Community impact report: Telling the story of the value of journalism


By Frank Mungeam • LMA Chief Innovation Officer

Journalists are experts in telling the stories of others. When it comes to telling the story of journalism and its value to the community, newsrooms might take a lesson from the nonprofit world. While journalists might naturally assume that people in their communities understand and recognize the value a local news outlet adds to civic health, nonprofits often explicitly answer the question of value via annual “impact reports.”

An impact report tells the story of an organization through the lens of community benefit. It states the mission and documents the history of the organization, describes its programs and initiatives, and, most importantly, details the impacts of those efforts in measurable ways. Any news organization serious about developing philanthropy as a long-term pillar for funding civic journalism would benefit from creating an impact report to tell its own story of community impact.

The Tampa Bay Times created such a document while participating in LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, branded as “Your Donations. Our Stories. Lives Transformed.” Its 2020 Impact Report is a case study in how to prepare this type of document, and what elements to include:

  • Letter from the editor: Leadership matters. One critical element of a community-centered impact report is to hear from the news organization’s leadership, at the highest level, about the publication’s commitment to community.
  • Statement of mission and purpose: Journalists take for granted their civic and service mission, but this purpose often goes unstated. A clear statement of the mission and purpose of the news organization, specifically addressing how it seeks to serve and support all voices in the communities it serves, is an essential part of an impact report.
  • Examples of key reporting with outcomes and impact: Story count or articles published do not represent impact. Yet the reason why local journalism represents such a worthy investment for funders is that local reporting consistently drives meaningful outcomes and positive impact in communities. The Tampa Bay Times impact report, for example, documents a series of stories done by the Times that exposed injustice, led to changes in laws, gave a voice to the underserved communities, and fundamentally improved the broader Tampa Bay region. The key is to focus on outcomes and impacts, not merely the number of stories done.

  • History and legacy of the media company: “Legacy” has been paired with “news” lately as primarily a negative, connoting publishers who have not transformed digitally. But there is another way that the legacy of a local news organization is a strength. In many communities, the most trusted and longest-serving source of local information is a legacy newspaper or broadcaster. That legacy and history is a strength and an impact report should include a publisher’s history of service to its community.

  • Recognition and awards: While awards are not as important as examples of community impact and outcome, awards for a news outlet’s journalism are another way of demonstrating commitment and service to the community. Framing does matter. The best presentation of recognition and awards should focus on how the work of journalists has served the community, rather than appearing self-serving.
  • The team behind the work: The people who do the important work of journalism are an important part of the newsroom story. Showcasing the team and its diversity of experiences and expertise is an important way of demonstrating capacity for impact through the team’s reporting work.
  • Partners and key supporters: The impact report is also an opportunity to thank and acknowledge those who have already supported the publisher’s efforts. Publicizing (with permission) the names of key funders and supporters can also help open doors with other potential supporters.
  • How you can help: An impact report should offer ways for its readers to engage with journalists and support their efforts. The Tampa Bay Times, in its impact report, details a variety of ways to connect, from submitting story ideas to subscription and donation options. A strong impact report will be the start of a conversation with the community.

Each news organization should decide which of these elements to include in its impact report. The guiding question on what belongs: Does it help tell the story of how a news outlet’s journalism serves and enhances its community?

At the Tampa Bay Times, the impact report has been shared widely with all departments, including the news organization.

Keeler

“We want them to understand that this is a piece that you can take to your advertisers, to friends, community leaders. Use it as a tool to show what we do, or to ask for money … If you donate, this is what we can do and these are the changes,” said Annica Keeler, development and community relations director for the Times. “We have a lot of bits and pieces of who we are, and tied it all to the community coming together.”

The Times has distributed the impact report both as a physical glossy magazine and as a downloadable digital document, sharing it with everyone from newspaper and digital subscribers to donors, advertisers and community leaders.

Keeler said one goal of sharing the report so widely was that subscribers who’d never donated might consider making a contribution. She described receiving an email right away from a subscriber.

“She’d never donated but she’s a subscriber and she said ‘reading this report I feel so connected to this community. It’s so beautiful to see how people help each other by your reporting’ and it almost brought tears to my eyes, because that’s exactly what I wanted (to accomplish) with this report — to make our readers feel connected, and that if we work together, changes will happen. So I’m really proud of this.”

This was the first time the Tampa Bay Times created an impact report. It was released in November 2020 (nonprofits typically do an impact report once each year, releasing it in January or February for the preceding year). Planning is already under way for a wider distribution strategy for the next annual impact report.

“Next year, our plan is to print this out and have an event with it in December where … 300 community leaders get this report … as we have a kind of a community conversation,”  Keeler said.

There is no one right format for an impact report. Ultimately, it can and should reflect the history, values and personality of the organization. But the elements listed above are a good outline.

For another example of a news-specific impact report, see the LMA 2020 Impact Report published in early 2021 by Local Media Association/Local Media Foundation. There are also good ideas in the community impact reports from Detroit Free Press, Star Tribune, The Lenfest Institute, Borderless Magazine and others.

Journalists rightly pride themselves on telling the stories of their community. Newsrooms also need to be sure they tell the story of the value their journalism provides.