By Frank Mungeam • LMA Chief Innovation Officer
In the landmark business book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors James Collins and Jerry Porras identify core characteristics of organizations built to succeed over the long haul. These companies embrace purpose, not just profits; they set “big hairy audacious goals” (BHAG); they are willing to try many things; they often have home-grown leadership; and “good enough” is never good enough.
The Record-Journal of Meriden, Conn., one of 16 publishers in Local Media Association’s Lab for Journalism Funding, has exhibited many of these qualities while creating its Latino Communities Reporting Lab in a way that is truly “built to last.” The publisher’s approach offers a roadmap to other news organizations interested in developing philanthropy not as a funding band-aid or ATM, but as an enduring pillar to sustain critical local journalism.
LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, launched in September 2020 with support from Google, guided participating publishers through a six-month curriculum developed by a team from The Seattle Times led by Joaquin Alvarado. Through March, the 16 publishers had combined to raise more than $1.5 million, an average of nearly $100,000 per publisher. Previous LMA case studies detailed the successful fundraising strategies implemented by NOLA.com/The Advocate and by The Post and Courier. Those two publishers have combined to raise more than $600,000 to fund local investigative reporting positions.
The power of community listening
The Record-Journal offers a different set of lessons, grounded in a strategy focused on long-term trends, developing long-term relationships, and securing long-term funding. For Liz White, publisher of the 154-year-old family owned company, the entire project was rooted in community listening, which included 82 conversations, more than 50 survey responses and four focus groups.
The need — and opportunity — that emerged was to better serve the growing Latino communities in the news organization’s coverage area. “Latinos represent 29.1% of Meriden’s total population, including 58.2% of Meriden students,” White said. “In Wallingford, Latinos make up 8% of the total population, including 19.6% of Wallingford students.”
Latino Communities Reporting Lab
In March, the Record-Journal launched the Latino Communities Reporting Lab in partnership with the nonprofit Meriden-Wallingford Community Foundation as fiscal sponsor, multiple business sponsors, and the involvement of many community stakeholders. Local Latino stakeholders were deeply involved, including naming the Lab and developing its Spanish translation Reportajes de la Comunidad Latina. The three-part mission of the Lab is:
- To provide empowering, fact-based news, information and resources for our Latino communities.
- To shine a light on injustices and inequities to promote greater understanding and a more inclusive community for everyone.
- To showcase the successes and contributions of Latinos as a way of inspiring young people to expand what they consider possible.
“Our goal … is to build a new team of five bilingual journalists representative of our Latino communities to fulfill this mission and drive outcomes and impact for our community,” said White, who published her own Letter from the Publisher in the paper on launch day explaining the mission of the Lab.
The newspaper also committed funding of its own and in February hired bilingual reporter Jareliz Diaz as the first member of the team.
Impact through partnerships
Community listening led to key learnings that enhanced the Lab, including adding bilingual staff to drive the project internally, and partnering with local Latino news outlets to better connect and serve the community.
“Every single conversation we have had with a community stakeholder has been an important step in our listening and learning process to build our Lab, and we’ll continue this listening as our Lab evolves,” White said.
White could have been quoting from the pages of Built to Last when she described the company’s approach.
“Just like everything we do, our plan to achieve success in this pillar is to live by our motto, ‘Succeed or Fail Fast,’ which means don’t be afraid to take risks and try new things,” White said. “When we succeed, stop and celebrate. When we fail, fail fast, adjust and try again or move on to the next idea.”
Beyond one-size-fits-all philanthropy
One of those inventive adjustments has been to be open to different types of philanthropic support and creative partnerships with local businesses. Newsrooms traditionally think of philanthropy as just one thing, either a large funder or a direct donation program.
The Record-Journal launched its Latino Communities Reporting Lab with $20,000 in support from four local businesses. “We customized each of the four launch partner’s sponsorship packages based on their feedback,” noted White. One partner funded complimentary access to the lab’s content for two months; another wanted to be a donation matching partner, where every dollar donated by the community will be matched, up to $7,500; one is recognized as the featured first launch partner; and one is featured via a branded content package focused on financial literacy in the Lab content section for two months.
Built to last
The Record-Journal has already raised nearly $50,000 since the March launch of its reporting lab. That includes a direct-donation option on Givebutter for anyone who wants to support the work of the Lab. But the team has grounded its approach in deep community engagement to have lasting impact and long-term success.
“For our company, philanthropy is now the newest strategic pillar for funding journalism in the future. The other strategic pillars we’ve successfully built over the last few years include digital subscriptions, our digital agency, events, and opportunities around our owned-and-operated efforts,” said White. “Our goal is for our newsroom to be fully funded by a combination of digital subscriptions and philanthropy in the next five years. The foundation of these two pillars starts with listening and being audience-focused, so they really go hand-in-hand.”
Q&A with Tracie Powell on disrupting philanthropy, organizational culture, and challenges to the journalism industry