Expanding newspaper business models in a difficult media environment


When The Salt Lake Tribune announced a year ago that it was seeking the IRS’ blessing to become a non-profit eligible to solicit tax-deductible donations, the newspaper industry began to pay attention to what was happening at Utah’s largest newspaper.

When the IRS granted that request — with a surprisingly quick OK — the calls began coming into Salt Lake City from all corners of the country.

“I have heard from about 50 newspapers around the nation,” Fraser Nelson, the Tribune’s vice president of business innovation, said at the Key Executives Mega-Conference. “And I’ve heard from three that are surely going ahead” with the non-profit model.

The Tribune intends to help fund other news organizations through its Utah Journalism Foundation, Nelson said. The newspaper itself is beginning to solicit annual donations, major donations and foundation funding.

“The IRS has allowed us to do all the things we can do now — from advertising to subscriptions to events — with one exception: We are no longer allowed to endorse political candidates,” Nelson said.

A foundation is at the root of The Fresno Bee’s new Education Lab with four journalists funded by donors. The Simple Valley Foundation acts as a charity and essentially hires the newspaper to do the work of the Education Lab, said Bee President and Publisher Tim Ritchey.

“Within a few months, we will have 10 journalists funded by philanthropy and donors,” he said.

The Education Lab stemmed from what Ritchey called an “alarming” report from the Public Policy Institute of California that projected the state would need 1.1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030 just to keep up with economic demand.

Three of the four journalists on the education team are bilingual, which consists of an editor and two reporters focusing on early and higher education and another tasked with increasing community engagement by organizing outreach and events.

The budget for the initiative is $300,00 a year, with $60,000 going to each of the reporters and $75,000 paid to the editor. The journalists have the same benefits, 401K contributions and salary levels as other Bee reporters, Ritchey noted.

“We are making our reporting accessible to other media,” he added. “We have a partnership with (the local Univision Spanish-language TV channel), which will be pushing out some of our education reporting. This way we can really amplify our voice in the community.”

To measure the impact of the Education Lab, the Bee created a tracker that will report on engagement, laws and policies that are changed as a result of the reporting, and new initiatives that are launched by local governments or school boards.

Making an impact is vitally important when seeking this kind of alternate funding, said Annie Madonia, the chief advancement officer for The Lenfest Institute, a philanthropy that has grown in three years from 32 donors to 580 donors and from about $1 million in 2016 to $3.6 million last year.

“It’s important to remember that nobody wants to donate to save your newspaper or your business — they want to donate for the impact you can do,” she said.

The same message was delivered by the Knight Foundation, a major funder of journalism.

“We have to have a great impact in our community,” said Jennifer Preston, the foundation’s vice president, journalism. “If we do, we will get donations.”

She advised newspapers to think of the donor base in their communities the way the ballet company or symphony orchestra thinks about donors.

“At the Knight Foundation, we are spending a lot of time studying how the arts community approaches donors,” she said.


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