For-profit news operations are scaling reporting efforts through nonprofit collaborations


Local Media Association’s Digital Summit Week launched August 10-14 as a virtual event. This keynote discussion with Tim Ritchey, publisher of The Fresno Bee, comes on the heels of LMA’s announcement that applications are open for 15 media companies to join the new Center for Journalism Funding Lab. The Fresno Bee’s Education Lab is a successful example of how journalism positions and reporting can be supported through philanthropic funding. Find more takeaways, video recordings, presentations, and insights here

By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

Newsrooms were shrinking before the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent economic crisis only exacerbated financial issues for many local publications throughout the country.

But an increasingly popular funding model is bringing reporters back to many for-profit news operations. Some established daily newspapers now work directly with nonprofits, foundations and community stakeholders to create dedicated “journalism labs” that cover underreported topics impacting the quality of life in that community, such as education or poverty.

This lab concept wasn’t necessarily new when The Seattle Times started its Education Lab in 2013, but their effort has since become the blueprint that other publications follow. The lab receives funding support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and City University of Seattle. The concept has since expanded to include other Seattle Times labs, such as the Traffic Lab, which covers transportation issues, and Project Homeless.

“This network continues to evolve, and there’s a lot of lessons we have learned — with a lot more to learn,” said Joaquin Alvarado, executive director of Project Accelerate at The Seattle Times, and instruction leader in LMA’s Center for Journalism Funding Lab.

The success story from Seattle has since spurred similar lab operations, including The Fresno Bee Education Lab, which was announced in September 2019 and officially launched in December in collaboration with Central Valley Community Foundation, a local nonprofit run by Fresno’s former mayor. To date, the project has raised $633,000 into a foundation-owned fund that will fund the Ed Lab through January 2022, Publisher Tim Ritchey said during his keynote address Aug. 12 as part of Local Media Association Digital Summit Week.

Ritchey

The project has gained so much support because donors want to help address the educational inequities in Fresno. Learning the community needs is key, Ritchey said, for potential new labs that hope to garner a similar reaction from potential donors.

“In many cases, they want to address a specific issue — these specific issues — and they believe that journalism is a powerful accountability and solutions-driving tool to help make change,” said Ritchey, who spoke with LMA in July about the Fresno Bee Ed Lab.

Reporting from the Ed Lab has already exposed the Fresno school district’s inability to distribute tablets to their 74,000 students as promised and the subsequent response from the state superintendent to address student inequities caused by this digital divide.

“These are just two examples of the impact philanthropy-funded journalists are having in our community, and that’s what it’s about,” Ritchey said. “We’re off to a great start, and I could not be more proud of the very strong team in place. They are having a significant impact in the community at the most challenging of times.”

Ritchey said one-third of his entire newsroom — or 10 journalists — is funded through philanthropic resources. The early success of the four-person Ed Lab team helped spur the creation early this year of another philanthropic-funded lab, Fresnoland, which is named after the nonprofit that partnered with the Fresno Bee. The lab funds an additional four reporters who are dedicated to covering land use, development, urban planning, and natural and water resources.

Additionally, the Fresno Bee has two journalists who are partially funded for two years by Report For America, a national nonprofit that aims to place hundreds of journalists in newsrooms nationally. One Fresno-based reporter is covering state poverty issues in collaboration with CalMatters, and the other is focused on Latino issues in the region.

“Moving forward our focus and challenge will be expanding on these efforts and making them sustainable,” Ritchey said.

Want to know what doesn’t work and learn from industry colleagues who have launched successful journalism labs? LMA just launched the Center for Journalism Funding that will enroll 15 publishers that aspire to create their own lab concepts. Applications are now open, with all submissions due by Aug. 26. LMA CEO Nancy Lane said she expects a lot of interest in the program, with the strongest applicants expected to showcase how local leadership already has deep ties in their community and a track record of quality local journalism as well as CEO-level buy-in that includes a time commitment to ensuring new labs are successful.

Alvarado has been tapped to lead the program and build the curriculum based on lessons learned at The Seattle Times. He said enrollees can expect several lessons from mid-September to March:

  • Survival skills
  • Lessons learned
  • Surprising rewards
  • Drive other business verticals from your community listening efforts
  • Impact your community
  • Gain new relationships locally

“At the end of the cycle you’re going to be in great shape to go out and make something happen in your community,” Alvarado said. “And you’ll join a community of people who are all moving in the same direction.”

More from the LMA Digital Summit Week Wednesday keynote: Journalism Funded by Philanthropy – Do You Have a Strategy? | Watch the recorded session