Q&A: CalMatters co-founder on fundraising for journalism

Simone Coxe is co-founder, board chair and chief fundraiser for CalMatters. She was interviewed by David Westphal, senior fellow at USC’s Center for Communication Leadership and Policy. These excerpts were edited for length and clarity.

 

What has been your experience in trying to persuade people of means to invest in a news nonprofit?

It wasn’t that hard, once they agreed to take a meeting. They either cared about trust, or the state of California, or an issue in California. The first year we were selling an idea. And our friends, my friends and Chris’ (co-founder Chris Boskin) friends, were really investing in us. Now, they’re investing in something real.

 

Do you think the robust individual philanthropy you’ve achieved for CalMatters can be sustained or increased?

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Yes, I do. Of the people giving us $10,000 a year or $25,000 a year, we’re getting something like a 98 percent renewal rate.

 

And what about diversifying your revenue stream with earned income?

In addition to membership, we’ll also look at corporate revenue, at distribution revenue. We assume maybe 12 percent (of the $10 million fund-raising goal) will come from earned revenue, so that’s a little over a million. Which means (in addition to renewals), we have another $4.8 million or so to raise philanthropically. I hope half of that is foundations and the other half will be new money from individuals.

 

You’ve had more than two years of results. Are you satisfied with CalMatters’ progress? Is it working?

Yes. It’s a beginning. We have anecdotal evidence that we’ve got legislators behaving differently, citizens are being informed and engaged in ways that they weren’t before, and there’s more dialogue about the issues because of the stuff that we’re doing. It’s a huge challenge trying to make policy relevant to real people, really engaging them. But it’s just two years in and, yes, I’m satisfied.

 

Sometimes news subjects are unhappy with coverage and put pressure on the news organization or its funders, or sometimes funders want influence over news coverage. What has been your experience about these potential conflicts?

There’s one story we wrote where we needed to say that two of our funders were involved in an educational issue we were writing about. And so we identified the funders, and there was no pushback on the story or on being named, so that was pretty simple. Certainly, some of our funders will call and say I’ve got this great thing and I really think you should cover it. They call me and I send it on to Dave (Lesher) and I have no idea what he does with it.  There’s never been an expectation of pay-to-play.

 

What advice would you give to someone like you who might be interested in setting up a news nonprofit?

I called Dick Tofel (president of ProPublica and a member of the CalMatters advisory board) and asked for his advice. He said, you’re already there. You need a plan, you need money and you need a leader. Well, I could do the plan, Dave could be the leader, and I could raise the money. You need to ask: Is your plan reasonable? And you have to be realistic about whether you can get the money.

 

Do you see any other news nonprofit you want to be like someday?

I think the Texas Tribune we have to look at. They’re doing state, and they’re sustainable, with 50 percent earned income. We don’t want to be exactly like them. But they have great experience we want to learn from.

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David Westphal is a senior fellow at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He also is an adjunct instructor in the Studio 20 program at New York University. Previously, he was a longtime newspaper reporter and editor.