Communities across New England – and the large and small news organizations serving them – are increasingly benefiting from targeted grant-funded partnerships that are helping expand public service and enterprise reporting, oftentimes covering the cost (and benefits) associated with bringing in new talent to produce that important work.

That was the message conveyed by panelists participating in the NENPA Fall Conference afternoon break-out session presented by the New England Society of News Editors entitled: “Possibilities and Pitfalls of Alternative Funding: Grants, Projects and Ethical Considerations.”

The session moderator was Charles St. Amand, practitioner-in-residence, communication & journalism department, Suffolk University; and panelists included Charlie Sennott, founder, The Ground Truth Project / Report for America; Heidi Flood, strategic lead, partners & outreach, Boston Globe Media; Mike Cote, deputy managing editor, business, New Hampshire Union Leader; and Tim Rasmussen, chief content officer, Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network.

Each spent time discussing the reasoning behind and implications of utilizing “alternative funding” for projects.

They examined how the practice of tapping grantors and other government, quasi-government, and even select private sector partners to fund specific reporting, and staff to handle it, has become more common in some newsrooms.

In his introductory remarks following the event’s awards luncheon, St. Amand reflected, “Where you see great work being done by newspapers of all sizes – events like this remind us all that journalism is worth fighting for.”

Opening up the panel, Cote immediately referenced work done at the Union Leader by Shawne Wickham, who just minutes before won the AP Sevellon Brown NE Journalist of the Year honor for her reporting as part of a series that examined issues related to mental health.

Wickham’s award-winning “Beyond The Stigma” segments were funded by combined grants from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, NAMI New Hampshire and private individuals.

“This is the kind of ground-breaking enterprise work newspapers have been doing for years, but we’re having a harder time doing now,” he said.

In another grant-funded series, Cote said the nonprofit Endowment for Health worked with the Union Leader on solutions journalism, Cote said.

“We get the funding and the reporters do the work,” he said, adding that the funder was hands off. “They pretty much gave it to us and let us run with it, which was great. So really what it bought us an enterprise reporter – somebody digging deep into a subject and in this case, one that’s very important in our market.”

In the Union Leader’s case, Cote said reporters become such experts in the areas they are working, like Wickham, they are still brimming with story ideas when the project concluded.
In the end, the Endowment benefited as well because each story was tagged with contact information, funder branding, and a disclaimer that the specific reporting was underwritten.

“We got no complaints from readers,” Cote said, adding that the Union Leader has also conducted some targeted reporting with staff funded by a regional utility.

He said the paper has had additional success packaging multiple funders together.

“We look for enough funding to cover one salary and benefit package for one year.” Even with smaller pockets of money, Cote said Union Leader reporters fanning out to cover more work.

Now the paper is working on sustainability and weighing whether they temporarily keep grant funded journalists on the payroll while seeking new projects or funders.

The Globe & Public Broadcasting

Flood, a former community foundation and investment firm staffer, now researches, develops and drives opportunities for the Globe to work in partnership with nonprofits, foundations and other organizations to support public service journalism initiatives.

She said while pulling reporters off their beat to shift to uniquely-funded projects was challenging, The Globe ended up creating a public education unit with three reporters – two of whom were already education specialists.

Each special project article in the education series included a selection of FAQs that Flood said deepened conversation around the topic covered. She said the reporting has generated “positive change,” and one set of features entitled “Valedictorian” focusing on 113 high school graduates attracted interest from Gates Foundation and others looking for ways to engage.

“Presenting a unifying message around improving student outcomes was important,” Flood said. She added that the education unit’s work provided an opportunity to share that message and “get into new communities – even if they’re not Globe communities.

“The goal is to provide a civic service,” she explained. “Now we’re looking to work with other funders – to align on certain mission topics and engage the community in ways impossible for the foundations to do without our partnership.”

St. Amand asked Flood if she could offer any advice to help smaller papers initiate non-traditional funding relationships. She replied that representatives tasked with recruiting funders must “be aggressive and shameless in our asking.”

“It’s not hard with a great editorial product,” she said. Regardless of the media outlet’s size or reach, Flood said if they can show alignment over funders’ missions and goals through your reporting, it “opens the door” to possible partnerships.

Rasmussen oversees all content produced and distributed by Connecticut Public Broadcasting including Connecticut Public Radio, three television channels, as well as digital and online platforms.

He said today, six of 10 reporters working for him are grant funded, and $6 million of his $22 million budget is from member donors so it’s unrestricted. He’s been tasked with the goal of doubling his organization’s audience in five years.

Rasmussen said another $1 million of his budget is from grants and foundations – and some of that underwriting comes “some with restrictions or limitations.”

Among myriad subjects tied to grantor designations are health, ‘Guns in America,’ showcasing diverse voices, promoting environmental initiatives, and supporting the network’s regional New England News Collaborative.

Rasmussen said he recently completed writing a grant he will submit for $300,000 “to help us build a new CMS and marketplace for local news to give away to other public agencies,” and he is currently meeting with funders to create ‘The Accountability Project’ investigative reporting team in Connecticut.

“The goal is to raise $2 million for five years, and to build a three-person team to start,” he said. So stay tuned!

Report For America

Sennott entered the conversation affirming that in his assessment, “Nonprofits are going to play a critical role in the future of journalism.”

Sennott started GroundTruth in 2014 and in 2017 launched the non-profit organization’s new, local reporting initiative, Report for America. The Columbia University School of Journalism graduate and Harvard Nieman Fellow is also the co-founder of GlobalPost, an acclaimed international news website.

He advised organizations looking for alternative funding partners would do well to be sure they share “the same standards.”

Within a year of launching Report For America, the initiative has seen 60 journalists go to work for 50 news organizations across 27 states and Puerto Rico. Each is focused on a critical coverage gap within their host community.

Their newsrooms range from Pulitzer Prize-winning daily papers and alternative weeklies to digital-only non-profits, cable news and public radio stations.

Sennott said each of the Report For America hosts “define news deserts in their community,” and they must exhibit a standard for successfully mentoring young reporters.

He said it was thrilling to be able to tell a new generation of journalists to go out and do local reporting. And reminding those new reporters what they do helps communities to have civil debate.

Sennott said he always hopes the greater outcome “has everything to do with re-establishing civil dialog in our society.”

In closing, Sennott said it is heartening to see GroundTruth program applications from so many newsrooms, explaining that the organization underwrites 50 percent of the salary / benefits package. “Then we ask the paper to cover 25 percent, and we help the papers raise the other 25 percent.

He said communities involved in the program additionally benefit because “we also ask that the reporter does community volunteerism.”

Those at this session also had a chance to pick up a recent publication offered to members and conference attendees by NENPA, compiled with the help of Board member Terry Williams and Paul Cuno-Booth, both of the Keene Sentinel. It included a preliminary listing of grantors currently offering more than 90 underwriting opportunities in partnership with various media organizations.

NENPA is in the process of assembling a comprehensive database of media grants and grantors that will be available for members. Look for further information in a future NENPA e-mail message and here in the Bulletin.

Following the session, NENPA President Phil Camp told The eBulletin it was good to see grantors stepping up to help underwrite reporting projects at newspapers of all sizes.

Camp said even though many of those grant funded initiatives have target subjects that drive the reporting, the resulting content often provides collateral benefits to the participating news outlet’s entire community.

“We need to focus more on helping our NENPA members learn about and connect, when appropriate, to these grant programs,” Camp said, vowing to begin discussing ways the association could help facilitate grantor/newspaper relationship when he met with the NENPA board of directors the following day.

Camp also reminded Fall Conference attendees to remember to complete NENPA event surveys that are being circulated, so staff and leadership could better understand and craft conference programming that will be of the greatest benefit to members.

Those at this session also had a chance to pick up a recent publication offered to members and conference attendees by NENPA, compiled with the help of Board member Terry Williams and Paul Cuno-Booth both of the Keene Sentinel. It included a preliminary listing of grantors currently offering underwriting opportunities in partnership with various media organizations.

NENPA is in the process of assembling a comprehensive database of media grants and grantors that will be available for members. Look for further information in a future NENPA eBulletin’s.

By John Voket eBulletin Contributor

John Voket is an Associate Editor at The Newtown Bee in Connecticut, Director of Public Affairs for Connecticut’s Connoisseur Media radio stations, and 2018-19 President of NENPA.