Newspapers chase philanthropic grants to fill coverage gaps
By Max Willens
In the good old days of newspapers, the sports section and the lifestyle pages helped pay for important investigative work and coverage of less sexy, but more socially vital topics such as education or the environment. Today, more for-profit newspapers are seeking out grants and charitable donations to help pay for their coverage.
The Guardian, which also asks readers to fund certain reporting projects, is currently using funding from several different philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation and the Band and Wyss Foundation for reporting on topics ranging from global development to biodiversity; this fall, the Chicago Tribune got a grant from the Pulitzer Center to fund its reporting on how climate change will threaten both industry and ecology on Lake Erie.
Beyond the grants themselves, some papers have begun hiring people specifically tasked with forging these relationships with philanthropies. In late November, McClatchy named Lauren Gustus to be its first director of community funding. Gustus, who also serves as regional editor of McClatchy titles in California, Idaho and Washington, has a 2020 goal of finding the funding necessary to launch eight different news labs across the country. They would be similar to the lab focused on education McClatchy’s Fresno Bee launched in October. Each lab would have a minimum of four reporters, Gustus said. Gustus is also teaching newsrooms in those markets how to solicit from local philanthropic organizations funding for reporting projects.
McClatchy is not the only for-profit news publisher interested in philanthropic funding these days. A few months earlier, The New York Times announced it had named former Seattle Times executive Sharon Chan to be its vp of philanthropy, a new role focused on building revenue and partnerships with large charitable organizations. The Salt Lake Tribune went even further in its quest for nonprofit revenue; it won Internal Revenue Service approval in October to turn into a nonprofit.
Managers for other for-profit publications are encouraging their reporters and editors to hustle up grant revenue on their own to finance reporting projects. Last week, as part of its participation in the Lenfest Institute’s Table Stakes program, the Raleigh News and Observer published a 11-page guide to aid journalists and editors in search of grants.
Securing grants and donations requires specialized skills and has, at least in some nonprofit newsrooms, created anxiety among reporters about possible conflicts of interest. But publishing and philanthropy executives told Digiday they expect a rise in the amount of charitable donations to support journalism. And some editors view attracting support from foundations as a key way to support experiments and projects.
“It got to the point where I felt very dependent on our advertising and circulation departments to chart the course of our future, and that did not feel very comfortable for me,” said Jill Jorden Spitz, the editor of the Arizona Daily Star. Her paper began working with community groups to help fund reporting projects in 2016. “This felt like a way we could help bring money in, both to keep going but also [because] there was no way we could fund new positions or new projects.”
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