As news organizations look for new ways to fund their journalism, an ever-growing number of publications are turning to nonprofit organizations that historically haven’t supported journalism for funding.
Many of these nonprofits focus their work on specific issues and are turning to journalism as a way to raise public awareness about topics that they think are important.
This week in Solution Set, we’re looking at one such example of this type of funding relationship: Endowment for Health, a New Hampshire foundation, gave a grant to the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, to hire a reporter to lead Silver Linings, a year-long series on aging issues in New Hampshire.
We’ll examine why the Endowment decided to support journalism, how the partnership came together, and how the Union Leader maintained its journalistic independence.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons and point you toward other excellent resources you can learn from.
Before we start, an important disclosure: Endowment for Health has supported Solutions Journalism Network as part of its work with the Union Leader. SJN, together with the Lenfest Institute, funds Solution Set. I first learned of Silver Linings earlier this year when Endowment for Health Communications Director Karen Ager and I both presented in an INN webinar that focused on how to get funding for solutions reporting projects.
SJN had no oversight of this report, and I didn’t even tell them I was covering this topic. They’re reading it for the first time here. I decided to cover the Endowment’s support for the Union Leader in Solution Set because I thought it was an interesting case study that other news orgs could learn from.
Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the TLDR of what you need to know:
• The Challenge: Endowment for Health, a local New Hampshire nonprofit, wanted to find a way to fund journalism. The New Hampshire Union Leader, meanwhile, was looking for new revenue streams to support its reporting.
• The Strategy: The nonprofit and the newspaper agreed to work together on Silver Linings, a year-long solutions-oriented reporting project on senior health.
• The Numbers: In 2016, Endowment for Health gave the paper a $65,000 grant to support the project. It was renewed for a second year.
• The Lessons: It can be a challenge for funders to recognize they can’t control what a news org publishes, but it’s critical also that funders and publishers collaborate on a topic that supports both of their missions.
• The Future: The Union Leader has found additional funders to support other topic-based reporting projects and the Endowment is looking to fund reporting with the paper, or other outlets.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for guides for nonprofits that are thinking about funding journalism.
Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:
Endowment for Health is a New Hampshire-based nonprofit whose mission is centered around improving health and wellbeing in the state. And as a result of its most recent strategic planning process, the organization was looking for ways to raise awareness about its core focus areas.
Like most nonprofits, it pursued a relatively traditional communications strategy of putting out press releases, publishing reports about its own work, and working directly with reporters to pitch stories and propose coverage ideas. It had also underwritten documentaries produced by the local public television station.
As its board of directors and staff leadership met to plot a path forward, they coalesced around another potential strategy: Working with local news organizations to underwrite coverage of a particular topic of interest.
“It became clear it was going to become more important to use communications effectively,” Karen Ager, the Endowment’s communications director told me.
“Our board and president at the time really saw the wisdom in forging some underwritten coverage partnerships with journalism; trying to do a series on [some] of our priority areas,” she said. “We were given the green light very soon to go forth and forge an agreement.”
The New Hampshire Union Leader, meanwhile, faces the same challenges as virtually every newspaper with declining print advertising and circulation revenue that isn’t being made up from the digital business.
The paper is owned by a private nonprofit group, Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, and it began looking for alternative ways to fund its journalism. Publications of all sizes and business models — from national and international outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian to local publishers such as The Seattle Times — have begun to turn to nonprofit groups to fund for their journalism.
Endowment for Health began its approach to directly funding journalism slowly.
“I was worried about doing any type of journalism coverage project with no guard rails,” Ager said, adding that she began speaking with foundations around the country to learn more about how they supported journalism. Through that process, she learned about solutions journalism.
In May 2015, the Endowment, together with the New Hampshire Press Association, held a solutions journalism training for journalists from across the state. About 60 people attended, and Ager and the Endowment viewed it as a success.
After the training, the Endowment met with a handful of local news organizations to see if they’d be interested in partnering further with them to explore this type of coverage. The Union Leader was one of the outlets Ager contacted.
Trent Spiner, the paper’s executive editor, was also president of the NHPA and worked with Ager in that capacity to organize the training, which he also attended. Both parties were interested, and they both said they wanted to make it work.
“It took a while; it wasn’t easy,” he said.
It took a few months to hammer out the agreement, and the Endowment and the Union Leader ultimately decided to partner on a reporting project covering issues with aging. The Endowment insisted that everyone in the newsroom receive solutions journalism training while the paper maintained that it would be able to choose the reporter.
“The Union Leader had a good sweet spot with us,” Ager said. “A lot of their readership is older and they’ve gotten increasing questions about elder health services…the topic lends itself to the needs of their readership as well.”
In fall 2016, the Union Leader launched Silver Linings, a year-long reporting project covering issues of aging in New Hampshire.
Silver Linings was initially supported by a $65,000 grant from Endowment for Health in spring 2016. The Union Leader used the grant to hire reporter Gretchen Grosky as the paper’s health and aging reporter.
Grosky was the lead reporter on the Silver Linings project, and she started later in 2016.
The Endowment gave the paper a second $65,000 grant in September 2017 to continue the initiative through 2018. Grosky, however, decided to leave the paper earlier this year, so the Union Leader is currently looking to hire her replacement.
To date, there have been more than 80 stories published as part of the Silver Linings series.
The Endowment also gave SJN a $9,650 grant in 2015 to fund the solutions journalism training. In conjunction with the initial grant to the Union Leader, the Endowment also awarded SJN a separate $18,000 grant to provide the paper “technical assistance on the practice of solutions journalism.”
• Editorial independence is critical: When journalism is underwritten by nonprofit organizations, ensuring its editorial independence is perhaps the most critical component for news organizations.
When the Union Leader works with the Endowment or other funders (scroll down to The Future for more), it requires them to sign a contract, which it calls a firewall agreement, that outlines the limits of the funders’ influence over coverage. Before they accept any money, the paper and the funder sign the agreement.
“It lays out the fact that you’re providing us money, and we appreciate your money, but you are giving us complete editorial control, and here’s what that means,” Spiner said. “It’s in black and white, and everyone signs it before any money is exchanged.”
For her part, Ager had to explain to the organization’s board what editorial independence meant and that the Endowment wouldn’t have any control over coverage.
“Part of this was education [for] them…on what editorial independence is and then sharing some of the learnings I had from other philanthropies, such as you’re not going to be happy with every article and every headline, and the board needs to have our back before we embark on this,” she said.
The board ultimately came around, and while the Endowment has had minor questions about some elements of coverage it has on the whole been very pleased with the Silver Linings series and the Union Leader’s work.
Publishers looking to nonprofits for funding can also be involved in those discussions to help educate them about what editorial independence looks like and why it’s so important for a news outlet.
Spiner, together with his business side counterpart Katie McQuaid Cote, who is on the board of the paper’s nonprofit owner, met with potential funders only to walk away when they wouldn’t agree to a hands-off approach to the reporting.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow for some people,” Spiner said. “Some of the funders have said, I’m not going to do it. It’s a lot of money and when I’m spending this kind of money I want to have control over the product. So we say, thank you for your time. No hard feelings. This is how it works, and we’ll go our separate ways.”
• Pick a topic that works for both parties: Though they don’t have control over the exact editorial coverage, at the end of the day funders such as Endowment for Health, which aren’t explicitly dedicated to news, are supporting journalism because they think the specific topic areas are important.
So this may be a simple point, but it’s worth emphasizing: These types of partnerships only work when there’s agreement on the topic. For Silver Linings, elder health issues was a topic that advanced the goals of both the paper and the nonprofit.
“Choosing a topic is perhaps the most important thing that I do as part of the process,” Spiner said. “There has to be enough of a problem to write about the solution.”
The Union Leader actually conducted polling throughout New Hampshire to try and identify the topics that the state’s residents care most about. As a result, it has found other funders to support reporting on the opioid crisis and mental health as well as on employment issues in the state.
And the Endowment recognizes that it’s not going to want to support aging coverage forever. She said they’re interested in potentially funding a series covering racial justice issues in New Hampshire, and she’s unsure if the Union Leader would be interested in covering that topic as well.
“There has to be a sweet spot between what you want covered and what the paper feels is important, or it won’t work,” she said.
• Organizational structure matters: Nonprofits often try to avoid funding for-profit entities, which can be a challenge if you’re a for-profit outlet looking for grant support.
The Endowment technically could have supported a for-profit entity, but Ager said it would’ve been a tough lift with the organization’s board.
“Luckily this newspaper has a charitable foundation,” Ager said. The first grant was made to a charitable fund associated with the paper and the second was made directly to the nonprofit that owns the Union Leader.
Other news organizations recently have set up nonprofit arms to enable them to solicit donations to support their journalism. The New York Times and The Guardian each in the past year have set up philanthropic wings. And just this week Montreal’s La Presse announced it was turning into a nonprofit. (And, of course, The Lenfest Institute is the nonprofit owner of the Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com)
“[W]e think there are journalism projects we are eager to pursue that could be more ambitious and have greater impact with outside support,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn said in a memo announcing the move.
• Think beyond traditional stories: This is applicable to any type of journalism, no matter if it’s supported by a nonprofit, but it’s worthwhile to think about ways to reach readers beyond traditional story formats.
A condition of the Union Leader’s grant required it to hold a public convening of some sort to discuss the Silver Lining coverage. The Endowment expected it to be small discussion of sorts, but the paper ended up putting on a senior healthy living expo that featured panel discussions but also attracted about 70 vendors and more than 600 public attendees.
“We were able to provide this incredible public service for people who were dealing with the issues and reading the stories about ‘how do I care for my mom’ or ‘how do I care for my grandmother.’ Right there, they were able to get their questions answered and get the information they needed…it was such a value to the community,” Spiner said.
Thinking about events or other types of alternative journalism can help your publication reach readers you might otherwise not be reaching. This builds loyalty, which can ultimately turn those readers into paying members or subscribers.
In the immediate future, the Union Leader is looking to hire a full-time reporter to finish the last eight months of the Silver Linings grant. Ager and Spiner said they would asses whether they’ll continue the program once the grant is up.
Since the initial Silver Linings project launched, the Union Leader’s nonprofit owner has created a New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab that houses all of its solutions-oriented reporting initiatives, which includes the ones I mentioned earlier about mental health and employment in addition to the original Silver Linings.
The Lab has raised more than $200,000 to support the initial two projects, Spiner said. The Lab provides an ongoing mechanism to fundraise for this journalism as well as help spread the practices.
“Through the New Hampshire Solutions Journalism Lab, we’ve identified funders, identified reporters and we’re creating these deep dives on all these topics…We’ll have three reporters looking at three of the biggest issues in New Hampshire,” Spiner said.
Want to know more?
• Earlier this year, The Wyncote Foundation and Media Impact Funders published a terrific guide for nonprofits looking to support journalism. It also includes other ways funders can support journalism beyond just funding content production like we discussed here.
• The Democracy Fund last year published a report about how national funders can more effectively engage in local place-based journalism.
Anything to add?
Is your news org raising money in interesting ways? Have you heard of cool ways nonprofits are supporting news? I want to hear from you.
Send me an email, I’m at [email protected].
I’ll share some of the responses in next week’s edition.
See you next Thursday!