Last Wednesday, North Carolina and Duke played one of the most anticipated games of the college basketball season. On the court, UNC won, but discussion of the game focused on a knee injury Duke star Zion Williamson sustained after his shoe broke.

Off the court, to me at least, the biggest story surrounding the Duke-UNC game was The Rivalry Challenge, a fundraising competition and joint editorial project created by the schools’ student newspapers, The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle.

The two outlets competed to see who could raise the most money in the lead-up to the rivalry game. Their newsrooms also worked together to produce a joint preview section that was distributed online, in print on both campuses and sent to donors who contributed to the challenge.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to dig into the Rivalry Challenge. We’ll take a look at how the two rivals worked together on this project, how they promoted it, and how they’re thinking about keeping the donors.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one rad thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

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I also wanted to quickly thank Betsy O’Donovan for introducing me to The Daily Tar Heel’s Erica Perel and The Chronicle’s Chrissy Beck. And a couple quick disclosures: Both The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle have received grants from The Lenfest Institute through the Community Listening and Engagement Fund and The Daily Tar Heel has also participated in the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.

Here’s the TLDR:


• The Challenge: In advance of the Duke-North Carolina men’s basketball game, the two schools’ student newspapers wanted to find a way to a way to collaborate.

• The Strategy: They launched The Rivalry Challenge, a fundraising competition, and the two  papers jointly produced a special print section that was inserted in print and also given as a reward to donors.

• The Numbers: UNC’s Daily Tar Heel won by raising $29,892.54. The Duke Chronicle finished with $24,660.

• The Lessons: The challenge-focused fundraiser allowed the papers to reach new donors who hadn’t previously supported the site. They also thought like marketers, and heavily promoted the fundraiser — even getting coverage in the local media.

• The Future: Both publications are now thinking about how they can retain their new donors.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down for some of our previous coverage highlighting fundraising best practices from ProPublica, The Correspondent, and more.

The Challenge

In recent years, college newspapers have faced the same business challenges as their professional counterparts: circulation has fallen, print revenue has plummeted, and newsrooms have had to find new digital paths forward.

Student papers have traditionally built their revenue models on print advertising. They reached an appealing demographic for both national and local advertisers, and, as a result, companies were willing to pay to reach the students served by these papers.

But as advertising has continued to dry up, college newspapers have had to turn elsewhere to support themselves. And with most college newspapers being nonprofits, they’ve been able to look toward reader donations to help fund coverage. Those donations have mostly come from alumni and other non-student readers in the community.

“We have obviously had declining print revenue, digital revenue is growing but it’s never ever going to be the same. And as we transition to a new way of operating, donor contributions have allowed us to never have to consider major cuts to the editorial [budget],” said Chrissy Beck, director of The Chronicle, Duke University’s student paper.

Based in Durham, North Carolina, The Chronicle’s newsroom is just about 10 miles from the newsroom of The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina’s student paper. The two outlets — like the two schools they cover — have traditionally been rivals.

And while they’re still competitive, they’ve recently been looking for ways to work together.

“It goes back years of us talking to the Chronicle about whether there was some collaboration we could do around basketball,” Daily Tar Heel General Manager Erica Perel said.

With both schools fielding top-flight teams this year, The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle realized this should be the year that they nail down the partnership.

The Strategy

The North Carolina-Duke game last week was one of the most anticipated matchups in recent memory as both schools feature top-10 teams this year. Even Barack Obama showed up to watch the game.

The Duke-North Carolina rivalry is always a big deal, but The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel knew that this year would be particularly epic.

In late December, The Daily Tar Heel’s Perel and The Chronicle’s Beck began discussing possible basketball-related collaborations. They quickly settled on an idea: The papers could jointly produce a special section previewing the game while also competing with each other to see which outlet could raise the most money. Donors who contributed over a certain threshold also would receive a copy of the special section.

Before they could move forward though, they both needed to get buy-in from the student leaders who are actually running the newsroom.

The editors at both papers quickly agreed.

“The students from both media organizations needed to be on board. Both GMs needed to be supporting it and driving it. In this case, all four of those folks said yes very enthusiastically,”  Beck said.

“We’ve always had a great working relationship with The Daily Tar Heel, but it hasn’t always been the case that everyone is interested in jumping in,” she continued. “Five plus years ago…the newsrooms were much more territorial and secretive. They didn’t want to give away what was special or made them different to a competitor down the road. Now, the good thing about this change that has forced us all to rethink how we do this business is that it’s 100 percent collaborative.”

The papers had a conference call in early January to kick off the project. They created a shared  Google Drive to share editorial budgets, deadlines, and other relevant information.

“That was a big part of the collaboration,” Perel said. “We tried to make sure we weren’t stingy and we tried to share as much as possible.”

Half the special section would be produced by The Daily Tar Heel and half would be created by The Chronicle. On the production end, they divided up the pages of the special section that each paper was responsible for designing. The Daily Tar Heel has a bigger staff and more designers, so it took on designing the center spread. The papers are both printed at the same facility, but they’re each physically different sizes. That meant they had to agree on the actual size of the pages so everything would be uniform. (They went with The Daily Tar Heel’s size.)

They settled on a 28-page section, and each paper’s advertising team was responsible for selling ads in its side of the section. (In addition to the fundraising, the papers each got a boost in ad sales from the section.) They also, of course, published all the coverage online.

When it came to the fundraising, The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel both created a special landing page on their websites that included links to both papers’ donations page.

“Both nonprofit organizations are committed to funding the college media experience on our campuses for the long haul,” the page read. “In the short term, that takes some investment from our alumni and friends as we find new ways to generate revenue and streamline our independent operations.”

The papers both furiously promoted the fundraising challenge on social media, through their email lists, and via their alumni networks as they worked to out raise one another. (Much more on the fundraising in The Lessons.)

“The Fundraising perspective was so much easier — we’re each the primary person who’s responsible for fundraising. And she and I already have a great working relationship,” Beck said. “In general with the editorial, we tried to create the framework and the partnership and then let them do what they were going to do with it.”

The Numbers

The Daily Tar Heel won the Rivalry Challenge. It raised $29,892.54. The challenge ran from Feb. 1 through Feb. 20, the day of the game.

421 people donated to The Daily Tar Heel, and the average donation was around $70. And “at least half” of people who donated were people who had not previously supported The Daily Tar Heel.

“I’ve worked here for 10 years and was a student here before that. And  9 out of 10 of our donors,  I know them personally,” Perel said. But with the Challenge, “there were lots of donations. from people I didn’t know come through.”

The Chronicle raised $24,660 from 176 donors.

“We ended up with more gifts in one month than in all of last year,” Beck said. And only 16 of the donors had given to the paper in the past three years.

And even though Duke ultimately lost the challenge (and the basketball game), Beck couldn’t really complain about the outcome.

“I had my moment of being a little bit blue about it, but it is definitely one of those instances when everyone gets to go home with a trophy,” Beck said. “It’s going to be the best fundraising month we’ve ever had as an organization, but it’s hard to feel to down about it.”

The Lessons

• Messaging matters: February is not the typical time when news organizations haul in significant fundraising revenue. (The end of the year tends to be when they get most donations, and scroll down to Want to Know More? for how more on how think about your year-end fundraising. It’s never too early to start!)

But the Rivalry Challenge was able to generate so much money because it hit on a message that was topical and that stirred passion in its followers. By emphasizing the Duke-UNC rivalry and incorporating the competition, both papers were able to generate excitement.

“Most of the people who donated to us before this challenge have been our alumni base, people who worked as the Daily Tar Heel as students. They have this understanding and memory of the Daily Tar Heel as being very foundational to their college experience,”  Perel said. “That’s a Really powerful story to us to tell and to use as a fundraising pitch, but there’s this other fundraising base — people who love UNC, people who didn’t work at the Daily Tar Heel, and people who read it today as alumni. We wanted a fundraising strategy that would reach that audience and broaden the fundraising base beyond just the DTH alumni. Strategically, that was one of the goals.”

And to reach those audiences, both papers thought of creative ways to market the challenge. The Daily Tar Heel had a connection to Antawn Jamison, a former UNC player who also played in the NBA, and he came by the paper’s newsroom and made a video promoting the challenge. It was shared nearly 150 times on Facebook and received more than 14,000 views.

They also both pitched the story to local media. The Raleigh News & Observer published a story on the challenge. It was republished in other McClatchy papers around the state, and it drew significant attention to the collaboration.

“We made a list of people we wanted to pitch it to,”  Perel said. “It was a newsworthy project, and so many people care about this rivalry. [People were also] interested in this as a future of journalism topic. It’s something new we hadn’t done before.”

When you’re building a fundraising campaign, publications need to think about the right message for the right audience. You also need to think like a marketer and make sure you’re using the right channels to get the right message in front of the right audiences.

• Deadline pressure: A significant amount of the donations came in on the last day of the Challenge, just hours before the game tipped off.

The Daily Tar Heel raised $5,000 in the last four hours of the challenge, for example. Last Wednesday, it published a new fundraising video that was created by an alum and also sent a last-minute solicitation.

“The game was so hyped and people wanted to do something [before tip-off.],” Perel said. Donating gave them an outlet for their pre-game jitters.

The paper also wasn’t shy about asking for donations via its email list on social media. You don’t know how many asks are too many until you try it.  News organizations tend to be reluctant to ask for money, but the combination of smart asks and a deadline helped both organizations exceed their expectations with the Challenge.

Beck said she’d have been happy initially if the paper raised $3,000.

“It just blew my mind…I was screaming in the office,”  she said.

• Print lives?: Both The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle no longer print every day. As readership has moved online, both organizations have refocused their coverage to be digital first.

But there can still be an opportunity for news organizations to leverage their print products — especially around major events. People clamor for mementos, and are often willing to pay for them.

In this case, anyone who donated more than $25 got a copy of the special edition. (Though The Chronicle actually sent them to all its donors.)

“Anything that has an archival feel or some kind of keepsake feel in print does really well with us,” Perel said. “They might get their daily news by reading us online or via email, but they definitely have a real vested interest in keeping the issues of the Daily Tar Heel that feel like keepsakes to them. So what are things we can make feel like a keepsake? This idea just really jumped out. This is going to feel keepsake.”

• Collaborate!: This has sort of been the whole point of this issue, but I want to underscore it again: News organizations should think about how they can collaborate.

Often times, publications only focus on editorial partnerships, but there could be opportunity for outlets to join forces to fundraise as well. In this case, The Daily Tar Heel and The Chronicle had adjacent — but very different — audiences,  and they could leverage the existing rivalry into the fundraiser.

But it also helped that Beck and Perel had known each other for years. (They actually both worked at The Daily Tar Heel together as students. Beck was advertising director and Perel was editor.) Both papers also share a printer and use the same CMS, which helped with the logistics of publishing the joint issue as well as publishing the joint fundraising appeal online.

Even with those beneficial factors, the collaboration was ultimately years in the making and, most importantly, required buy-in from the student journalists.

“College media is right place right time kind of thing, “Beck said.

The Future

Now that the Challenge has ended, both Beck and Perel are now focused on retaining the donors.

Last Thursday, the morning after the Challenge ended, Perel sent an email to everyone who donated thanking them for the contribution and letting them know how The Daily Tar Heel plans to spend the money.

Both papers said they’re mainly spending the new revenue on operations that will let them continue to pay student journalists and send them to cover major events like the NCAA basketball tournament.

“Our incredibly talented students really deserve the opportunity to keep covering these big games and keep telling the stories of their community for a long time to come,” Perel said.

Perel’s initial message to Daily Tar Heel donors also included language encouraging them to become sustaining members who make a monthly donation or to let them know about major gifts or estate planning.

She is now preparing to send out about 350 copies of the special section to the donors who contributed at least $25.

“What else do I put in that envelope? I’m trying to make sure that our larger message that’s upbeat, positive, and nostalgic but also gets the larger message of why independent student journalism is important,” Perel said. “That’s the message we want to get in these next communications.”

Beck has already sent out copies of the paper to The Chronicle’s donors and similarly thanked them for their support.

Duke and North Carolina play again on March 9, but The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel are already thinking about how they can grow The Rivalry Challenge for next year.

“Can we replicate this every year? Can we do some version of this? The rivalry is there every year, and I think we’ll continue this in some fashion in the future but it’s hard to know if it’ll grow next year or if this was first-year excitement,”  Beck said. “I’m up for being a guinea pig to figure it out.”

Want to know more?

• You should think about fundraising as a campaign. Here’s how ProPublica approached its year-end fundraising last year.

• Sports can be a huge opportunity to generate revenue for publications. This is how The Philadelphia Inquirer capitalized on the Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl win.

• There’s no publication better at marketing itself than The Correspondent. You can get some insight into its crowdfunding campaign here.

Anything to add?

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See you next Thursday!

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