As traditional revenue streams dry up in the media industry, there is a growing interest in funding journalism through philanthropy. The Local Media Association (LMA), with support from the Google News Initiative, aims to explore this source of funding with the launch of the Lab for Journalism Funding.

Launched in September, the lab’s goal is to raise $2.25 million over the course of six months among 16 publishers to fund critical local coverage and develop a playbook of lessons to share with the news industry. The initiative is led by Frank Mungeam, LMA chief innovation officer, who will publish learnings from the lab on LMA’s website.

“The goal of the lab is to draw on the early successes of individual publishers and identify best practices that can actually be successfully applied and scaled to local publishers across the country,” he said.

A combination of things inspired the lab, Mungeam explained. In 2018, LMA members had visited the Seattle Times and were motivated by what the publication had been able to do with journalism funded through philanthropy. In addition, the Fresno (Calif.) Bee, which had also been successful with raising funds through philanthropy, spoke at the LMA Digital Summit over the summer, also inspired them.

“The visit to the Times planted the seed, and then the subsequent success at Fresno Bee—with both newsrooms supporting significant reporting through philanthropy—suggested there were scalable, repeatable practices that could benefit local publishers more broadly,” Mungeam said.

To find publishers, LMA implemented an application process; they heard from more than 50 publishers. Ultimately, a diverse group of 16 publishers was recruited. They range from the 100-plus-year-old publication, The Afro, to the two-year-old digital publication, Detour Detroit. They are also geographically diverse, spanning the country from Anchorage Daily News in Alaska to the Washington City Paper, an alt-weekly based in Washington D.C.

“Late last year, we launched a reader membership program and have grown it to nearly 1,100 members,” Washington City Paper publisher and chief development officer Duc Luu told LMA. “Philanthropic funding is essential to continuing to grow that membership base because grants can give us the boost to hire more reporters and fund more beats that are needed at this critical juncture for our area and our readers.”

According to Mungeam, findings at the Times and Bee showed an increase of 15 percent to 30 percent in additional reporting positions funded through philanthropy.

Google’s funding and support enabled LMA to make the lab free to publishers, develop a playbook and bring in experts like the staff at the Times, who were hired to develop a curriculum for the program.

At press time, the 16 publishers had launched a listening effort to discover the underserved needs in their communities—a secondary benefit to philanthropy. It compels journalists to focus on the value they’re delivering to the community, Mungeam explained.

When seeking funding, it’s important for publishers to go in with the understanding that they won’t know when they will be successful, he said. However, he is also adamant that if local news organizations are to be sustainable, they must develop more diversified revenue streams.

“The early successes some publishers have had point to philanthropy as potentially a pillar of funding going forward that is part of a sustainable balanced approach,” Mungeam said.