How one news organization worked with foundations to strengthen its newsroom
By Noni Ghani
Tim Ritchey knew that to begin raising funds for his newsrooms, he had to start by listening to his communities. “What is the need, the journalism need,” he asked himself, “and then what’s the propensity and the ability to potentially get that funded?”
Ritchey is the publisher of a string of newspapers in California’s Central Valley, including The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, the Merced Sun-Star, and the Tribune of San Luis Obispo, and the architect of one of the most successful efforts to support local news with philanthropy. He has overseen the creation of two successful philanthropic programs – The Fresno Bee’s Education Lab and the Fresnoland Lab. The two programs will work to expand coverage of two key areas in the San Joaquin Valley that need support and improvement: education and policy.
By the end of June, Ritchey said, The Fresno Bee will have added 10 journalists to its newsrooms – four journalists at the Education Lab, four journalists at the Fresnoland Lab, and two Report For America journalists – all funded through foundation funding and community contributions.
Inspired by the success of the Seattle Times’ Education Lab, Tim Ritchey and The Bee’s Executive Editor Joe Kieta initiated conversations with Joqauin Alvarado, the Executive Director of Project Accelerate at The Seattle Times. “Joaquin Alvarado…had been one of the people who was at the tip of that spear for the Education Lab at The Seattle Times, and that’s where the inspiration came for potentially doing it here,” Kieta says.
Ritchey and Kieta then reached out to their community and key stakeholders to better understand the education needs of the San Joaquin Valley. “Fresno County, while a very rich agricultural region, is plagued by poverty and trails way below state averages in key education attainment metrics,” Ritchey explains. “In fact, just 19.7 percent of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree.” Armed with a team of four diligent reporters, the Education Lab, established in late 2019, is working to initiate a deeper conversation around educational attainment in the region. It aims to improve the graduation rate by shining a spotlight on the education issues that are critical to San Joaquin Valley.
After identifying key areas of focus in the community, finding the funding for the Education Lab was the next step. Ritchey had initial conversations with Sarah Reyes from the California Endowment, a statewide non-profit foundation with a mission to fundamentally improve and expand access to health care for underserved Californians. The foundation pledged the first $100,000 to the Education Lab.
“That helped a lot – to get that early commitment like that, it affirmed that, okay, this was the right direction, plus it gave us great footing for moving forward from there,” Ritchey said. He then went on to form a fiscal sponsorship with the Impact Media and Measurement Fund at the Central Valley Community Foundation, which manages and funds projects and programs that drive transformation and improve the community through solutions-oriented journalism. Other foundations, including the James B. McClatchy Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Don and Sally Clark Foundation also pledged support to the program.
These donations, along with funding from private donors, ultimately increased the budget for the first year of the Education Lab to $300,000. Although the Lab has met its phase one goal, Ritchey’s team is still seeking further support from foundations and individual donors. Ritchey is “constantly in the community” trying to build up support for the Education Lab. The phase two goal is to hit the $600,000 mark, which will fund the lab’s second year. Ritchey sees this as a tangible goal – his team has been invited to apply for multiple grants from various local foundations.
The reporting produced by the Education Lab has left a mark on the community.
Ritchey recalls a piece published early this year detailing the decision made by the State Center Community College District to cut a free bus pass program that served thousands of low-income college students in Fresno. The district decided to instead allocate the funds to pave campus parking lots. Following the lab’s reporting, student leaders from the Fresno area began speaking out at public meetings and circulating a petition to save the bus program.
The attention paid off. As of March 10, the bus pass program was restored. “That’s what journalism is supposed to do – to shine a light on those things, inform the community and then the community decides what’s important when they’re informed,” Ritchey says. “Well, we made the community informed, they realized ‘no, that program is important,’ and the community found a way to keep it.”
Kieta says that the Education Lab has also put The Fresno Bee in a unique position to cover the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. “We have been able to look at various aspects of distanced learning and how they have worked and not worked,” Kieta says. The Bee has also been able to delve deeply into educational attainment issues surrounding students of color in grades K-12 and in higher education. “We’ve been able to do that in a way that we never would have been able to do before, with the reporting resources that we had.”
Ritchey’s team adopted a novel approach to fund the Fresnoland Lab.
The focus of the Lab’s four reporters is to cover land use, planning policy, water, environment, and equity issues, with particular focus on underserved communities. “I think our role as the watchdog and bringing things to life and informing and educating the community is foundational to the success of this country – it’s foundational to the success of all of our communities,” said Ritchey.
According to the Fresnoland Lab website, San Joaquin Valley is “one of California’s fastest-growing regions” that has yet to figure out “how to harness our growth to better support the communities and neighborhoods that have long existed in the region.”
To connect with the community, Ritchey realized that he needed the help of an expert — someone who knew the vulnerabilities and challenges of the Fresno region. He approached Fresnoland Media founder Danielle Bergstrom, an urban planner with more than a dozen years of experience working in government and philanthropy with expertise in public policy, water, and land issues in the region. Bergstrom currently serves as the engagement and policy editor and works collaboratively with the Fresnoland Lab’s four reporters. The idea behind partnering with Bergstrom was to combine “her skill sets and her experience with our journalism and our ability to reach large audiences,” said Ritchey. “We saw that as a great marriage.”
Fresnoland Lab has an annual budget of $325,000 for its first year. Thus far, the Bee has raised over $340,000 from six different foundations, including The James Irvine Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. With these funds, the Lab has done thorough reporting on a multitude of community-based issues, ranging from renter’s rights, to the resilience of Fresno’s Chinatown, to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta exports. “The community is responding positively…we’ve had a lot of engagement off of these stories,” Kieta says. “They have been well-read through all of the metrics that we’ve been able to see, and that’s a win for Fresno and the Central San Joaquin Valley.” Beyond their own reportage, the Fresnoland Lab has also set up various subprograms, including the Civic Documenters program, which will train 20 to 30 citizen-journalists to attend and document public meetings that affect their community throughout the region.
Local newsrooms across the country have been struggling with declining budgets for years. Traditional business models that once sustained local newspapers, including subscribers and advertising, have become difficult to maintain as the audience for news and information moves online. The novel COVID-19 pandemic poses even greater challenges for the sustainability of local news as declining revenues lead to furloughs and lay-offs across newsrooms.
But Ritchey said he’s optimistic about the future.
“The economics are extraordinarily challenging, but I have never seen so much affirmation from communities for the need for what we do. People recognize the importance of a healthy, vibrant, free and independent press.” In fact, the four newspapers for which Ritchey serves as publisher have raised almost $43,000 in individual donations and have seen significant growth in digital subscribers since the pandemic. And while advertising at The Fresno Bee, the Merced Sun-Star, The Modesto Bee, and the Tribune of San Luis Obispo has declined considerably, Ritchey avows that his newsrooms are doing everything they can to avoid reducing staff.
When asked for general advice he would give to other newsrooms seeking philanthropic funding, Ritchey says newsrooms need to “marry up what you see as the journalistic and reporting needs in your community with what you’re hearing from the community and potential funders.” The successful models of the Education Lab and the Fresnoland Lab can serve as inspiration to other newsrooms seeking innovative means of raising funding and keeping local journalism vibrant and alive.
Looking forward, Ritchey hasn’t ruled out the option of adding more programs and broadening his reach. “We’ve had conversations around economic mobility, and we’ve had some conversations around the arts.” Ritchey says he’s even considered a program exclusively covering high school and preparatory school sports. “Fresno is the fifth largest city in the state. The reporting and journalism needs are huge.”
Despite its many challenges, Ritchey believes that local news will always have a finger on the pulse of the community and will remain an important part of the communities. “We believe that an informed community is more engaged, and a more engaged community leads to progress,” he says. “You can’t have a healthy democracy without informed citizens.”
Noni Ghani is a writer and communications specialist who spent the past three years as communications manager for Reporters without Borders, a non-profit devoted to press freedom. She is returning to school to study journalism and is a contributing staffer for the McClatchy Journalism Institute.