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October 28, 2020

How 6 Alaska newsrooms facing major budget cuts built a fundraising campaign together

Eagle flying over Kachemak Bay in Alaska
A young bald eagle flies over Kachemak Bay in southern Alaska. Photo by Andy Morffew used under Creative Commons.

Editors’ Note: This is part of an occasional series highlighting local news entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders who are making their communities stronger. Each post highlights lessons learned and resources Democracy Fund grantees and others can offer to help you build a healthier local news ecosystem in your community. 

Mollie Kabler, one of the Local News Lab’s ecosystem builders, joined forces with other local journalists in Alaska’s public media system to seek out matching funds and greater chances to create a more resilient and collaborative ecosystem. Read on for Mollie’s lessons from the experiment. 

By Mollie Kabler, Executive Director of Alaska Public Broadcasting and CoastAlaska

In July 2019, broadcasters in Alaska faced a difficult challenge — what would we do to survive the $2.7 million cut to state funding support for public media? This was not the first time Alaska’s public media had been threatened by cuts to government funding. A similar existential crisis in 1994 had spurred the genesis of CoastAlaska, an operations-sharing organization for Southeast Alaska’s public media. In the spirit in which our collaborative was formed, we — six stations serving communities across the state — joined to develop an innovative, shared solution.

We wanted to know: If we doubled-down on building awareness around our local newsrooms, and fortified development capacity throughout the collaborative with shared marketing, would we be able to close the funding gap?

Our two-pronged approach

KCAW, in the southeastern Alaska coastal city of Sitka, proposed to our fellow CoastAlaska stations a coordinated month-long fundraising campaign in December 2019, focused on building awareness around local news. We decided on two goals for the campaign:

1: growing capacity around resources to gather local news, and

2: creating a sustainable funding stream focused on journalism.

To meet these goals, we developed a two-pronged campaign. The first prong of the coordinated campaign was around building a shared “news match,” as matching funds are a proven motivating factor for individual gifts. Our initial intention was to split the match proportionately based on “performance” — in other words, the ratio of money raised at each station. The second prong of our campaign was to create a comprehensive out-of-the-box marketing package that included graphics, on-air scripts, direct mail language, social media strategy, and recorded PSAs that could be “personalized” for each participating station.

A large portion of the implementation was left to the individual stations: developing their plans, producing any discrete work products, taking part in the solicitation of the shared match. The CoastAlaska business office played a crucial role in coordinating and processing memberships; they also closed out the books and generated reports, mailing lists, and physical mail.

KCAW started work within CoastAlaska to coordinate this campaign in May of 2019. The bulk of activities were accomplished between September 2019 and January 2020. Participating stations included KRBD Ketchikan, KSTK Wrangell, KFSK Petersburg, KTOO Juneau, KUCB Unalaska, and KCAW Sitka. Our combined audience share was 58,000 Alaskans (accounting for roughly 8% of the total population of the state) and our combined dollar goal was $76,500.

Here are some of the elements we included in the shared marketing package:

The above graphic included an editable layer that was personalized to each station. Assets included: email marketing banners/backgrounds, social media graphics (profile picture, shareable profile “frame,” cover photo, ad graphics for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), and direct mail elements.

We developed scripts for stations to record and include in their on-air messaging (if delivered live). This is one example:

SCRIPT 7: CoastAlaska – collaboration is a keystone

It’s important that you join us in supporting a bold and sustainable future for news in our region. [STATION]’s news staff are working to make sure our needs around safety, survival, and accountability are met. Journalism like this is the keystone for our ability to engage in the world around us.

We recognize that we can all do this better as a team. So we partner with other public media stations to keep an eye out for the news that impacts you. And as CoastAlaska, we can share innovations and system shifts that impact our news making. We are stronger together, so join us in raising funds in support of our newsrooms.

We also wrote customizable direct mail and e-blast copy: 

When news matters, you matter. This is the driving force behind journalism — we cover the news for you. When [STATION] does the newscast, we do it for you. When we are tracking on City Assembly business, we do it for you. When we hold candidate forums, we do it for you.

You might already know this, but here is the surprise — the news is hard to do. It takes expertise to ask the right questions. We have to know where to look to find the facts. Our reporters keep an ear to the ground on what’s happening. This work doesn’t just happen.

But it’s important for us to get it right. You rely on the news being credible, factual, and timely. The space between you and the news is small when it’s so local. And when news matters, you matter. That link is mutual. The [STATION] news relies on you deeply. And right now, I’m asking you to invest in your local news.

Think about what the [STATION] newsroom means to you — then make a gift to support another year of excellence in journalism. We can tell your stories, spending the time to get it right, because of your support.

Your partnership in making the news is important. You keep us independent. You make it possible to shine a light on what is happening in Southeast Alaska. And now, more than ever, we need to keep that connection strong. Support the local news. Make a year-end gift in support of [STATION]’s newsroom. Help us start 2020 strong.

The truth is worth it.

With appreciation, [YOUR NAME]

Finally, we obtained recorded materials from a variety of hosts at NPR, through their custom promo program. Each station received 4-5 pieces that could be included, as needed, in a station’s program schedule.

Results and Impacts

It was clear that all the communities throughout CoastAlaska connected to the idea that local news, produced as a public service, was something that was worthy of their financial support. Here is a comment from one of KCAW’s donors:

“I have lived and worked in many different countries where it was obvious that local radio was crucial to sustaining democracy and it is becoming clear that our local radio and the local news is crucial to maintaining democracy here. Especially for future generations, like the baby that I could hear in the background of the studio.”

Jointly, we raised $67,827 through our membership intake channels and $3,040 in donations through Facebook, totaling $70,907, 92 percent of our goal. There were six participating stations; four of them had never held a calendar year-end campaign. Out of those, two stations exceeded their goals substantially, while the remaining two raised money for the first time in this venue.

Four stations held live on-air fundraising drives for a portion of the campaign period — we found that increased the likelihood of a station meeting their fundraising goal.

Our goal for the matching funds was $76,500. We were able to match $20,489 with a contribution from Democracy Fund of the same amount. We were not able to get the other $56,00 from other donors but still were able to incentivize individual donations. In the end we still raised significant dollars from our members and listeners: the aforementioned $67,827.

What we learned

Overall, the results of this coordinated campaign were net positive; and we gained important insight into a few opportunities for improvement.

1. Start match fundraising early. Focus on institutional support.

We tasked all participating stations to reach out to organizations in our communities (primarily underwriters) that had capacity to make a large gift to our match. This work started in September, but it became clear quickly that this was not enough time. Our prospects shared feedback with us about our approach; the aims of the news-fundraiser did not align with their marketing objectives. Partnering deeply with institutions like Democracy Fund, who have an affinity for our fundraiser’s stated mission, will be more effective.

2. Figure out who will do ALL the work — especially the background support.

Planning and running a coordinated campaign could be one person’s entire job, given the relationship building, back-office support, and campaign building required of such an effort. Major tasks were split between KCAW and the CoastAlaska business office — but neither had the long-term capacity to carry any part of this work easily. This leads to miscommunication, lack of formal agreements/deliverables, incomplete documentation and other problems. It is necessary to build in an appropriate amount of capacity to do this campaign well.

3. Harness the power of the airwaves.

The stations that held a substantial, live-hosted on-air component made (or exceeded) their goals, while the online-only efforts did not. We learned that it is crucial to include a live, human connection for listeners to connect and give.

At this time all of last year’s participants are planning to run end-of-the-year campaigns in 2020. We look forward to learning even more from these efforts.

Our future plans for continued sustainability

Opportunities like NewsMatch, a national matching gift campaign for nonprofit news, address many of the insights we identified, and CoastAlaska has joined the 2020 NewsMatch campaign launching Nov. 1. Our thought process at the beginning of this effort was to create an opportunity for all public media stations in Alaska to take part in a coordinated campaign. While we scaled the 2019 campaign down to CoastAlaska stations, we see the benefit in this first proof-of-concept, and know that this work is scalable if capacity is built effectively around the campaign.