Journalism grant funders share insights on getting grants

By Christina Johnson

Could your local news organization score a grant with a good idea?

At the LION 2019 Summit, a panel of representatives from the Knight Foundation, Report for America, Google News Initiative, Lenfest Institute and Facebook told the audience yes. But your chances improve if your idea lifts all boats, rather than just your own newsroom.

“Many years ago it was maybe more strategic, because it was so new, to fund one or two. But now there are hundreds,” said Karen Rundlet of the Knight Foundation, who moderated the “Real Talk About Grant Funding for Local Journalism” discussion at this year’s conference in Nashville. The foundation has recently funded NewsMatch, Solutions Journalism Network and Report for America.

“We’re trying to think of big ideas where we can support a lot of organizations at one point, as opposed to hearing one pitch at a time,” Rundlet said.

Foundations prefer to fund nonprofits because it costs less, due to their tax-exempt status. But the crisis in local journalism has resulted in for-profit news publishers knocking at the door, too.

For-profit organizations can contract a fiscal agent or sponsor to accept nonprofit grants when allowed. The Lenfest Institute for Journalism charges 2 to 3 percent, said program manager Cheryl Thompson-Morton. But elsewhere, the service can run much higher, as much as 8 percent.

“We actually do it for free, but only as part of Report for America,” said its co-founder, Kevin Grant. The organization places journalists in newsrooms across the country and pays half the salary, while the newsroom host contributes a quarter. Then Report for America helps newsrooms raise funding from the public for the final quarter.

Facebook includes for-profit companies in its effort to help local news publishers with Instant Articles, programs and off-platform projects. Dorrine Mendoza, with the News Partnerships team at Facebook, talked about the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network Grant which just closed its deadline for up to $25,000 for both for-profits and nonprofits.

“Some focus on financial sustainability, and some focus on audience development,” Mendoza said. “That could be an event where your goal is to grow your newsletter subscriptions by ‘x’ percent. That qualifies.”

It’s also offering trainings on tools like CrowdTangle and accelerator programs that bring publishers together to workshop better paths to profitability.

“We’re really trying to help you with discovery. We know when the algorithm changed, it made it a lot harder for people to find your content,” she said. Facebook’s ‘Today In’ feature recently rolled out to 6,000 local cities nationwide to alert readers to local content. There is no cost, but Facebook has asked publishers to register their pages with the Facebook News Page Index. LION members can view a webinar here.

Ashley Edwards, a U.S. partnership manager at Google News Lab, said they recently ran the Innovation Challenge for ideas to increase engagement or revenue with grants of up to $300,000. The deadline was in July and there will be another one in 2020, she said. Her best advice was to think big. “We’re really interested in ideas that are going to help audience engagement and also develop sustainable business models. We’re trying to fund ideas that will help newsrooms in the long run,” Edwards said.

Lenfest Institute, with other partners, offered small grants last year through the Community Listening Engagement Fund. About 70 publishers nationwide were given subsidies to try out new audience engagement tools, like Hearken, GroundSource,  The Listening Post Collective’s Membership Program, DocumentCloud, MuckRock and the Coral Project’s “Talk,” now known as “Coral.”

“One of the things we learned is that audiences will engage with you more if you are engaging with them,” said Lenfest’s Thompson-Morton. Large and small newsrooms were involved, but the best work was done by the smallest organizations, she noted, including LION members.

Christina Johnson is a career news editor and writer who recently launched a hyperlocal for her hometown in Hazlet, New Jersey.