The Seattle Times meeting its readers at a live eventCredit: Dean Rutz/Seattle Times
"Local journalism is in crisis," said Sharon Pian Chan, former vice president of innovation, product and development, The Seattle Times. The newspaper is one of the last remaining independent news outlets in the US, having been owned by the Blethen family since 1896.
"20 years ago every newspaper in America made money by selling subscriptions and advertising. Subscriptions are a break-even business, it pays for the printing and delivering to your doorstep. What paid for the journalists was the advertising."
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, Chan explains just how much advertising model has changed since then.
"The digital advertising that is replacing print advertisement is inherently cheaper and the playing field is sloped steeply towards platforms like Facebook and Google," she continued.
In 2018, these two platforms accounted for 70 per cent of local digital advertising of US and Canadian online media, and this is expected to rise by nine per cent in 2019.
Now, The Seattle Times has turned to its readers to future-proof the organisation with an Investigative Journalism Fund which will see the newspaper bolster its ranks rather than cut jobs.
The fund is an effort in partnership with The Seattle Foundation. Readers can donate a voluntary amount whenever they choose. The Seattle Times has set its sights on a 'phase one' goal of $500,000 which will fund one new editor, two reporters, and crucial reporting resources.
There are likely going to be three more phases, according to Chan, who explained how dividing up objectives helps manage expectations of the readers.
"We don’t want to make everyone wait until they’ve given us millions of dollars before we hire a team of people and produce journalism," she explained.
"We’re already drafting job descriptions and handling the process internally. As soon as we hit the goal, we want to have reporters publishing in The Seattle Times.
"That’s part of the process of creating trust, seeing the impact in the community and then you decide if you want to continue contributing or sharing this opportunity with others."
The trust goes slightly deeper though, Chan added. Live test events specifically targetted existing, long-term subscribers to see if they would get on board with the programme in addition to their current subscription. It turned out they were happy to chip in.
"Once we explained it to them, people understood why we were creating a campaign to fund investigative journalism. They understood the business reasons and the changes happening in digital landscape that are making it harder to provide the same amount of journalism as we have in the past," she said.
"Many of the subscribers knew all of our major investigative stories we had done in the last year in specific detail. These people love our journalism and we are creating an opportunity to underwrite more of that."
Other wider crowdfunding efforts, such as a $7m public buyout of a local radio station, gave Chan hope that the project would be supported. They are now just less than 40 per cent of the way towards their goal, which has no fixed deadline.
"That was another proof for us that this community of individuals cares about local journalism. So why not create a way for them to do the journalism that is most expensive but also most impactful?" she asked.
This article was updated on 3 February 2020, Sharon Chan Pian now works for New York Times
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