Finding a Sustainable Way Forward
November 17, 2021
Welcome to a special edition of The NewStart Alliance. This week I'm turning things over to recent NewStart grad Victor Hernandez who, as part of his yearlong master's degree program, took a deep dive into one of the biggest issues facing newsrooms that have created temporary, outside-funded editorial positions — how to turn those positions into sustaining permanent ones.
Victor, who entered our program as the executive editor of Cascade Public Media in Seattle and exited as the chief content officer of WBUR in Boston, talked with numerous newsrooms across the country to find out what's working, what's not, and how other newsrooms can learn best practices when it comes to making these often temporarily funded positions long-term wins for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Victor, take it from here.
The idea came about in late 2020 while overseeing the newsroom at Cascade Public Media. After checking in with several industry peers, I had been informed that a healthy percentage ratio of newsroom staffing supported explicitly by outside funding — such as journalism grants — was about 12 percent. That's because going much over that would present great difficulty in attempting to maintain anything close to resembling sustainability because of the high turnover and uncertainty with grant awards.
But where did that 12 percent come from? Was it verifiable? And who exactly determined that and when? Did it apply to newsrooms of all sizes, scope and mission?
These questions and others lingered in my first year overseeing the public media newsroom in Seattle and considering the opportunities and challenges of philanthropy-enabled additions to our news operation. I desired a playbook for my newsroom and others to glean insights and wasn't aware of something like that existing at the time.
As part of the Media Solutions and Innovation graduate program at West Virginia University, I've been able to spend the better part of the past year analyzing different approaches for how newsrooms manage philanthropy-funded journalism opportunities. The academic research turned out to be the perfect professional excuse to spend time with news leaders, grant-funded journalists, association professionals and foundation executives to better understand and record the emerging best practices, breakthroughs and rich resources available for drawing on community foundation support.
The industry is experiencing a surge of local support dollars available to newsrooms — for both nonprofit and for-profit publications. Our hope is that through this playbook you'll be able to more effectively cut through the noise to gather the community support and operational strategies necessary to grow your reporting capacities and achieve long-term sustainability.
Oh, and that 12 percent rule of thumb. It's BS. The experts and contemporary news leaders I spoke with shattered that myth, citing ambitious and opportunistic strategies rather than a set cap approach.
Chief Content Officer, WBUR
[email protected]; @ToTheVictor
Whether it’s through foundations, grants, endowments or other forms of external funding, temporary, outside-funded editorial roles can provide an important shot in the arm to community reporting capacities. However, they are also often presented as temporary solutions only. The pathway to developing longer-term sustainability through these opportunities remains unclear for many news organizations.
Certain objectives continue to prove elusive for many publications. Namely, what are the operating goals for establishing and evaluating the return on investment for leveraging and converting the results of temporary positions?
Erin McIntyre and her husband bought the Ouray County Plaindealer community weekly newspaper in Western Colorado in April 2019. They recognized early into their new venture that if the publication, which dates back to 1877, is to remain operational and reliable for years to come, that sustaining long-term business and journalistic momentum from the recent award of a grant-supported reporter through Report for America (RFA) was crucial.
“The truth is any time you can retain an employee that you’ve invested in, it’s worth so much more than having this revolving door, especially in an industry like journalism, where you have a historical knowledge of an area, you’ve made contacts, you have a connection to people,” says McIntyre. “They trust you. It takes a long time to build that in a community.”
Insights from McIntyre and others are included in this playbook with an aim to share so that others may craft and implement improved strategies for future opportunities via outside-funded editorial roles.
In addition to my academic research and acumen from NewStart, I’ve led newsrooms in nonprofit and commercial sectors. I’ve personally grappled with these very questions surrounding recommended approaches to integrating externally funded news positions into the operation. I’ve experienced first-hand the exploratory setbacks and anxieties, along with the necessary shifts in thinking that newsrooms need to take ambitious leaps forward with their strategies.
The best practices, expert accounts and industry insights in this playbook provide tools to help you think about developing effective termed position strategies for your newsroom.
We’ll examine how to intentionally shape approaches for identifying suitable needs for these roles, questions to consider for operationalizing and measuring their impacts and strategies for converting them into full-time staff positions.
The case studies and newsroom snapshots will give you ideas for how to craft key strategies within your own publication.
And we go behind the scenes of the application processes and deep inside the editorial and business examinations for unfettered access into how contemporary newsrooms are using philanthropy for broader, long-term gains. You’ll be exposed to critical takeaways from industry leaders leading, performing and determining how these outside-funded positions are awarded and what success looks like.
As mentioned earlier, this is an excerpt of Victor's in-depth playbook. You can read all of it at the links above, and keep an eye out for a conversation that Victor had with Poynter's Kristen Hare that will be published on poynter.org.