Late last year, Victor Hernandez faced something he’d grappled with before in public media — what’s the best way to find and use philanthropy in the newsroom? There was no guidebook, he discovered, that showed where to look for funding, how to build a team with a funded position, and how to measure impact.
“I figured if it was an area we hoped for better footing with, there had to be others out there, too.”
This is an excellent problem to tackle. Newsrooms have several options for newsroom positions paid for outside of the newsroom, from fellowships and partnerships to grant funding.
As part of the NewStart graduate program at West Virginia University, Hernandez studied strategies and best practices for navigating philanthropic support. The result is a playbook that shows how to find, support and sustain philanthropic-supported newsroom positions.
Hernandez, now chief content officer at WBUR and previously executive editor at Crosscut and KCTS9, spoke with me via email about what he learned.
What newsrooms did you study?
As part of my research work for the past year, I’ve examined and spoken with folks from a dozen local newsrooms including Fresno Bee, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ouray County Plaindealer, Malheur Enterprise, WCAI Cape Cod, Haitian Times, El Perico and Maine Center for Reporting.
Each of the outlets presented their own newsroom size, audience scope and plans for using the added support to further their journalistic goals. Whether it was learning how larger newsrooms like The Fresno Bee, who currently feature 10 philanthropy-funded newsroom roles, or tiny publications like the Ouray County Plaindealer and their three total employees, all of the outlets I spoke with were bullish on the potential for leveraging grant-supported reporter roles to further their community reporting capacities.
What will people find in this playbook?
The playbook offers quite a bit. For newsroom leadership, a resource guide to survey and learn what others are experiencing with the expansion of added reporting resources through philanthropic opportunities. Both the breakthroughs and the bumps along the way.
Additionally, journalists are able to gain a keen awareness of how organizations are shaping editorial strategies with these roles as part of important investments in critical areas such as audience growth, digital subscriptions, email newsletters, reaching diverse communities, and more. For journalists like Eve Zuckoff, who covers climate change for WCAI Cape Cod, moving from short-term reporter through RFA’s reporter corps program to permanent staffer with her home newsroom means there are proof-positive signs of sustainability with these strategies.
This isn’t just a playbook for nonprofit newsrooms, right? What should journalists in for-profit newsrooms know?
Right. There are plenty of newsrooms — both for-profit and non — taking advantage of millions in philanthropic support each year. The Seattle Times began using fundraising in 2013 to further the 125-year old publication’s reporting, largely through reporting labs. And by 2020, it maintained four reporting labs that collectively funded 17 newsroom employees and accounted for more than $2.5 million.
The Fresno Bee, as highlighted in the playbook, has been able to impressively expand its reporting footprint through philanthropy in just two years. The outlet was recently selected to join other local Fresno newsrooms in a new pilot project sponsored by Microsoft created to improve community reporting in several U.S. cities.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” Bee editor Joe Kieta told me in December 2020. “We’ve been able to raise the profile of our work to get this content to a larger audience, which has been really impactful.”
According to the “Community Foundations & Journalism: Funding Data from 2009-2019” report, community foundations gave a total of $6.5 million in journalism grants in 2014. By 2018, that total was $26.3 million — a whopping increase of 304%. The bottom line for all newsrooms to understand right now: There is a surge of local support dollars available to newsrooms — both for-profit and non.
After studying this, what strategies are you the most excited about?
Where I believe there are marked gains with those outlets who are proving most effective in this developing space, are those who are placing these reporting resources onto community beats and seeing immediate impacts. That is to say, treating the termed positions as a short-term boost to one’s general news reporting typically isn’t enough to move the needle toward sustainability. Providing a community reporter the defined lane and essential support to focus on a particular local nuance in a fulsome way will position them and your outlet to produce greater results.
Overall, I’m inspired by the urgency, ambition and focus by so many I spoke with inside newsrooms, associations and foundations to look for inventive ways to grow community reporting muscle through philanthropy at a time when so much is being written about newsrooms contracting, merging and closing. In the playbook, I wrote a lot about how community support can serve as an important counter to the erosion of local news.
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists