Prepared by Victor Hernandez
WVU NewStart graduate program
Welcome to the Termed Newsroom Positions playbook, a guide to help your publication bolster its strategies for receiving, optimizing and potentially converting temporary, outside-funded editorial roles into sustaining permanent ones. Whether it’s through foundations, grants, endowments or other forms of external funding, these 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?
Over the past year, I’ve participated in NewStart, the Media Solutions and Innovation program at West Virginia University aimed at developing the next generation of media leaders and publishers. Under the direction of NewStart program director Jim Iovino, and the faculty and peer support of the graduate program, this playbook project is made possible.
I spoke with more than a dozen industry experts representing leading local news outlets, associations and foundations.
We learned a lot from working with experts like Erin McIntyre from the Ouray County Plaindealer.
Erin McIntyre and Mike Wiggins purchased the Ouray County Plaindealer in 2019. (Courtesy Ouray News)
McIntyre and her husband bought the 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.
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.
This type of termed newsroom position strategy is the most relevant for:
Through the series of research on News Deserts from UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media as led by Penelope Muse Abernathy, we begin to understand the massive scope of this destructive tsunami and its far-reaching perils (declines to civic engagement, accountability of government, democracy itself, etc.).
A myriad of small newspapers around the country, many more than 100 years old, often the only news source in those immediate areas, are closing at a faster rate than we’ve seen before in local journalism.
And it’s not just newspapers struggling to overcome the disruptive forces of the current. Also included in Abernathy’s 2020 updated report on newsroom closures, research indicated that since the fall of 2018, more than 80 community-scale digital news sites have been launched — and an equal number have closed.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated newsroom dynamics associated with continual deterioration, thus proving to be the final death knell for many.
Further contributing to the erosion of once-viable small publications are outdated business models, lack of digital innovation and adaptation, profound loss of tune-in and engagement with young audiences, and the growing divides of trust and accessibility between the public and outlets.
While many parts of the country continue to lose ground to the growing news deserts trend, an important movement is afoot between media organizations, funders and local communities aggressively pursuing viable solutions to ensure a sustainable future for local news.
Report for America co-founder and president Steve Waldman challenges news publications to view philanthropy not as a lightning-bolt-from-the-sky charity, or as a singular-savior type of support, but rather as the third revenue stream (with non-profit newsrooms traditionally looking to donations and underwriting/sponsorships and the for-profits primarily supported by subscriptions and advertising).
Waldman cites growing evidence that community support can be significant, predictable and ongoing.
In March, Report for America announced that the amount host newsrooms raised for themselves from their communities to support RFA journalists increased 61% from 2019 to 2020, jumping from a $14,593 average to $23,500 per reporter. In aggregate, the number went from $800,000 to $4.6 million; some of that was because RFA added more newsroom partners, but most of the growth is sheer fundraising effectiveness.
Foundations like RFA attempt to avoid the appearance of presenting magic bullet solutions for struggling publishers looking to gain back the upper hand in community reporting with added resources. RFA, for example, pays half the salary of the reporters they place in newsrooms and asks the local newsroom to raise at least a quarter of the salary from the community.
The organization offers resources by way of sustainability coaches who work with the local outlets, providing templates for direct marketing, tech platforms, webinars and additional counsel.
The goal is to provide a runway for a sustainable path forward for the publisher and the commitment to reliable, ongoing local news reporting. Short-term coverage gains often yield limited long-term investment returns.
RFA is hoping to change the formula, and they are far from alone. The Local Media Association (LMA) helps primarily for-profit newsrooms raise philanthropic support, reportedly drawing $2 million in 2020.
Waldman sees tremendous potential in the role community foundations play, citing more than 750 active supporters of local journalism in the US currently. He suggests that to make this support durable, community foundations should look to create permanent funds or endowments.
Julie Sandorf of the Revson Foundation, which operates grant programs in Urban Affairs, Jewish Life, Biomedical Research, and Education, recently proposed “the 2% solution” — the idea that if foundations spent just 2% on journalism, it would generate $1.5 billion.
Add to that a comparable level of support from individual donors, and you’ve added $9 billion into the local news sector per year.
That would be enough to end the crisis of local news in America, says Waldman. Although newspapers have lost far more than that in revenue, it is estimated that $1 billion to $2 billion in philanthropic support, if properly targeted, could wipe out news deserts and create a strong system of accountability reporting.
A slow-moving financial crisis in journalism gained speed with the pandemic-fueled recession, and the costs continue to mount, not just to local news but to local democracy. Recent studies suggest that nearly every measure of governance is negatively affected by the decline of local journalism.
Across the country, newsrooms are shrinking, local newspapers are printing fewer pages, going to press less frequently — and sometimes collapsing entirely.
Despite the troubling declines across local newsrooms, editors like Joe Kieta at the Fresno Bee are pursuing emerging resource and funding opportunities in order to identify sustainable approaches for his organization. Increasingly, these pathways are being paved thanks to philanthropic support.
“We started working toward trying to find a way where we can flip the narrative with many newsrooms continuing to dwindle in terms of staffing,” said Kieta. “We have this history that goes back almost 100 years, armed with the trust and reach that we bring, built over time. We needed to consider how we could grow our reporting strength.”
Fresno Bee editor Joe Kieta. Credit: KQED
Two years ago the paper dipped its toes in the philanthropy-supported waters with the creation of four new newsroom positions in support of the launch of The Bee’s Education Lab, covering school-related issues in the San Joaquin Valley.
Since then, Kieta and the Bee team have added six additional reporters — either partially or fully funded through outside support — via specialty beat-reporting initiatives including Fresnoland, which focuses on housing, water and local development issues, and California Divided, a grant-supported joint reporting collaboration featuring multiple California-based newsrooms. The Bee features two RFA reporters for 2021–2022.
The Bee, which has more than one-third of its newsroom funded by philanthropy, was also recently selected to join other local Fresno newsrooms in a new pilot project sponsored by Microsoft to increase community reporting capacities in four US cities.
"We’re just looking for new ways to continue to develop the philanthropy-sponsored part of our newsroom,” says Kieta. “And so it’s been an interesting ride. We’ve been able to raise the profile of our work to get this content to a large audience, which has been really impactful.”
Kieta acknowledges the challenges with identifying sustainable paths forward with the influx of newly created editorial positions and the added community reporting contributions being brought forward.
Several of the Bee’s philanthropic-supported newsroom initiatives are fully funded for two and three years, giving the publication a relatively lengthy runway to develop audience and business impact models for securing longer-term/ongoing operationalized support by the organization.
"I just want to make sure that we’re working as hard as we can to have as many feet on the street as we can and to create the best journalism that we can,” says Kieta.
“I don’t know what the 10-year plan will be for this. The one thing I don’t want to do is have to say goodbye to somebody after a year. And so far, we haven’t had to do that. We’ve been able to figure out a way to keep them. And I want to find a way to sustain that maybe through a different funding mechanism, or maybe our business fortunes are better, and we’re able to fund it on our own. But I don’t know what the future will hold for all of that, but I’m gonna keep digging.”
The deep cuts to newsrooms over the past 18 months, particularly distressing to smaller outlets, are attributed to the significant disruptions and decline of traditional advertising models as a result of the pandemic.
However, the inexorable spread of news deserts was compounding even before the coronavirus placed a stranglehold on local economics. Since 2008, newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees, according to research data from Pew.
With many news outlets grappling with resource challenges amid the enduring times, local media leaders have increasingly looked to philanthropic sources for offsetting detrimental impacts to staffing.
(Courtesy Salem Reporter)
Les Zaitz says the Malheur Enterprise benefitted from reporting fellows from separate grant programs in recent years through ProPublica and Report for America. However, given the fluidity of staff availability during the pandemic in addition to financial uncertainties in the local economy, the outlet is currently in between reporting fellow resources.
“For us, bringing in the value add isn’t just about having another reporter that I can have to cover school board meetings,” says Zaitz.
“But rather I’m thinking how to be strategic in how to advance the journalistic purpose of the Enterprise in a way that will more broadly and more clearly service community needs.”
Local news publishers have been used to producing more with less for the better part of two decades. Now, with the unexpected and unprecedented fallout from the past year, many newsrooms are left to simply hang on for dear life. However, some are pushing to new reporting and audience heights driven by effective coverage strategies courtesy of externally supported resources.
Though it should be noted, not all outside-supported newsrooms are created equal. Recipient newsrooms typically fall into one of two camps.
First, additive reporting resources are viewed as a welcome but temporary editorial boost. It’s a nice shot in the reporting arm, but there are no long-term viability hooks attached.
And then there's the other end; newsrooms that view these added roles as a gifted runway to test and ramp up reporting outputs en route to coveted long-term sustainability through the position adds.
For those newsrooms that do focus on longer-term viability, framing points of operational influence and impact on behalf of the outside supported roles can make all the difference when evaluating the broader organizational strategies.
“We’re in this weird moment in time in terms of news production, publishing and nonprofit journalism,” says Dan Dinsmore, executive director at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. “You have to look for opportunities, you have to build networking opportunities as well, and you have to have a vision on where you want to take things. Make sure people understand your story locally, ensuring people get behind you with financial support and understand the value with what you produce.”
All three staff reporters with the Maine Monitor arrived at the outlet by way of reporting fellowships via Report for America and ProPublica.
Based on qualitative research through the dozen interviews associated with this project, the following criteria more often prove essential for news organizations interested in establishing the necessary returns on investment and the business justification for operationalizing temporary reporter positions into permanent full-time ones:
Industry leaders are quick to point to the tangible outputs associated with the harvesting of philanthropic support.
“The journalism that’s being produced through this [philanthropic] funding has higher conversion rates for digital subscriptions,” says Nancy Lane of Local Media Association in an interview with Medill Local News Initiative.
“If you talk to the Philadelphia Inquirer — because they’re involved in Resolve Philly and Spotlight PA, both of which are funded by philanthropy — the reporting that is coming out of those collaboratives increases their digital subscriptions at a higher rate than other stuff they do at the Inquirer. We hear this over and over again.”
For emerging reporters like Eve Zuckoff, who covers climate change at WCAI Cape Cod, MA, programs such as Report for America offer more than just a job opportunity. They can offer training, a chance to hone their craft, and the ability to learn new reporting disciplinary skills.
Zuckoff says when she first began at WCAI, she would often pitch broad-based environmental stories, not yet embracing the need to narrowly focus on climate change specific issues.
Eve Zuckoff is a climate change reporter at WCAI Cape Cod. (Courtesy WCAI)
“PFAS is a big issue locally, with chemical spills in the area for example," said Zuckoff. "I would pitch these stories and he [my editor] would counter those pitches as environment and said we needed climate-focused stories. He had the vision for this beat. He'd remind that we have to prove there are enough climate change stories to show that this is worth it. That it's worth hiring a climate change reporter for Cape Cod, this place where erosion is occurring and sea levels are rising quickly.”
The investment, which has resulted in dozens of climate-focused original stories, seems to be paying off for Zuckoff, WCAI, and ultimately, the local community. The RFA reporting fellow just completed her second year at the station through the program and was recently converted to full-time staff. A reaffirming mark of success for Zuckoff, WCAI and RFA.
“We’re a very small newsroom,” says Zuckoff. “There was only one other full-time, salaried reporter. So now I’m the second reporter.”
Zuckoff says the road to move from term position to permanent staff wasn’t abundantly clear at the beginning.
“I started approaching my editor,” says Zuckoff. “And honestly, it happened more in raised conversations, as I was getting to the end of my first year. And I was asking — what happens next year? I make not a lot of money for living in a really expensive place to live. Can we talk about that? And that’s when I started to get clued into my editor's point of view: We want you here. We want a climate change reporter at WCAI. And we hope it will be you, is what I began hearing.”
Read more about WCAI’s handling of outside funded roles in the case study below.
The Cape and Islands NPR stations are listener-supported public radio stations serving Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and the South Coast.
WCAI employs about 20 people according to the staff page.
The following information is provided by Steve Junker, News Director for WCAI. It's been edited lightly for length and clarity.
How do you identify the need for externally supported positions such as the role created through RFA? Is there a defined process to carefully evaluate and decide?
SJ: In our case, the process has been driven by the need. As a newsroom struggling to cover our region with limited resources, we are always identifying ways that we wish we could do better — specific topics we wish we could cover more deeply, specific regions we would like to cover better. As News Director I could rattle off five or six areas or beats, from the top of my head, that I know we could deploy a reporter to and drastically improve the news coverage for our listeners. It’s just about human resources.
RFA offered an opportunity to fill one or more of these needs. We have no defined process for ranking which needs to fill — it’s more of an organic process of conversations in the newsroom, and matching that to what is pragmatically possible with the limited opportunity. Ultimately, it’s a decision of management: the Managing Director Mindy Todd, and myself as News Director, decide the priority.
Founded by local residents, the WCAI and it's sister stations are a service of WGBH Radio (Courtesy WCAI)
Who’s responsible for applying on behalf of your organization for these types of opportunities? Does that person then remain on top of the oversight of the role once they arrive?
SJ: I took the initiative in identifying the RFA opportunity. From there it just stayed on my plate. I wrote the application and shepherded it through the process. And yes, I am the direct manager of the reporters hired through this process — I have direct oversight.
Once the onboarding process begins, is there an understood set of goals or priorities unique for that role, separate from your other reporting positions?
SJ: Within the newsroom, these positions are seamless to any other reporter position. We do provide the kind of enhanced/additional support that any entry-level journalist might need in starting a new job, sometimes in a new media (radio), in a new location. And we understand that an RFA reporter has obligations to RFA, which we allow time for. But mostly, our RFA person is just another reporter for us.
What benchmarks are necessary to understand whether the externally funded position is worthy of pushing for converting to a salaried staff position going forward?
SJ: It has been absolutely self-evident through the work of the reporter. The quality and number of stories from such a beat — and the number of developing stories that demand continued coverage — and the value that journalism is bringing to our listeners — is in itself the single strongest argument.
How do you begin to define the impact of this program?
So far, the value proposition that we offer our listeners continues to pay off: we will use all our resources to provide quality local news reporting — and the more you (the listener) are able to support, the stronger and more expansive that coverage will be.
Where once we had one reporter, now we have three full-time reporters. Where once Morning Edition was a one-person show, now it is supported by a full-time producer who gathers and writes news every day beginning at 4:45 a.m. Where once our All Things Considered host was part-time, now the position is full-time, and in the additional hours that person is reporting and writing for the newscast. This all-around effort, in turn, has allowed us to continue to grow our audience and listener support, as we have become a primary news source for our region.
Again, we’re fortunate that it has worked out for us: that listeners have recognized the value of what they are getting, and have grown their support along with our growth.
What advice do you have for other outlets pursuing outside funded reporting positions but not quite sure how to maximize the role for the limited time they have in order to transition them into a sustainable one?
SJ: It helps to have robust and committed development partners within the organization. At CAI, I don’t directly concern myself with raising funds for these positions: that happens through our development staff. But in all this experience, we’ve believed that the mission is paramount — bring better news coverage to our listeners — and the rest will likely take care of itself. And so far we’ve been fortunate that it has.
SJ: Our experiences with RFA (We have had two RFA fellows, one RFA reporter, and are about to onboard another RFA reporter), have been extremely positive when it comes to the quality of the reporters, the work they’ve been able to do, and the value it’s brought our listeners.
The Haitian Times was founded in 1999 as a weekly English language newspaper based in Brooklyn, NY. Since 2012, it has morphed into an online-only publication broadening its audience to include Haitians from all over the world.
Founded in 1999, El Perico is Omaha's original weekly and only bilingual (Spanish / English) community newspaper and digital platform.
The editorial content includes local, national and international stories that are more relevant to Omaha's Latino community. Most stories are provided in both Spanish and English with some content only provided in Spanish.
And we know matters have become further exacerbated over the past year. The pandemic has underscored the role that local media play in reporting critical local information regarding human health conditions and public safety.
According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2020 Digital News Report, local newspapers and their websites in the surveyed countries (including the US) are the top sources of news about a particular town or region and reach four in ten people weekly. During the pandemic, local media have helped to inform communities about basic preventative hygiene practices, testing sites, and vaccination procedures.
Despite the surge in perceived reader value, we know newsroom resources have been depleted. Just as we know that without adequate resources, independent local media will continue to be limited in the breadth of topics they’re able to cover and the diversity of community segments they’re able to engage. This is why the increased interdependence on non-traditional, outside-funded roles has become critical to the sustainability of local newsrooms in recent years.
Newsrooms of varying sizes have looked to outside supported opportunities as means for acquiring additional reporter positions.
From Erin McIntyre’s small weekly in Ouray County, Colorado. consisting of three employees, to much larger news operations such as Joe Kieta’s 100+ staff newsroom in Fresno to other RFA 2021–2022 recipients including The Associated Press, Sacramento Bee, Miami Herald, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News, more than 200 newsrooms across the country are being supported by RFA fellows this year alone.
Newsroom size, location, audience size and coverage focus don’t seem to matter when it comes to expanding reporting resources.
The primary question only seems to be: How do we sign up? And also, how best to keep up with the latest opportunities and solicitations? Small publishers like Les Zaitz have a difficult time just managing the deluge of resource support and training opportunities given the already stretched weeks he and his lean staff regularly endure.
“Where do I have the free hours in my already full day?” asks Zaitz. “That’s one of the problems with all the journalism research being served. Every day I’m getting the latest U.S. newspaper analysis, Solutions Journalism reports, Poynter reports. It’s just a deluge of good information and advice, but I need a dedicated staff person just to go through it all."
"Small outfits like mine can materially benefit from a lot of that research if we could just process and deploy it within our available resources," says Zaitz. "But realistically I can’t sit and go through all of the information, I’ve got 10 stories to edit.”
According to the INN Index in Focus report from September 2021, grant support has been a bright spot for single-topic news organizations, which can tap foundations that are highly engaged in specific issues. Single-topic news organizations are a growing niche in nonprofit news having quadrupled in number since 2008 reports INN. Examples of a single-topic outlet include STAT (health and medicine), The Water Desk (water issues in the Western U.S.) or Chalkbeat (education).
As the decline of local news in communities across the US continues, philanthropic trends are expected to grow further. Why? Because with limited resources and dwindling revenues paralyzing the news industry, it’s clear that journalism needs financial support now more than ever.
The implications of local news declines can be both immediate and enduring. From a far greater difficulty in covering city hall to detecting the next disease outbreak, communities need healthy local news economies. Additionally, the rise of misinformation or fake news masquerading as real news has exploited the information void, causing chaos and confusion about who and what to trust.
In response to these challenges, foundations have laid claim to offer support and attempts to sustain journalism efforts around the country with a variety of strategic approaches that reflect the urgency of the moment we’re in.
We hope the frameworks highlighted in this playbook help to provide structures for creating a baseline, developing a strategy, and fostering an environment of ongoing learning that will continuously enrich both your news operation and the overall information ecosystem of your community.
While you're here, join the NewStart Alliance and get the latest news on local news sustainability!