This is a series on Better News a) to 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 Carlos Virgen, digital news director at The Day in New London, Conn. The Day was part of the 2018-19 Poynter Local News Innovation Table Stakes cohort.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: The Day was established in 1881 and serves about 13 towns in southeastern Connecticut, roughly from the Connecticut River on the west and the Rhode Island state line on the east and going north to Norwich
The news organization is “owned by a split-interest trust, which operates the company and supports the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation. This arrangement ensures that the newspaper will remain independent and that profits from the newspaper will be distributed to nonprofit organizations that help needy children, families and individuals and organizations that support the arts. Since its inception, the foundation has distributed more than $12 million.”
Like so many other newsrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our company, including how our journalists did their jobs and how we all communicated. The pandemic severely affected our revenue.
We quickly shifted some of our budgeted in-person events to virtual events, and we continued steady growth in digital subscriptions. But we knew the advertising revenue was going to take a large hit.
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 is related 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: Our audience and revenue group was formed in late 2019 to develop an audience revenue strategy for 2020 and includes colleagues from the newsroom and marketing and advertising departments.
The group looked at revenue options, including special subscription pricing and virtual events, to make up for the expected revenue hit during the pandemic. Especially appealing to us was grant funding, since we had applied for grants in the past for various projects and initiatives. We initially applied to a couple of COVID-19 emergency journalism funds, including the Facebook COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program, which we did not receive. We did receive a small grant through the Google Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.
As members of the Local Media Association, we were invited to participate in the Local News Fund program, an emergency fundraising campaign launched and administered through the Local Media Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. This fund would allow us to solicit tax-deductible community donations to support and increase our coverage of the pandemic.
After joining an informational webinar, our team developed the campaign’s messaging and promotional content. Our messaging focused on the importance of our continued COVID-19 coverage. It also made a connection to the yearly donations our company makes to local nonprofits through the Bodenwein Public Benevolent Foundation.
Our fundraising page went live within a few days. And our publisher officially launched the campaign with an announcement asking for company-wide support and participation. During our weekly Zoom newsroom meetings, we communicated our plan with the newsroom and asked to make themselves available for social media call-outs.
Q: What worked?
A: We segmented our email newsletter lists to help us identify potential donors. That really helped ramp up the donations. We tried to customize the message depending on the type of content that readers were subscribing to.
For example, subscribers to our business newsletter would receive a donation call-out that focused on our business coverage. Meanwhile, subscribers to our COVID-19 newsletter saw a message that focused on the general impact of the pandemic on the region.
We segmented these email lists and sent follow-up donation emails that linked to our fundraising page. These email lists became the biggest driver of donations.
In a personal column, our publisher told our readership about the fundraising campaign and explained the financial struggles the company was experiencing and how those struggles might affect our ability to report on the issues that affect our region.
The column was published in our Sunday print edition and online. That helped us grow from about $10,000 in donations to about $30,000. We then repurposed the column for an email blast to our segmented audiences, which helped us make the leap to about $60,000 within a week. By the end of the campaign, we received more than $88,000 in donations.
We’ve used the funds to publish a special graduation print and digital section, as most in-person graduations were canceled. Also, since our staff was forced to work from home, some of the money was used to purchase laptops.
The high school sports season has started, albeit with restrictions as far as spectators allowed during games. Typically, we’ve produced select livestreams of high school sports, including soccer and football. With limited or no spectators at these games, we plan to increase the number of games we livestream. We have used the additional funds to buy new equipment to replace old and outdated cameras.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: Our social media messaging wasn’t as polished as it could have been. Engagement with our donation call-outs on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram was rather limited. We could have been more strategic about the kinds of content we tied to our “asks,” including capitalizing on those stories that highlighted community achievements during the crisis, since those were some of our most read and engaging stories. Also, we should have invested a little to push our donation messaging to more people instead of just relying on organic reach.
We grew our COVID-19 newsletter subscriber list with a post-donation newsletter subscription call-out that all donors saw in a thank-you email after they completed their donation. But we could have done better to segment that group so that we could easily identify them as donors instead of just lumping them in with the general newsletter subscriber list.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: We got a lot of buy-in from our newsroom staff, especially from reporters on social media. That propelled the fundraising campaign, helping us focus our messaging around the impact of our pandemic reporting.
The participation from reporters is making it easier for us to shift that same messaging back toward our digital subscription push. Reporters are now more accustomed to making direct appeals for support to our readership.
The fundraising campaign reaffirmed our commitment to audience engagement and transparency. It unified and encouraged our staff — across the company, not just the newsroom — during a time of such upheaval and uncertainty. The overwhelmingly positive comments that donors left on our fundraising page really uplifted our newsroom.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We would launch a fundraising campaign through our own local partners so we could have more control over the donation process. That would allow us to make a more direct connection with donors. We’d like to be able to collect email addresses for follow-up messaging and eventually ask donors who aren’t already subscribers to continue their support with a subscription.
During our Local News Fund campaign, we reached out to local nonprofits like the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and nonprofit newsrooms like the Connecticut Mirror for advice on refining our fundraising message. Their feedback will be invaluable as we pursue our next community-supported fundraising project.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
- Involve your staff as early as possible, especially your newsroom, since the journalists make up the public face of your company.
- Find partner organizations in your community for possible matching funds.
- Make sure to be transparent with your staff and, most importantly, with your readers.
Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?
A: This initiative has stoked our company’s interest in community-funded journalism. Our audience and revenue committee continues to explore available grants as well as partnerships to help launch much-needed journalism projects.
With the help of the newsroom, community organizations and readers, we are starting an informal community needs assessment to identify the kinds of journalism projects that will make an impact. We are relying on our existing relationships with journalism groups like the Local Media Association and local foundations to refine our strategy and develop a template for grant applications and fundraising campaigns.