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The Raleigh News & Observer shares its playbook on grant writing in journalism

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: You have great reporting and writing skills. Use them to get grants and other funding for your newsroom.

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 Jane Elizabeth, managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in North Carolina. The News & Observer is a participant in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program.

You can also hear all about it on the It’s All Journalism podcast.

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

Answer: Like many newsrooms, we have a tight budget. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, we weren’t able to send our staff to training and conferences due to the expense of travel, hotels and registration fees. And big projects that require travel around the state and beyond are tough on our travel budget.

So last year we began to seek out grants and scholarships to help support our work and our reporters — and pretty soon found out it’s not as easy as it might seem. Keeping up with deadlines and opportunities was nearly impossible because there wasn’t a comprehensive directory of grants.

Learning how to find appropriate grants, write proposals, read contracts and manage deliverables also was a challenge. We didn’t have a grant writer or a development director — it was all on us.

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 effort is tied to Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build) and Table Stake No. 6 (Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: First, we set up a diverse team of people from our newsroom and elsewhere in McClatchy, who all brought a specific and unique skill to the table. For example, the contracts manager from McClatchy’s Strategic Business Operations team led us through the world of grant contracts: how to interpret legal language, red flags to watch for and where contract review should fit into the grant process. A regional vice president from our advertising and marketing division gave advice on project management: tools for tracking grant applications and requirements, and staying in touch with donors.

Reporters and editors helped us develop talking points for the newsroom and for outside audiences. We needed to be able to explain why we needed outside funding, how we could do it ethically and what the goals and outcomes would be.

Our team also reached out to members of the community and spoke to readers and other potential stakeholders. We held a community meeting to explain our efforts, specifically our plan to launch a reporting lab within the newsroom that would be completely funded through philanthropy.

Once we had gathered information from the community and other stakeholders, we started on our various tasks: putting together what we believe is the first comprehensive directory of grants and training opportunities for journalists; working on a Salesforce application to track our grant efforts; writing a guidebook for those who are new to grant-seeking (and asking experts in to review our drafts).

Q: What worked?

A: Being public about our efforts and seeking help for various tasks created anticipation and momentum for our project. When our grants directory was complete, we had several supporters ready to share it with journalists literally around the world. 

We had dozens of community members already on board to become part of a reader advisory panel for our reporting lab. And because our newsroom helped choose the topic and direction for the reporting lab, we had better internal buy-in for the project. 

As far as outcomes: I look at the success/failure rate of our efforts over the past year. For the first six months, we had a far less organized, throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to applying for outside funding. Our success rate in “winning” those grants was about 10%. Over the next six months, we managed about a 50% success rate. I attribute most of that success to building and organizing our directory and developing best practices. Our guidebook is the result of those early “lessons learned.” 

Since March 2019, we’ve had training grants awarded to 13 individuals in our newsroom, and five newsroom-wide training grants. In 11 months, we received 30 grants totaling more than $443,000 to help support both reporting projects and advanced journalism training. Our reporters and editors have been able to travel to France, England, Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Washington (the state and the District), Florida and more. Barely any of this would have been possible without the mission and generosity of funders, and our decision to simply go for it.  Those grants supported reporter training in education writing, legal and criminal justice journalism, leadership and social media. Project support included stories about hurricane recovery in rural areas, African American women and maternal health, emerging technology, climate change and population growth. Funders include The Pulitzer Center, IRE, Report for America, ProPublica and Education Writers Association.

The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun grant-funded journalism

Reports and editors in North Carolina have used various grants to fund journalism excursions to England, France, and Los Angeles, just to name a few. (Photo collage by Jane Elizabeth)

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We likely underestimated the amount of conversation and explanation needed to get potential donor support for our lab project. The lab concept isn’t new on the West coast, but it hasn’t been tried in our region. In some ways we start with a disadvantage: We’re a for-profit organization that — like many newsrooms — has experienced layoffs, bankruptcy and other major challenges. Why should someone invest in such a business? And is corporate support (even if it is from a foundation) for a journalism project the same as “sponsored content”? Can readers trust the journalism? Proof of concept can take a while.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: A lot can happen in a newsroom in a year’s time (the duration of the Table Stakes program). Our team’s co-leader left for another company. Our parent company declared bankruptcy. Some grantors decided that they could not make grants to a for-profit company. A worldwide pandemic changed our priorities. All of these issues impacted our project in small or large ways, and forced us to rethink various strategies and directions.

On the plus side, our directory and accompanying guidebook have resulted in great feedback and have helped journalists and newsrooms around the world in a short time. It has been translated into Spanish and Portugese, and noted in several publications from Digiday to media newsletters. Also, the launch of the McClatchy Journalism Institute this year is a response to the needs of journalism funding, and is available to media organizations outside McClatchy.

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

A: Sometimes you have to spend money to make money — and to save your sanity. After establishing a cost benefit case (and spending too many nights and weekends on funding efforts) we have hired a regional journalism development director. He will manage many grant and fundraising activities for McClatchy’s southeast region.

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

A: If you undertake an intense effort to find outside funding for your newsroom’s training and projects, one of your goals should be to show a return-on-investment that’s substantial enough to support hiring someone who can help handle these efforts on a full-time or part-time basis. We were able to demonstrate the value of hiring a full-time development director for our region.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: In my view, nearly every newsroom’s future is likely to include outside funding efforts. It’s best to start learning and doing now — even in a small way — so that you can address ethical and cultural issues as they arise.

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