It’s a story that’s becoming more common across all levels of government: An elected official doesn’t like a news organization’s legitimate reporting, so they condemn the coverage, the reporters, and the outlet too.

This happened earlier this month in San Antonio, Texas where a city councilman called a press conference to denounce Rivard Report, a nonprofit site covering the city, for a completely fair and accurate story.

Instead of backing down from the controversy, Rivard Report turned it into a fundraising appeal

This week, we’re going to dig into how Rivard Report decided to send the membership appeal, how it thought about its messaging, and how it’s goign to be ready to capitalize if something like this happens again.

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

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Here’s the TLDR:


The Challenge: A San Antonio city councilmember  unfairly called out Rivard Report for, um, actually doing journalism.

The Strategy: The nonprofit site turned the ridiculous criticism into a fundraising opportunity by sending out a membership appeal in response to the attack.

The Numbers: Rivard Report raised about $3,000 from the one email.

The Lessons: The site was willing to experiment with a new type of fundraising email, and it had to move quickly in order for it to be successful.

The Future: Rivard Report is going to plan to experiment more with these types of emails.

Want to know more?: Scroll down to see how ProPublica tried something similar.

Anything to add?: In response to last week’s issue about a local public radio station covering the fire in Paradise, Calif. Former New Tropic editor Ariel Zirulnick shared some tips on covering hurricanes.

The Challenge

Earlier this month, San Antonio city councilmember Greg Brockhouse called a press conference to denounce reporting in Rivard Report, a nonprofit news site covering the city.

In his weekly Sunday column, Robert Rivard, the site’s founder and publisher, had revealed that a candidate for city council — who was supported by Brockhouse and the city’s powerful firefighter’s union — had a checkered employment history during his time as a city firefighter.

Brockhouse assailed Rivard because he received the document from the San Antonio city manager even as other journalists at competing outlets had pending open records requests for the same document.

“Everybody who’s in the press, period — I don’t care who you are, you’re (Texas Public Radio), you’re Express-News, it doesn’t make any difference — you should find it egregious and a violation of public trust that there are pending open records requests, pending requests, and another member of the media is able to utilize personal relationships to obtain information outside of the open records process,” Brockhouse said, according to a column in the San Antonio Express-News titled “Brockhouse explains journalism to journalists.”

Brockhouse also called on the city of San Antonio to cut off its business relations with Rivard Report through advertising or event sponsorships.

Rivard Report thought the reaction was overblown and completely off base, said chief operating officer Jenna Price Mallette.

“Bob just went to his contact and got [the document,]” she said. “From our point of view, it was totally valid.”

The Strategy

Still, Rivard Report wanted to find a way to respond — it just wasn’t sure how.

While all of this was happening, three Rivard Report staffers were in California participating in the Local News Membership Accelerator that Facebook runs. (Disclosure: The Lenfest Institute administers the program and we’re involved in the programming.)

Christian Science Monitor associate publisher David Grant, who was coaching Rivard Report in the program, suggested that the site send a fundraising email in response to the controversy.

“We were pretty skeptical because this was not something we had encountered before or acted upon with these emails,” said membership and audience engagement coordinator Kassie Kelly.

But Rivard decided to sign off on the idea and he wrote the appeal himself. It went through several iterations as the team edited it to get the messaging right.

“We wanted the message to be really focused on our mission, not just this issue itself, but what this issue means in a broader context,” Kelly said. “Why we’re important, why journalism matters, and what our role is in the community.”

Rivard Report held a staff retreat on Saturday Jan. 12, and the team stayed behind afterward to finish editing the message. It decided to send the email to readers who were subscribed to its email list but who weren’t already paying members. (We’ll talk more about that decision in The Lessons.)

The email with the subject line, “In defense of journalism.” It focused on the role of journalism and how Rivard Report works to make San Antonio better. Here’s an excerpt:

Our coverage of Dereck Hillyer’s poor record as a firefighter was accountability journalism at its best in San Antonio. There was nothing unethical about the way I acquired the public information on Hillyer, and the people who provided the information acted legally and in the interest of citizens and taxpayers.

Much of the journalism we publish celebrates the best of San Antonio — the individuals, organizations, neighborhoods, and businesses that together make San Antonio one of the country’s most unique and livable cities. Yet we do not shy away from reporting on the city’s problems, challenges, and shortcomings. We bring the same focus to our coverage of individuals whose motives are not in the public interest.

We ask you to deliver a vote of confidence in this important work by becoming a Rivard Report member today. Your donation will send a message that free press is essential to freedom of information and public discourse. Will you support free and independent journalism now?”

The email closed with a big blue button that said, “Yes I support the Rivard Report” and instructions on how to mail a check if people prefer to give the old fashioned way.

The Numbers

Rivard Report raised $3,075 from from the email. Ten donors signed up for monthly or annual recurring donations, so it expects the lifetime value of the members who contributed through this email to exceed $4,000.

The email was sent to non-members who already subscribed to Rivard Report’s newsletters. About 8,000 people were sent the email. Seven recipients unsubscribed.

29.5 percent of recipients opened the email, and 2.9 percent clicked on any links in the message. On average, 30.2 percent of newsletter subscribers open Rivard Report’s emails and 7.7 percent click through.  (The list is mostly used to share the site’s journalism rather than solicit donations.)

Most of the people who donated were first-time contributors.

“We had just come off our end-of-year campaign. Some of these people never opened our email, but these were people who were already getting messaging about becoming members. For whatever reason nothing we had sent them tipped them over the edge, but but this email did,” Price Mallette said. “Most of the donations were from new members, which was really interesting to us.”

This email was among Rivard Report’s most successful pitches in terms of money raised. It’s difficult to compare however, since most of the site’s fundraising requests are set in the context of a broader campaign.

For example, it raised more than $11,000 on Dec. 31, though it sent multiple emails on that day.

The Lessons

• Try things out: There were a few reasons why Rivard Report was initially hesitant to send a membership appeal in response to Brockhouse’s attack.

The site, which works with the News Revenue Hub, regularly sends out membership appeals over email. For instance, it raised around $8,000 from an email pitch after it moved to a new office last year. The News Revenue Hub also encourages news orgs to showcase their reporting in their solicitations. Rivard Report had done that, but it had never directly responded to a news story in the way it did with this email.

It was also concerned about asking readers so soon after finishing its year-end membership campaign. Rivard Report didn’t want to annoy its readers or overwhelm them with asks.

Finally, it was concerned about the personal nature of the attack. Rivard Report didn’t want to be seen as engaging in a tiff with a government official.

Ultimately though, Rivard Report decided that it was worth running a test to see how readers would respond to this type of membership ask.

Clearly it worked, and Rivard Report would not have known that it’s worthwhile to pursue messaging that responds to the news like this one if it hadn’t tried.

“It confirms and encourages us to think about diversifying our messaging and not being afraid to send out these kind of timely things,” Price Mallette said.

• Act fast: One of the reasons why this messaging worked for Rivard Report was because it was timely.

Rivard published his initial column on Sunday January 6. All the hubbub with Brockhouse happened over the course of the week, and the fundraising email was sent out the next Sunday, January 13.

Rivard Report was just focused on getting the messaging out quickly.

“Timing was critical,” Kelly said. “We didn’t know what the window would have been when it would have lost some of the momentum. We just focused on getting it out. It was risky because we hadn’t done anything like this.”

If you’re looking to fundraise off of a moment that’s in the news, you need to move fast before the moment passes.

• It doesn’t have to be perfect: Because it had such a short moment for this ask to be effective, the Rivard Report team had to move fast to get the email out.

Originally, it had wanted to develop a second email that tweaked the language for existing members. But because the site had just finished its membership campaign, it “hit a wall on how to word it to them,” Price Mallette said.

“We didn’t want to fatigue them. We felt the risk of fatiguing them was greater than the return on donation possibilities, so we let it go,” she said. “I would have liked to have figured out a better way to address it with our members. I think it would have resonated with our membership base even if it hadn’t been asking for money.”

But instead of delaying everything, it decided just to proceed with the email it could finish, which was the one it sent to non-members.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Kelly said. “We have this short window of time for this to be the most effective ask. Let’s just do it, and put our heads down and not get too worried about perfecting it. You look back and see lessons that can inform future things, but the key to the situation was just doing it.”

And now that it’s had some time to reflect on how it sent the email and its outcome, Rivard Report is thinking about how it can improve moving forward.

The Future

While Rivard Report hopes it isn’t always called out by city councilmembers like this, it’s planning to mobilize fundraising emails when there are big stories that call for this type of approach.

This time it was really just a rush to get out the email, but it’d like to experiment more by a/b testing subject lines, senders, and more. It’ll also try sending the solicitations to different audiences.

More immediately, Rivard Report this week sent out its latest update to its members and it included a summary of the incident in that report — along with the ability to donate.

“It’s worth including an option to donate,” Kelly said. “If we make a light ask, that option could be there. By just telling them what happened, they could donate without prompting. I want to track that.”

Want to know more?

• A few weeks ago, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin attacked ProPublica and its local reporting network. The site sent out a couple of fundraising emails in response to the comments. It raised more than $25,000.

• Want to know more about Rivard Report? Here’s a profile I wrote in 2016 of the site after it transitioned from for-profit to non-profit status.

• Check out this post from News Revenue Hub about why your news organization should send more email appeals.

Anything to Add?

Last week, after writing about how North State Public Radio covered the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., Ariel Zirulnick, former editor of The New Tropic in Miami, emailed to share a post she wrote about how the site covers hurricanes. Here’s an excerpt:

As reporters, you should be keeping tabs on the storm updates, yes, but you should be spending as much time, maybe more, on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and NextDoor, where locals will be spending their spare moments waiting in line for gas or taking a break from putting up shutters. What questions are they posting again and again? What are people expressing anxiety about? What misinformation can you debunk? At WhereBy.Us, the time peg of when we act is when a reader needs the information, not when the information is released or when the event happens. Listening carefully can help you focus your effort on utility rather than trying to keep apace with other information sources.

You can read the full story here.

If you have anything to share about this week’s issue, please reach out. I’d be very curious to hear if there are any unique ways your news org has tried to raise money or respond to critiques.

See you next Thursday!

Photo of Rivard Report office by Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report.

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