The Local Media Association has a lot going on. Among the myriad projects the association is undertaking (see below), one jumps out at the moment: a lab on journalism funded by philanthropy. It’s spot-on with the LMA’s focus on proving out new business models for the industry.

“We really view that as the biggest opportunity that has emerged in 2020,” says Nancy Lane of the trend toward philanthropic resources. “And so we're putting a lot of time and resources towards that.”

Sixteen media companies are participating in the lab, out of nearly 40 that applied. They include two digital startups and 14 newspapers. Among the papers are the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the RecordJournal in Meriden, Connecticut, the Tampa Bay Times and Al Día, in Philadelphia.

LMA hired Frank Mungeam of Arizona State University to head the lab.

The Seattle Times, an early adopter of the philanthropic model, is leading the faculty.

“It's not just Seattle,” says Lane. “We've been studying the Fresno Bee for some time. Tim Ritchie (publisher) has 30% of his newsroom funded by philanthropy and you see McClatchy making a big, big investment in this space, hiring people at the corporate level and putting them out in regions to work with their publishers on this strategy. So we’re high on this strategy.”

Increases in digital subscriptions are in the headlines, especially for big players, with Lane calling them newspapers’ “North Star right now, their top KPI.” But the digital subscription model is challenging, especially for smaller papers, and “if you can get a third of your newsroom funded by philanthropy, it’s going to be easier than getting a third of your newsroom funded by digital subscriptions. Not saying you shouldn’t do both,” she says.

“We very much wanted to prove out the model for independent and family-owned newspapers. That's our focus, and startups, because we think they're in a position with strong local leadership to tap philanthropic funding. They have the relationships and they care about the community.”

It’s early, but smaller papers are doing “quite well” in the lab, which is intensive, says Lane. “They’re already making pitches to community foundations and they're getting really positive feedback from those foundations and in some cases proposals have been requested,” she said.

Everybody has two delegates in the lab, with one on the business side and a lot of newsroom participation. For smaller operations, it may be the editor and publisher. Larger papers such as the Tampa Bay Times may have a fulltime person. Lane says more operations may put fulltime people on philanthropy as more money starts to come into the model.