Inside The Seattle Times: A case study in community-funded journalism

Hannah Rodriguez

Correction: Traffic Lab was launched in 2017. An earlier version incorrectly reported the year.

It’s not a secret that news organizations are struggling to pay their reporters. As employment has dropped 45 percent in the past decade, newsrooms have experimented with direct, outside funding.

Five years ago, The Seattle Times introduced the Education Lab to cover local early education programs, K-12 schools and colleges. The lab is paid for by money from the Solutions Journalism Network, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. The money funds two reporters and an engagement editor and partially funds an editor. There is also money for community forums that would otherwise not exist outside of the newsroom.

Based on the success of Education Lab, the Times introduced similar initiatives in 2017: Traffic Lab and Project Homeless.

Through my RJI Student Innovation Fellowship at the Times, I was able to observe how reporters and editors worked to thread the needle of maintaining independence while receiving outside money for these initiatives.

For each funder and each lab, there are individualized grants and expectations, according to Kristi Waite, who oversees community funding at the Times. Each funder also receives quarterly reports on the metrics and impact of stories.

Waite said that during initial conversations, the Times establishes its independence to ensure funders cannot “buy” stories. Language used in each grant also prohibits funders from having input on new hires, story ideas, editing, reporting or publishing.

“We took a big risk and it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but it can happen,” Waite said. “Someday we probably won’t print a paper, but all the important work and stories that hold the powerful accountable still has to get out there and we have to figure out how to fund them.”

The Times’ solution is an innovative sort of fundraising for the journalism industry, but perceived conflict of interests and doubts of credibility are still a primary concern.

For Neal Morton, a Seattle Times Education Lab reporter, a paycheck funded by the Gates foundation and City University at first raised ethical questions.

“You have a lot of journalists who aren’t happy about the idea that government would sponsor journalism, so to have big billionaires’ philanthropic organizations fund us isn’t natural,” Morton said.

Morton said his feelings about the outside funding boiled down to the actual funders. Nationally, the Gates Foundation in education is “so ubiquitous it was such a not issue for me,” he said. “If the Seattle Public School District was funding Ed Lab, I’m not sure I would feel so comfortable taking a job like that.”

In 2015, two years after Ed Lab at The Seattle Times launched, the LA Times faced criticism for leaving out details about its funders for a similar community-funded education program.

“It’s dead wrong,” Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the city’s largest teachers’ union told The Washington Post in 2015. The Times’ readers, he added, “are harmed when they don’t know what they can trust in the biggest paper in Los Angeles.”

According to Joy Resmovits, Seattle Times Ed Lab editor and former reporter under the LA Times “Education Matters” project, Seattle benefits from the support of a locally-owned newsroom. Planning, commitment to the project and clear internal and external communication are also beneficial, she said.

The Times has renewed contracts for each community funded project and is moving towards expanding its investigative team with outside funding. According to Waite, the investigative project includes an “individual donor campaign.”

In 2017, The Seattle Times cut nearly two dozen jobs from the newsroom and other departments, citing falling ad revenue. Later that year, the Times also ceased publication of a subsidiary weekly newspaper and three of its sister publications.

Despite budget trouble, Waite doesn’t think it is realistic for the entire newsroom to be paid through community funding. This year, the Times avoided layoffs, and Waite seems optimistic for the development of the investigative team and future of community funding in the newsroom.

“Newsrooms across the country, and this one, suffer from cuts and people leaving the industry and we want to figure out ways to keep people in the newsroom and keep people from leaving,” she said. “I just wish we could work faster.”

Hannah Rodriguez is a convergence journalism student at the Missouri School of Journalism. During the Fall 2018 semester she worked at The Seattle Times as a metro news reporter through a Reynolds Journalism Institute Student Innovation Fellowship. Previously, she interned in Moline, Illinois with The Dispatch-Argus and in Brussels, Belgium with The Bulletin. She has covered politics, education, health, features and everything in between. Follow her on Twitter @HRodriguez15.

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