Organizing Small Donors in Support of Local Reporting

Media companies from Condé Nast to BuzzFeed are laying off employees by the hundreds during the covid-19 crisis. Yet the Long Beach Post, a regional news website with 20 employees, just hired two new reporters. “We’re still growing instead of contracting,” says David Sommers, the website’s publisher.

How does a small operation like that buck the journalism contraction? Philanthropy. (For more examples of philanthropic contributions to journalism, see the Spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy, “Can Philanthropy Save Journalism?”)

Marcelle Epley, president of Long Beach Community Foundation, has a longstanding interest in using philanthropic gifts to support local news reporting. In 2017, she helped create the Long Beach Media Collaborative—a structure that provides funds to four media entities in the region, including for-profit entities like the Long Beach Post. “I really believe that the future of journalism is going to be based in philanthropy,” Epley says. “I see people in the community giving to news sources to see, hear, and be more educated on those causes and organizations they care about.”

The Local Media Association, a national trade association of publishing businesses, sponsors training and support to help community newsrooms raise gifts from their audiences. They recently launched a Covid-19 Local News Fund, and report it has helped steer $1.4 million of small citizen donations into local journalism. The new fund allows donors to give to newsrooms that operate as 501c3 nonprofits, or to make tax-deductible donations through the Local News Fund that are channeled to local for-profit media organizations for enhanced covid-19 reporting.

The Day, a for-profit daily newspaper in Connecticut, has raised $74,000 from 754 donors using the Fund’s charitable infrastructure and website links. Thanks to these donations, The Day has been able to produce special content focusing on the high-school graduating classes of 2020 from surrounding schools. “Those have been a huge hit with the community,” says Shawn Palmer, chief revenue officer at The Day

Reporters are normally reluctant to engage with the financials of their news operations, but Carlos Virgen, digital news director at The Day, says that as donations have come flooding in, his colleagues have felt more directly connected to readers. Given the success of their covid-induced special reporting on high-school classes, the newsroom is now considering other ways that philanthropic support could produce special community coverage. “There is an opportunity for The Day and other news organizations to pursue a model like this beyond just the covid-19 pandemic,” he says. 

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