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April 22, 2019, 11:26 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How The Seattle Times is working with the Seattle Foundation to raise millions for its investigative work

Hint: It starts with impactful, inclusive journalism.

Nonprofit news donorship has taken off, with more than 50,000 new donors giving in a 2018 end-of-year fundraising campaign alone. Journalism crowdfunding has also taken flight with recent Kickstarter records from international to local news organizations. And it’s not just individual, small-dollar donors either; motivated to bolster democracy in a nuclearized version of the Trump Bump, community foundations and other local funders are showing brewing interest in supporting journalism directly.

While it’s unclear how equitably local philanthropy is distributed — New York City might have a bit more of a philanthropic base than, say, New Orleans or any of the thousands of U.S. communities that have lost robust local news — a growing partnership between The Seattle Times and the Seattle Foundation is one example of how local philanthropy has partially helped a challenged newspaper raise $5 million since 2013. (And that includes $0 directly from the foundation itself!)

Now The Seattle Times is looking to add $500,000 more in crowdfunding from small supporters and those civically passionate “longtime subscribers” to beef up its investigative team — and the Seattle Foundation is happy to be its nonprofit savings account.

“This is not going to save journalism,” said Sharon Chan, the Times’ vice president of innovation, product, and development. But: “It’s going to allow us to do in-depth journalism that serves the public we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. That will resonate with potential subscribers as well. The most important thing is enabling us to do journalism that drives social impact.”

The Seattle Foundation has not donated money directly to The Seattle Times, which remains one of the shrinking number of family-owned major metro newspapers. But pro bono sponsorship and highly regarded word-of-mouth aren’t bad. The Seattleites’ almost-decade-long relationship has helped the Times take the lead in local fundraising, with the community foundation’s reputation by its side. And it helps that the Times’ solutions focus, honed through multiple prototype topical labs funded by philanthropy, makes supporting its journalism an easier sell.

“It’s a very natural partnership to connect with a local family-owned newspaper,” Mary Grace Roske, the Seattle Foundation’s chief brand officer, said. “The research and reporting [the Seattle Times journalists] have led is a source of information for policymakers, nonprofit organizations, and readers wanting to learn more about causes and solutions around homelessness. The Times has staked out a leadership role in spurring informed conversation about homelessness.”

Or, as Chan puts it, “the overlap on the Venn diagram of improving the world.” (Plus the foundation has an impressive Rolodex of philanthropists to connect with the Times’ efforts.)

One of Chan’s early forays into finding philanthropy for the Times fell flat. She met a potential funder in line at a conference in 2014 and immediately brought up the possibility of them donating to the Times. That funder excused themselves, walked away, and Chan never saw them again. She was treating philanthropy too much like extractive reporting, she said: Call someone up, get your quote, finish the assignment, and move on.

Many journalists are now acknowledging the flaw in that askhole behavior, in both reporting and fundraising. The Times’ reporting labs have tried to nudge those changes in-house, starting in 2014 with the Solutions Journalism Network-partnered Education Lab supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Then came the corporate-sponsored Traffic Lab and company-(Starbucks!)-and-foundation supported Project Homeless in 2018. But several years before that, the Seattle Foundation was working on its giving-day campaign, which raised $113 million over eight years. The Times helped out with online and print advertising and Roske said it was a “primary reason” for the campaign’s growth.

Then the foundation began to shift: Its leaders tightened its focus to several specific issues, including homelessness — which, conveniently, the Times was starting to focus on as well with a proposal for its homeless lab. The foundation agreed to serve as its fiscal sponsor in 2017, accepting tax-deductible funds as a nonprofit that the for-profit Seattle Times couldn’t, pro bono.

The labs became the Times’ proof that this solutions journalism + the fiscal sponsorship model + local corporations and philanthropists could work. “At the very beginning, institutional philanthropy did not know what we were wanting to do. Gradually, lab by lab, we built confidence in that and they saw the impact of that journalism,” Chan said. The Education Lab’s reporting changed state laws, and Chan said the homelessness reporting was cited by Microsoft’s president as a motivator for its recently announced $500 million project funding affordable housing. (Roske also credits the Knight Foundation’s Knight Media Forum for bringing funders and journalists together to grow more comfortable with the idea.)

But Chan emphasized: “We are not in the business of advocacy journalism, but explanatory, investigative, and solutions journalism that empowers others to take action.” Roske also noted how the Times has been very clear in its communications with funders about its editorial independence.

So the Times is now shaking its hat for small dollars (though they won’t say no to biggies, either). The investigative fund is the first time it’s asking regular readers for support beyond a subscription, which already provides two-thirds of the Times’ revenue. (Advertising is most of the other chunk; the labs philanthropy is a small amount, Chan says.) But investigative journalism, the paper is trying to convince its readers, is worth the extra investment.

“To build a stronger democracy, we need to have more investigative journalism. So how do we give individuals the opportunity to build a stronger democracy by supporting the most impactful journalism that we can do?” Chan said.

Before the investigative fund publicly launched earlier this month, The Seattle Times had lined up $60,000 in pledges (though some of those are multiyear pledges). The median contribution to the fund’s drive, across around 150 donors, is $100. The tally is now at $114,000, with many more donors (albeit small-dollar) than they expected.

$26,000 came into the fund through a kickoff event that brought together “people with a long history of giving, people who care about the future of Seattle, people who care about saving things that matter, mavericks who care about raging against the dying light of local journalism,” Chan said. They listened to a panel of two reporters who had conducted an investigation into the former mayor, and investigative editor Ray Rivera spoke about the importance of investigative journalism.

In raising this $500,000 — perhaps by the summer? — The Seattle Times knows it won’t cure all ails of running a local newspaper these days. But maybe it will help build the next generation of investigative journalism.

“We want to build the largest local investigative team in the country, but we want to build an investigative team for the future: community engagement, diversity — we want the stories and the team to reflect the people of the region we’re serving — collaboration with media organizations and community partners, innovative digital storytelling and reporting techniques, and solutions reporting. We don’t just want to expose problems, we want to highlight solutions that are working.”

Photo of a Seattle Times newspaper box by Mr.TinDC used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 22, 2019, 11:26 a.m.
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