August 22, 2018

Sharon Chan learned a big lesson fast when she first started working to build community funding for journalism at The Seattle Times.

At a journalism conference, she approached someone from a national foundation and said, “‘Hey I want to talk to you about funding journalism at The Seattle Times.’ That person quickly exited the conversation,” said Chan, now the Times’ vice president for innovation, product and development. “That’s all it took, one sentence. ”

Since then, Chan has learned that getting community funding takes time, relationships and a very different approach than building sources. You can see the results of those lessons now in the Times, with its Education Lab, Traffic Lab and Project Homeless.

In 2014, the Times’ goal was to build $1.8 million in funding for journalism initiatives over three years with nine different partners. By 2017, the Times brought in $2.1 million in funding with 21 foundations, corporations and nonprofits. From 2010 to 2018, it brought in more than $4 million.

None of that happened quickly, though.

“I started this in October of 2014,” Chan said. “There’s really nothing to show for it for a good 24 months.”

The Times, a for-profit newsroom, first started tinkering with the idea of community funding in 2011 with The Greater Good Campaign, a public service ad campaign devoted to public education. That led leaders at the Times to wonder if they could get community support to fund reporting.

In 2014, the Times launched Education Lab with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network. In 2015, Chan moved into a one-year role as director of journalism initiatives. In 2017, the Times launched Traffic Lab. In 2018, it launched Project Homeless. The funding for those projects now employs about 10 people.

“We are building this journalism with the community, not for them,” Chan said.

Here are a few things Chan has learned since she got started:

  • At the Times, the purpose went from keeping the newsroom running to finding and solving problems in the community, or, as Chan puts it, asking “How can journalism save the world?”

  • Community funding doesn’t improve the profit margin of the Seattle Times. “It will improve the news product,” Chan said, and that attracts the kind of subscribers the Times is going after.

  • Getting community funding takes support at the top levels.

  • The funding itself can take a lot of time. Conversations with one funder started in June of 2015, Chan said, and an agreement wasn’t signed until August of 2017.

  • Donor development is not source development. “You’re building relationships; you’re not trying to extract information from them on deadline or get them to respond to you on deadline.” That means understanding the goals of different organizations and how they match up with the goals of the journalism.

  • Journalists are always concerned about maintaining independence, but funders are, too, Chan said. In quarterly meetings with funders, she shows a slide reminding everyone that those organizations don’t have access to reporters, don’t have prior review, don’t know what specific stories are coming and that readers will know who they are. Those funders are sophisticated, Chan said, and they don’t want to look like they’re buying coverage. “Actually, it’s in both parties' interest that the journalism is independent,” she said.

  • You don’t just build a relationship and secure funding. The newsroom has to engage with the community, both through the work and in real life, which leads to new story ideas. And the newsroom has to measure the impact — for example, Education Lab reporting on innovative approaches to discipline. That work was followed by a day-long event, a town hall and a Facebook group. It led to legislation, a change at the school board level and one school taking educators to California to learn about alternative methods.

The Times is getting faster at launching new initiatives. It used to take between 18 and 24 months, but the team is now working on how to move quicker and be more experimental, testing a hypothesis instead of waiting for all the funding to come in.

Chan has been informed and inspired by the success of local and national nonprofit journalism organizations, including the Voice of San Diego, The Marshall Project, The Texas Tribune and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

But, she said, she thinks the future of journalism can’t be entirely funded by nonprofits.

“The answer isn’t just to let major institutions in cities die and let 1,000 nonprofits fill that hole,” she said. “Something is going to be lost for the community if that’s the answer.”

Next week, I’ll be sharing a big list of places to look to for funding ambitious work. If you have suggestions, please let me know.

In the meantime:

  • Read this from the Fort Collins Coloradoan’s Jennifer Hefty on why local newsrooms have to show why they’re valuable.

  • Local News Lab has lessons from mentoring in times of change.

  • Facebook’s Journalism Project is having events in Los Angeles and Philly.

  • What are your ideas (big or small) for helping local news? I'm collecting ideas.

  • And there’s still time to sign up for the Poynter College Media Project. (Tell your budding journalist friends.)

See you next week!

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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