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Tips for local news entrepreneurs seeking foundation support

by: Michele McLellan |

An interesting session at the recent LION Summit featured representatives of three prominent foundations that fund journalism - the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. (You will find a link to the video of the session here - look for the John Bracken session.)

The discussion got me thinking about how news entrepreneurs sometimes take the wrong approach to grant-seeking. Here are a few thoughts on community and other place-based foundations, based on my six years as a Circuit Rider for the Knight Community Information Challenge (KCIC), which has brought dozens of community foundations into the fold of supporting local news and information.

1. Don't make it about journalism

Tell most community foundations that you are out there saving journalism and need help and they will respond: "Great. But we're not a journalism funder." The number has grown, but relatively few community foundations see themselves as "journalism funders." While they may be concerned about the decline in traditional journalism, they may not have the vision, or the capacity, to add another type of funding to their porfolio.

Also, be mindful of "fear of fire" - some foundations may fear that one of their board members or supporters will get negative coverage or they won't like the way an issue is covered.

2. It is about what the foundation is trying to accomplish

Local foundations are more likely to be receptive to funding something that helps solve a problem they consider a priority.

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, for example, is deeply invested in improving the environment in western New York state. Among several information-related KCIC grants, the foundation funded an environmental reporter at the nonprofit start up Investigative Post.

The California Endowment, deeply invested in improving public health, has invested millions in increasing coverage of health issuses in both for-profit and nonprofit news organizations.

Neither foundation asked for a specific editorial line - they just wanted to see more coverage of the issues they care about as traditional newspaper coverage declined.

Besides topics, community foundations are often looking for ways to engage people in civic affairs. The Buffalo community foundation, for example, developed a program that enabled people to send texts when they encountered instances of pollution sich as  trucks idling for longer than legally allowed. In another campaign, the foundation used a texting platform to collect suggestions for planting locations for a tree-planting initiative. The foundation developed these campaigns themselves but I could easily see a news organization taking this on - and adding value by amplifying and contextualizing the results.

Health-focused foundations fund a program at Think TV in Dayton-Cincinnati to send text alerts about air pollution to child care providers.

3. And the foundation grantees

Learning more about the local nonprofit communities - many of whom are grantees of local foundations - can pay off in stories and even revenue. In Santa Barbara, Noozhawk, a for-profit online news organizations, received small quarterly grants to produce a series of sponsored stories about local nonprofits. The content is labeled and freelancers rather than Noozhawk staff produce it.

The big caveat to these tips is that I don't think spending a lot of time pursuing grant funding is a good sustainability investment for online news organizations. Better they focus on diverse, recurring streams for revenue whether they are nonprofit or for-profit. That said, sites that are closely in tune with the civic life of their communities likely will do better on all fronts.

Related: Grant making for news: Three questions to ask

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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