The email landed in inboxes with an urgent question: “Will you support our efforts to bring you the local journalism you deserve?”
It was the final push of a crowdfunding campaign The Salt Lake Tribune launched in August to raise support for a Report for America journalist covering Utah’s public lands.
The campaign worked. The Tribune raised more than $31,000 to cover its portion of the RFA journalist’s salary.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to try to understand why the Tribune’s RFA fundraising campaign succeeded. We’ll take a look at the paper’s successful messaging and get a sense of how it worked to include its newsroom in the process.
RFA partnered with The News Revenue Hub to help participating newsrooms, such as the Tribune, crowdfund support for their journalism. Earlier this fall, I sat in on the Tribune’s post-mortem meeting with RFA and the Hub to breakdown what worked and didn’t work with the campaign. That conversation formed the basis for this issue.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday (but Friday this week!), we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
A quick disclosure before the TLDR: The Lenfest Institute has funded Report for America, News Revenue Hub, and The Salt Lake Tribune in varying capacities. We weren’t directly involved in the campaign we’re covering here, though an Institute grant is supporting a project related to a different campaign the Tribune is now running. (It’s complicated, I know, but I’ll explain more below.)
• The Challenge: Report for America partnered with the News Revenue Hub to help newsrooms crowdfund support for RFA positions.
• The Strategy: The Salt Lake Tribune worked with the Hub to raise money for its journalist covering public lands in rural Utah.
• The Numbers: The Tribune raised $31,507.17 from 330 donors.
• The Lessons: The paper used clear, concise messaging that it knew would resonate with its audiences. It also made sure to get buy-in from the newsroom.
• The Future: The Tribune is now fundraising for another RFA position, which is focused on women’s issues in Utah.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about campaign best practices and also about the Tribune’s move to become a nonprofit.
• Anything to add?: Join us on Monday for #NewsBookClub. We’re reading “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms.” Scroll down to learn more. (It’s a slim book, which you can totally finish over the weekend.)
Since its launch in 2018, Report for America has placed dozens of journalists in local newsrooms. Inspired by service-oriented programs such as Teach for America and AmeriCorps, the program works with local newsrooms to recruit and pay journalists to cover the community for a term of one or two years.
Report for America pays for half of the reporter’s annual salary — up to $20,000. The participating publications then have to cover the rest. (And if they continue for a second year, the news organization has to cover more of the cost.)
The program recommends that participating news organizations raise the rest of the reporters’ salary from community members. The idea is that it will open up community foundations, local philanthropists, and other donors to supporting journalism.
There are multiple strategies for approaching the fundraising, and the RFA team will work with publishers to determine what’s best for them and then implement the strategies by connecting them to resources or funders.
One of the approaches RFA is trying is crowdfunding. It hired the News Revenue Hub, which helps news organizations launch and run membership programs, to work with its newsrooms on creating campaigns.
The goal was two-fold, said Tristan Loper, the Hub’s co-founder and executive vice president. First, it was helped news organizations with crowdfunding best practices and also the logistics of how to accept contributions. The donations were routed through RFA’s nonprofit parent The Groundtruth Project, which made the donations tax deductible, but required a lot of explaining to the public.
The second goal was to try and boost awareness for RFA. “How could we increase awareness and invest a nation of donors in a larger project?” he said.
One of the newsrooms that worked with News Revenue Hub through Report for America was the Salt Lake Tribune. The Utah newspaper has two RFA journalists in the 2019 cohort, and it thought crowdfunding would be the most sensible way to support their work — especially as it prepared to make the transition to nonprofit status and would become even more reliant on community support.
“Salt Lake City was primed for this program,” Loper said.
The Tribune and News Revenue Hub decided to focus the campaign on RFA reporter Zak Podmore, who covers rural San Juan County in southeast Utah. Some of the core issues in the area focus on the fight over public lands between federal, local, and tribal governments. Podmore lives in Bluff, which is about a six hour drive from Salt Lake City and has a population of 258 people, according to the 2010 Census.
Podmore joined the Tribune in June and over the summer he began publishing investigative stories highlighting how San Juan County had spent millions of dollars on attorneys for land use cases.
“He’s exposed a lot of wrongdoing,” said Fraser Nelson, the Tribune’s vice president of business innovation. Nelson leads the Tribune’s fundraising efforts, and she’s been managing the paper’s move to nonprofit status.
Public lands, particularly the debate around the Bears Ears National Monument, are hot-button issues in Utah, and Nelson thought that the topic — combined with that Podmore’s hard-hitting reporting — would resonate with readers.
The News Revenue Hub’s fundraising strategy revolves around email communications. As a result, the Tribune set out to create an email campaign highlighting the work and asking the community to support the RFA reporter.
The Tribune launched the campaign in August 2019, and the first email asked readers to “Help power our reporting from San Juan County:”
“We’ve been working hard to produce more reporting on issues that matter to you, and to San Juan County. Lawsuits over redistricting and Bears Ears National Monument. The new Navajo majority on the County Commission. Access to public lands. Closed-door meetings. There’s so much The Tribune reports on — but at a time when most newsrooms are cutting staff, it’s a daunting task.
That’s why we’re launching a crowdfunding effort to support our San Juan County reporter, Zak Podmore. Every donation will be matched, dollar for dollar by Report for America.”
In total, the Tribune sent out five emails, and you can see them all here:
- Help power our reporting from San Juan County
- Our San Juan County Report for America reporter’s investigative work is having a real impact.
- When we’re at our best
- This is it. We need you now.
- Thank you for your incredible support
The Tribune developed a process by which Nelson would write the email appeals and then get them signed off by editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce and Podmore. (I’ll talk about this in much more detail below in The Lessons.)
The Tribune sent the appeals to all its email newsletter subscribers. They sent the email over the course of a few weeks from August into September. If someone donated, they were not sent the subsequent emails.
In addition to the emails, the Tribune ran corresponding ads on Facebook and Twitter that boosted the message of each email sent out.
Each email highlighted Podmore’s work and explained why readers should continue to support it. Some of the later emails also featured quotes from readers explaining why they were supporting the Tribune.
The final email was a thank you to all subscribers highlighting the success of the campaign.
The Salt Lake Tribune raised $31,507.17 from 330 donors as part of the campaign.
It sent out five emails throughout the campaign. The appeals were sent to about 18,000 email addresses. The emails had an average open rate of about 37%, though the individual open rates ranged from 41.2% to 34.5%. The emails had an average click through rate of 0.86%.
The most the Tribune raised from one email was $12,309. That was from the fourth email in the series, which gave a 24-hour deadline before the end of the campaign.
• Make the case: People aren’t just going to give you money because you email them. You need a clear and concrete message that will encourage people to give.
The Tribune intentionally highlighted the fight over public lands and Podmore’s in-depth reporting when it made the asks.
“These need to be specific, they need to be somewhat hard-hitting, they need to tell the truth of what’s happening there,” Nelson said. “Bears Ears is a touchstone issue for us here in Utah…It’s a symbol of what the Tribune does.”
Making the case goes beyond just an inspiring narrative. You need to also make it easy and efficient for people to donate. In addition to online donations, the Tribune also made it clear that readers could write a check and mail it in.
The Tribune and News Revenue Hub were also intentional in their newsletter design. The emails were each concise and simply designed. They had clear buttons to donate, and there were no other links in the newsletter aside from multiple links to the donate page. (And the Tribune is planning on trying some A/B tests moving forward to continue to optimize its newsletters.)
“People are willing to give $100 to journalism. It’s possible,” Loper said. “You just have to make the case, and you have to be of value to the readers. Those organizations that don’t necessarily succeed in the crowdfunding, it’s not that they’re bad or that they’ve done something wrong, it’s that they haven’t done something. They haven’t pivoted. They haven’t been making the case for why they’re valuable. They’ve just been trucking along.”
• Involve the newsroom: The first email of the campaign caught Podmore off guard. The solicitation highlighted how one of the county commissioners responded to his reporting.
The commissioner wasn’t thrilled that his quote, which was used in a news story, was now being used to help fundraise for the Tribune.
“He lives in this tiny little town,” Nelson said. “He is really pissing people off. He goes to the grocery store and people turn their back on him — and I’m talking about the grocery store, as in the one grocery store.”
After the initial email, the Tribune took a week off before resuming the campaign and it instituted a new workflow to make sure that Podmore was kept in the loop.
Nelson would write a draft solicitation and then share it with Napier-Pearce, the Tribune’s editor, who would then pass it along to Podmore’s direct editor. They’d then go through it with Podmore to make sure everything was kosher. They decided to go through his regular editor so it didn’t feel like it was an order coming down from the top of the news organization.
Once Podmore and Napier-Pearce signed off, Nelson would make any changes and then hit send.
“It gave some more comfort to him, while at the same time it was assuring the truth of what I was saying,” she said.
Membership or crowdfunding campaigns need buy in from the newsroom to succeed, and the Tribune worked to make sure that its journalists felt comfortable with how the paper was portraying their reporting to potential donors.
• Think about the big picture: As the RFA campaign was preparing to launch, Nelson went to Tribune publisher Paul Huntsman to see if he would want to send one of the messages to readers.
He said no.
The Tribune has been preparing for its move to nonprofit status and it is planning a major fundraising campaign to accompany the transition. Huntsman didn’t want to dilute the impact of him asking the community to support this one project, when they want to create a larger narrative.
“He wanted to keep his powder dry for the big ask,” Nelson said.
As publishers prepare fundraising efforts, they should think about their asks in a holistic way and they should use their resources strategically to maximize impact.
The Tribune wrapped up its first RFA crowdfunding campaign in September, and it has since launched its second campaign to support a RFA journalist.
It’s now in the midst of a campaign to support the work of RFA journalist Becky Jacobs, who is covering the status of women in Utah.
The most recent email sent to potential donors was actually from Jacobs and included details on the results of a survey of Utah women that the Tribune recently conducted. (The Tribune received a Facebook Journalism Community Network grant to fund the poll. The Lenfest Institute is administering the grant program. The future of local news world is very small.)
“One of my first headlines was ‘Utah ranked worst for women’s equality — again — with a long way to go to catch No. 49’. I’m going beyond reporting those rankings to explore and understand women’s experiences. By helping to fund this reporting, you are increasing the exposure of Utahns to the systemic problems that women face,” Jacobs wrote in her email.
Earlier this month, @sltrib and Suffolk University surveyed 400 women across Utah in early November through a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.— Becky Jacobs (@ruthyjacobs) November 20, 2019
In the coming weeks, we’ll publish stories from the results. pic.twitter.com/PoRSm6TgRS
In an even split, women said their two biggest challenges in Utah are:— Becky Jacobs (@ruthyjacobs) November 20, 2019
1. Low wages
2. Cultural expectations about gender roles. pic.twitter.com/bRlxWrVUa7
The Tribune this month also received IRS approval to convert to a 501c3 nonprofit. So now that it’s gotten the go-ahead to move forward with the transition, the Tribune expects to continue to rely on reader backing to support the newsroom as it prepares to launch a major fundraising campaign.
“We want to save the paper,” Nelson said.
Want to know more?
• Charitable giving tends to increase around the holidays. News organizations should be prepared to capitalize on this time of year. (I know many of your outlets are participating in NewsMatch, for example.) Here’s how ProPublica plans its year-end campaigns.
• Here’s how the San Antonio-based Rivard Report used an email campaign to raise funds after a city councilman unfairly criticized the site.
• Nieman Lab used a FOIA request — via fax machine! — to get a copy of the Tribune’s IRS application. It’s a fascinating read and you can get a sense of how the Tribune pitched this to the government.
• We also published a report in September that took a look at the Tribune’s nonprofit ambitions.
Anything to add?
The next meeting of our News Book Club is happening this Monday. We’re reading “There’s No Crying in Newsrooms: What Women Have Learned About What It Takes to Lead” by Kristin Gardy Gilger and Julia Wallace.
We’re meeting at 1pm EST on a Zoom call. You can get all the details here.
Our host for this discussion, Anita Zielina, the Director of News Innovation and Leadership at the CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, will lead our conversation.
The book is short and insightful. You’ll be able to read it in no time over the weekend, and I hope you’ll join us on Monday to discuss it.
See you next week!
Creative Commons Photo of Valley of the Gods by US Bureau of Land Management.