” Makinen wrote in her column announcing Hartley’s hire. “Now more than ever, these pages truly belong to the community.”
The Winnipeg Free Press remains one of the last newspapers in North America to have a dedicated religion beat. In 2019, it launched a yearlong pilot project to pursue funding for the beat from several of the city’s faith groups. The project resulted in $30,000 to support additional freelance writing — a success large enough to more than double the Free Press’ religion coverage in one year.
Then in May 2021, the Free Press created an online fundraising portal to allow individuals to make small, non-tax-deductible contributions to “keep stories of faith alive.”
“Every little bit helps; the link [to the fundraising portal], which you’ll also find in all our faith stories, will let you donate as little as $10 or as much as you can afford,” wrote editor Paul Samyn.
By August 2021, the Free Press had raised more than $10,000 in donations. The bulk of those donations came from the website, but $1,652 also came in via checks, in response to a note Samyn had written for the Saturday faith page.
“That’s not going to cover all our costs, but it certainly helps,” Samyn says. “It also provides some lessons we can use as we look to expand this approach to getting readers to support our journalism.”
In conversations with readers of faith, the Free Press heard that many feel ignored or misrepresented by the media. Its fundraising efforts, Samyn says, “helps sustain coverage of an issue central to the lives of so many that has long been dropped by major dailies. Because we are covering faith as broadly as possible, it also allows us to diversify our coverage as we pursue stories important to those in the Muslim and Sikh communities, too.”
The Record-Journal of Meriden, Conn., another newsroom participant in the Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding, sought philanthropic support for its Latino Communities Reporting Lab. While the local nonprofit Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation served as fiscal sponsor and four local businesses pledged a total of $20,000 in support, the Record-Journal also enabled individual donations via GiveButter. The goal is to raise enough money overall to hire five bilingual journalists who would report on issues impacting the local Latino community.
“Latinos represent 29.1% of Meriden’s total population, including 58.2% of Meriden students,” publisher Liz White Notarangelo wrote in a letter to readers introducing the Latino Communities Reporting Lab in March 2021. “Educators, business people, medical professionals, politicians and government officials told us that Latinos face inequities in all areas, from education to health to business. And that information is often inaccessible or is not available in Spanish, making navigating everyday life much more difficult.”
Since the project’s March launch, the Record-Journal has raised $135,000 from a combination of sources, including foundations, its business launch partners, and individuals. “With the amount we’ve raised so far, we’ve been able to hire two full time bilingual journalists and a bilingual intern and pay for translation of the articles, marketing costs to reach Latino audiences and technology, including equipment, datavisualization technology and a text messaging platform,” says White.
In the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz Local launched a fundraising campaign to support its solutions-focused reporting series on homelessness. Over the course of four emails sent to members and nonmembers (tailored to each audience), CEO and co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman explained the goal of the series, how much it would cost, their progress toward the goal, and the ultimate success of the campaign. Meyberg Guzman also made personal phone calls to about 20 members, telling them about the series and asking them to donate. When someone made a donation, they received an automated email that, in addition to thanking them, asked them to reply with a one- or two-sentence explanation of why they donated. Many of those responses were included as testimonials in the fundraising campaign.
The campaign resulted in more than 60 one-time donations, and Santa Cruz Local ended up raising $16,700, well over the original goal of $10,000.
“Other than a big influx of donations during our wildfire crisis here, and the big influx at our launch, these drives for specific reporting projects have been helpful,” says Meyberg Guzman. “Honestly I think what was the key was the specific, direct ask in a personal email from me, that showed the value that the reader would get if we reached our fundraising goal.”
Meyberg Guzman also noted that before the campaign, she spoke with two of Santa Cruz Local’s mid-level donors to get their feedback on framing and messaging. The donors suggested emphasizing the solutions focus of the series, she says — “that we’re more than just investigative journalism — we’re trying to make this community better.”
The message seemed to have been received. While many donors replied with testimonials about the general importance of local journalism, a few cited a desire to learn about possible solutions to homelessness in the region. “I made the donation in response to your promise of an in-depth investigation of the homelessness crisis,” one woman wrote, “hoping that your research will enhance our understanding of the problem and how to address it locally.”
Another donor wrote, “I believe Santa Cruz Local led the way in interviewing people experiencing homelessness, and now their voices are part of the coalition moving forward. Santa Cruz Local is changing journalism for the better.”
Have you seen another kind of beat or coverage area supported by audience donations? How do the donors relate, or not, to existing subscribers? We’d welcome hearing from you. Email editorial manager Stephanie Castellano, email@example.com.
For insight on retaining existing subscribers, see our survey findings on “What news publishers do to retain subscribers.” You can also see API’s full body of work on reader revenue here.
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