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Nov. 12, 2013, 10:33 a.m.
Business Models

MinnPost funds reporting through new donor-backed beats

The nonprofit has reached out to donors to directly fund environmental and mental health coverage. They’ve raised almost $250,000 so far.

MinnPost is trying to make a love connection between beat reporting and funders. The Minnesota-focused nonprofit news site has embarked on a new fundraising plan that directly ties donated dollars to specific beats.

MinnPost has raised over $130,000 for environmental coverage, specifically the Earth Journal blog written by Ron Meador. Now they’ve launched a new blog covering mental health and addiction issues, written by Sarah Williams, with over $110,000 raised so far, according to MinnPost CEO Joel Kramer. They hope to launch another crowdfunded blog in 2014.

minnpostnewIn both cases, the funding comes from individuals, not organizations or advocacy groups, and the donations are spread out over the course of a three-year period. “We’re still raising money for both. We have not yet reached our goal,” Kramer told me. “We have set a goal of $50,000 a year for three years, so $150,000 overall.”

Finding ways to pay for reporting has been part of the nonprofit news game since the beginning. But MinnPost new approach has the benefit of not just bringing in new dollars for reporting, but also opening up the nonprofit to new groups of funders who may not have considered cutting a check in the name of journalism.

“The people who are passionate about journalism will donate. They trust us. They’ve become major donors,” he said. “What we’re trying to do here is reach out to others — major donors who don’t have journalism high on their list.”

Kramer’s staff worked in conjunction with MinnPost’s board of directors to come up with the funded beats strategy. On the editorial side, Kramer said, they identify coverage areas they’d like to add to the site, as well as prospective writers to fit those beats. Kramer and the board then tried to identify possible funders by interest areas. “It’s easy to read annual reports and see who’s giving money to various causes and say, ‘Is there money in that community for those causes, and is it a passionate kind of support?'” he said.

From a business perspective, a funded-beat strategy helps MinnPost get in front of a new collection of people and helps the organization continue to diversify its revenue stream. “The more sources you have, the more protected you are if one of them doesn’t do well,” Kramer said. Most of the donors for Earth Journal are giving $5,000 or $1,000 annually, while the mental health blog has at least one donor giving up to $15,000 a year. It’s one more step towards making the site less dependent on funding from foundation grants, Kramer said: “These two beats together are bringing in about 5 percent of our revenue,” he said. “That may not sound like much, but we need to keep finding other sources.”

MinnPost’s strategy relies on a theory of philanthropic adjacency: You may be a big supporter of the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society but have no interest in funding a nonprofit news site. The proposition changes if that site plans to cover issues that are important to you, like clean water and conservation. It’s a plan that has worked for others, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner InsideClimate News.

David Sassoon, publisher of InsideClimate News, explained the approach to The New York Times in April, saying his pitch to funders is: “If you care about environmental issues, you need to support a robust press that can cover these issues because, well, it’s disappearing.”

There may indeed be piles of money out there waiting for journalism nonprofits — money from people with their own pet issues they’d like to see covered. But Kramer says he doesn’t expect MinnPost will chase after new beats just because a generous benefactor may be available. With a small staff and limited resources, MinnPost already has to pick its shots, meaning there are lots of areas that go uncovered. Kramer said the environment and mental health are areas that overlap with much of MinnPost’s current reporting. “We’ll only do beat in the coverage areas we’re excited about,” he said.

But they also want to find the right reporters and give them enough of a runway to establish themselves. Most of the funding goes to pay the writers, who are part-time staffers. The three-year term aims to give the reporters a measure of job security and to let them invest time in building sources and reporting. “We don’t want anyone to get hired, start to do the work, and then a year later say we don’t have the money,” Kramer said. He hopes they’ll be able to bring writers on the funded-beats into MinnPost as full-time staffers in the future.

“Our number one goal is to get more coverage on the site and cover more subjects we think are interesting,” Kramer said. “But the second, institutional goal is to attract more donors and get existing donors to be bigger donors.”

POSTED     Nov. 12, 2013, 10:33 a.m.
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