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How the Detroit Free Press uses an annual impact report to show how its journalism drives change

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Inspired by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Detroit Free Press published its first community impact report to show its readers — and funders — how its journalism drives social change and makes Detroit a better place to live.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Anjanette Delgado, senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and a contributor to the Media Impact Project at USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center. The Free Press participated in the Knight-Lenfest major market program in 2018.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: Our business model (print subscriptions and advertising revenue) needs to be diversified. We offer a print subscription and a digital e-edition, but not a digital subscription. Content on the website is available to readers at no charge. We firmly believe the work we do is also worth supporting through fundraising, but we haven’t had an effective way to communicate the results of a funder’s investment. 

The Free Press started its fundraising to support reporting in 2018. We applied for a Report for America corps member to join the staff to cover formerly incarcerated people in metro Detroit. Since then, we have raised $25,000 to support this beat from the Detroit-based Hudson-Webber Foundation and have been working to secure funding for two other RFA positions in our newsroom. 

In addition to sharing stories of change, the impact report has helped us thank funders, explain the impact of the work they’re funding and lay out in one place the work for which we continue to raise money, including our summer apprentice program.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is directly related to Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audience you build). 

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: I started tracking the impact of local journalism back in 2015, when I was an editor at the Journal Media News Group in New York. I was looking for a way to measure the effectiveness of the investigative team beyond (or in addition to) page views. 

When I came to the Detroit Free Press, the newsroom was making a significant impact in the Detroit metro area but not really sharing that story with the community. 

The Free Press started using the online Impact Tracker that my team in New York built and launched this page on freep.com to share the impact stories with readers. With large projects that stretch out over months, we created Google Docs and added impacts to each document as we tracked things in real time. That information eventually ended up in the tracker as well. 

When the Minneapolis Star Tribune published its first Community Impact Report (similar to annual reports that nonprofit organizations publish, but the first we had seen from a for-profit newsroom), I got in touch with Suki Dardarian at the Star Tribune (also a Table Stakes alum). She was generous in sharing the lessons they’d learned. 

Our Impact Tracker and stories that stood out for their reader response provided more than enough examples to compile our own community impact report. But we knew there were more examples that any one, two or five editors could handle. So we sent a callout to the newsroom, asking every reporter to share how their work made a difference and we pulled the report together from there.

Then, we modeled our report after the Star Tribune’s and published it in December.

The Community Impact Report appeared first in print inside the Sunday paper for subscribers, then online for everyone else with a callout to become a subscriber and support our journalism. Finally, we printed it as a glossy magazine to take to funders to prove that we both achieve impact and understand how to track it — which is key to attracting financial support for our journalism going forward.

The report included:

Publishing this report and talking about impact in other ways gives us the right language to say that all contributions, whether from a subscriber or funder, make a difference.  

(To display its commitment to high-impact journalism, the Free Press added an Impact category to the homepage’s navigation.)

We worked with marketing to compile and print the report. It included not only the journalism but also the community events we host or help organize, which showed the bigger picture of our impact on Detroit.

Every section included a callout to support our work. One section specifically emphasized our funded projects (high school journalism training, FOIA workshops, a Report for America beat) and thanked those who’ve already given.

Q: What worked?

A: We surveyed readers before and after the report to gauge their satisfaction with and impression of the Free Press. After the report, their satisfaction jumped an unprecedented 25 percentage points, from 62% to 87%, in response to the question “To what extent do you agree with the following statement: The Detroit Free Press has a positive mission to help the community by keeping us informed.” They said things such as:

  • “The Free Press cares about what goes on in Detroit and its neighboring cities.”
  • “I like that the Free Press is working to expose corruption and injustice like journalism is supposed to do. You don’t see that very often today.”
  • “It is good to see the things the Free Press has done to help everyday people.”
  • “It reminded me that the Free Press is vital to our region. We need you! Thank you.”

Internally, it set a bar to reach for. Reporters and editors now want their work to make it into next year’s report.

We sold print subscriptions directly through the impact campaign, using a landing page through which we could track subscriptions. We can attribute 74 print or e-edition subscriptions to the campaign, which is significant for the Free Press because we don’t have a digital subscription model.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Finding the right photography was a challenge. We ended up in a good place, but it took some work. We realized we need to be more proactive this year and take pictures with more of our follow-up stories to illustrate the people and the positive changes our reporting had on them. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A glossy copy of the Free Press’ Community Impact report sits at each setting during a Free Press event known as “Breakfast Club,” in which a conversation with a news leader typically draws more than 200  civic and business leaders. (Brian Dickerson, Detroit Free Press)

A: The survey results. Those blew us away and inspired us to print extra copies to place at every seat at the Free Press Breakfast Club. This event series, which features a conversation with a newsmaker or about a hot topic, regularly sells out and is filled with more than 300 business and civic leaders.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: I’d have extra copies made for everyone in the newsroom. It’s been a motivator and an important message to share internally.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Be intentional in your choice of language and photographs. Agree on this beforehand. We avoided saying anything like “journalism matters” when it’s really the community we’re here to serve. We also used “we” instead of “I,” and we chose photographs that represent the change or the people who benefited from the change instead of the problems and the people who made them.

Crowdsourcing is your friend when compiling a report like this. Ask reporters to write about their own impact, and open the submission process to everyone. That process led people to think of impact in less traditional ways and led to more examples than if one person had been tasked to compile the entire report. It also made the task of pulling together several pages worth of copy much, much easier, and helped us accurately report the impact.

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