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Education Labs: The Past, Present and Future of Grant-Funded Journalism Units

“Community-funded journalism is not a silver bullet, but it’s potential support that can help you cover important service journalism.”

Photo Credit:  Ben Torres, The Dallas Morning News

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Credit: Ben Torres/The Dallas Morning News

Some hope is rising amid the financial destruction that has decimated the newsrooms of local for-profit newspapers. At least five legacy news outlets have expanded their education coverage by raising grant funding in the last several years.

Of course, nonprofit news organizations are nothing new, considering The Associated Press is a 176-year-old cooperative. But these new projects are creating unusual hybrids: grant-funded reporting teams within traditional for-profit companies.

“Newsrooms have scaled back and laid off journalists. This is a way to continue a longstanding beat at news outlets,” said Tracie Powell, chairman of the board of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, a professional association for independent news publishers, and founder of The Pivot Fund. Her organization invests in BIPOC-led community news to strengthen their long-term financial sustainability. “They’ve had to cut back in terms of people, and this is a way to get coverage lost.”

These new journalist teams are giving news leaders opportunities to tackle in-depth features and investigations; experiment with new ways of telling stories; and engage with new, younger and more diverse audiences. While philanthropy probably can’t solve every problem affecting newspapers or education journalism, the hybrid model in which grant-funded reporting teams operate inside legacy, for-profit newsrooms is helping some newsrooms achieve financial stability and journalistic success.

“Community-funded journalism is not a silver bullet. But it’s potential support that can help you cover important service journalism. It’s something I encourage newsrooms to try,” said Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for journalism initiatives at The Dallas Morning News, who helped his newsroom launch a community-funded education lab in September 2020.

(Read tips on how to start your own education lab.)

How did we get here? 

In October 2013, The Seattle Times launched the first education lab, using what at that time was an unusual business model that placed a donor-supported journalism unit within a for-profit news organization.

Publisher Frank Blethen pioneered the experiment, beginning just two years earlier. He partnered with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network to test “rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems” and spent 18 months cultivating a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund the lab. The Gates Foundation has given at least $2.5 million to the lab since its founding.

In its first five years, the education lab went from an unsure thing to helping to change Washington state laws and school policies. Lawmakers credited The Seattle Times for helping to pass school discipline reform that languished for years.

 

Other reporters and editors were inspired by the Times’ success, and they realized the model might be a solution to their community’s coverage problems as well.

After receiving an invitation from Sharon Pian Chan, The Seattle Times’ then-vice president of innovation, product & development, Huang ventured to “cold, snowy” Seattle in early 2019, hoping to replicate the education lab business model in Dallas.

“[Sharon] showed me how they developed the community-funding initiative,” he said. “I brought what I learned to Dallas … I worked with several editors to understand what resources we had back then and what additional resources would boost our coverage … I started doing pitches around Dallas.”

Building the lab from scratch was a “slow process” in which Huang needed to lean on his connections in and outside of Dallas, and initiate new business relationships with potential funders.

“It takes a long time, understandably, because you have to build relationships over time and help people understand what this model is and how it can benefit the city,” Huang said. “There are a lot of smart people out there, but they don’t necessarily understand the challenges that we face in terms of resources for local news.”

But his pitches eventually paid off: Dallas raised enough money to hire three additional reporters. (The total team is one editor and four reporters.)

Today, thanks in part to advice and inspiration from the early innovators, there are at least five hybrid education journalism labs in the U.S.: The Seattle Times, Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, The (South Carolina) Post and Courier, and Al.com in Alabama. Additionally, the Associated Press is trying out a slightly different model and name with its new grant-funded Education Reporting Network.

The education labs have different origin stories: Some were formed in response to inequities worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic while others were created due to long-standing education issues and economic uncertainty affecting for-profit news outlets.

But all have faced similar challenges, such as getting complicated legal and accounting details right, creating safeguards to protect editorial integrity, and teaching journalists how to deal with funders ethically and effectively.

Making it legal

The Internal Revenue Service has strict rules limiting foundations from giving money to for-profit businesses, such as newspapers. So the founders of the new hybrids set up new legal and accounting structures to raise funds.

Most hybrids start out using a fiscal agent, a non-profit intermediary organization that can accept, manage and distribute funds donated from foundations to for-profit entities. Also known as a fiscal sponsor, these organizations are typically established nonprofits or local community foundations that agree (often for a fee) to provide the accounting, legal paperwork and services that small new ventures – such as the education labs – need to be able to accept tax-deductible donations.

Several education labs use fiscal sponsors, including The Fresno BeeThe Post and CourierThe Seattle Times and The Dallas Morning News.

Al.com may pursue partnerships with community foundations or other fiscal sponsors in the future, according to Ruth Serven Smith, education editor at the Alabama Media Group-owned organization. Currently, the team uses Report for America and The GroundTruth Project as a fiscal sponsor to support two reporters, Rebecca Griesbach and Savannah Tryens-Fernandes.

Al.com staffers

Separating church and state 

Traditional news outlets have long fought efforts by advertisers to influence editorial content. But when a single foundation offers six-figure – or even seven-figure – support, readers (and, often, journalists as well) can’t help but wonder about recipients’ ability to remain truly independent.

“When taking philanthropic dollars, you have to be careful. You want to make sure you’re providing what the community wants, not serving some funder’s agenda,” Powell said.

With millions of dollars coming from outside sources to invest in its nonprofit education journalism unit, Seattle newsroom leaders and staff initially worried about how this would look to their local communities, according to the Times’ Education Editor Katherine Long.

Community-funded journalism “is now kind of more of an accepted practice, but back then it was not. People in the newsroom were skeptical,” Long said.

So the Seattle Times installed several important safeguards, including keeping newsroom staff out of fundraising efforts.

“There was a strong feeling early on that we needed someone separate from the newsroom to take on [pitching funders to support the lab].” And today, Long said, “We’re always aware of what our funders are doing, in terms of what other projects they are supporting,” but it [is] like “separation of church and state.”

“A structure we put in place is that funders can’t talk to reporters. On rare occasions, they talk to me,” she added.

Another safeguard: clarifying the paper’s editorial independence policy, explaining its mission, making it clear money can’t buy influence.

The Al.com education lab, which launched in September 2021, is funded by grants and individual donations to the national service program Report for America, which supports two staff reporters. The news outlet also makes its editorial policy clear and public.

“Whatever model people have, they have to be willing to talk about it,” Serven Smith said. “ It just gets down to transparency.”

Learning to fundraise 

It’s easier for potential funders to understand and donate to newsrooms that are fully nonprofit, such as NPR or The Texas Tribune, according to Huang.

“In the hybrid model, we have to explain that there are units within the newsroom that are essentially treated like nonprofits,” Huang said.

During his pitches, he highlighted educational issues in Dallas, such as the News’ focus on inequities following social justice movements and the pandemic.

Making this type of pitch also presented some challenges for Joe Kieta, executive editor at The Fresno Bee.

“We had to overcome that at every turn,” Kieta said. “We have an audience. We have the ability to have immediate impact. When we made our pitch to funders, we played that up. We talked about how we wanted to do this work to have the most impact we could. The way we were going to do that was to get it in front of as many people as we could.”

Today’s challenge: Sustainability 

Now that several new hybrids have conquered the startup phase, the next challenge is finding a sustainable way to keep financing and better education coverage. The traditional business model – consisting of print advertising, classifieds and subscriptions – is no longer sustainable for many local newsrooms.

And for some, growing their digital operations has been an uphill battle, especially when competing with the likes of Facebook and Google for local advertising spending.

“The ability to make revenue from digital journalism – right now, it doesn’t match the ability to make revenue from print journalism,” Huang explained.

Larger newsrooms like The New York Times and The Washington Post have succeeded, with a few local exceptions, such as the Boston Globe. “With local news, it’s a challenge to sustain or grow the business quickly,” Huang added.

And while a few philanthropists are currently filling in some of the financial holes, education lab operators say they need to find other supplemental revenues as well.

A growing number of philanthropists are interested in supporting journalism. The organization Media Impact Funders says its members “are stepping up to help news organizations rebuild trust with audiences, report on local communities, and advance important new journalistic collaborations on issues critical to the public interest.”

Its membership includes more than 50 philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Lenfest Institute for Journalism. (Note: The first two also fund the Education Writers Association.)

But as more journalists seek donations, demand for grants is growing faster than supply. So many journalism organizations are starting to ask readers for individual donations.

Findings from the Institute for Nonprofit News’ INN Index 2021 showed that nonprofit newsrooms received 47% of their budgets from foundations (down from 57% in 2018) and 36% from individual donations (up from 33% in 2018).

Newsroom leaders also need to look for potential funders outside of journalism or in nontraditional spaces, according to Powell.

“There’s not as many dollars in the system as we need there to be,” Powell said. “That’s where collaboration comes into play. We have to work together to maximize the dollars available.”

Smaller for-profit newspapers, with five or less staffers, may not have the capacity to pitch funders or create an education lab. For this situation, Powell did some “matchmaking”: She connected a small, independent newspaper with Report for America, which placed an education journalist in the newsroom, she said.

“It’s important that smaller news organizations think creatively. I wouldn’t duplicate [everything] larger outlets are doing. Forge your own way,” Powell advised.

Al.com reporters Rebecca Griesbach and Savannah Tryens-Fernandes.

Next: Innovation, service and engagement

Donor funding is allowing expanded education teams to tackle a variety of innovative in-depth reporting and engagement projects.

Serven Smith plans to keep her audience in mind moving forward rather than doing things simply because newspapers have traditionally done them.

“We want to make sure we were getting them stories, and the right vehicles, and engaging the audience in new and interesting ways,” she said.

Although the pandemic has caused disruption, it has also encouraged reporting approaches that go beyond longform stories. Operating with a news product development state of mind, Serven Smith and her team created a COVID-19 mask tracker and a COVID case tracker.

“We noticed people always asking what other districts were doing without knowing how to dig through 10 pages of a school website to find that information,” Serven Smith said. “So, we put that all together in a spreadsheet that we’ve updated pretty frequently for the last six months.”

The Post and Courier’s education lab launched in September 2021, with staff getting out an in-depth feature within the first six weeks. The team, led by editor Hillary Flynn, is also focusing on solutions journalism, such as its “Bright Spots” project, which will involve “deeply sourced” pieces on schools doing well in the state. The project is expected to publish sometime in the next few months.

“It’s like working in a startup,” Flynn said. “Our publisher and managing editor gave us freedom with the lab. I want my reporters to work on projects they are passionate about. I have them pitch things. I want them to stay engaged and passionate.”

Engaging today’s audience

To expand and diversify its audience to include communities traditional newspapers have long ignored, such as communities of color and immigrants, The Seattle Times’ education lab early on started hosting free or low-cost events, such as student and educator story slams.

And the newer education labs planned to follow suit – until COVID-19 threw a wrench into in-person engagement activities.  But as the pandemic eased in early 2022, the Fresno Bee is “going to be able to do a lot of the engagement work that we wanted to do in the beginning,” Kieta said. “We really want to reach communities that we haven’t really touched before.”

Other recently formed education labs – such as The Post and Courier, The Dallas Morning News and Al.com – are also ramping up new engagement efforts, including events, panels to discuss stories and and other face-to-face opportunities.

Collaborating for more impact

To strengthen their impact, several education labs and national nonprofit education teams from around the country have started to collaborate on in-depth stories.

“We thought we could do more together than separately,” said Serven Smith, whose Al.com site participates in the ed lab collab. “Education is super localized, but there are issues that resonate around the country.”

The other outlets involved include The Seattle Times, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, The Hechinger Report and The Christian Science Monitor. So far, the seven news organizations have worked together on three reporting projects, and they meet at least once a week.

“We’re sharing ideas,” said Katherine Long of The Seattle Times “That’s the fun part for me: How to use the lab structure to do a better job of covering education. The lab gives you that. You’re not just chasing a story happening today. You think about how we can do a better job of educating children, what works, and how to bring that knowledge to others.”

The education teams have covered remote learning, returning to in-person school and how schools are teaching children to read during the pandemic, with the last project published this past November. Staffers from The Hechinger Report and Al.com discussed America’s reading problem during an episode of EWA Radio.

With interest growing in the hybrid business model used by education labs, some editors say they’ve been fielding many calls asking for advice from newsroom leaders around the country – and they welcome them.

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