Why you should talk money with your audience

Should we tell our readers what it actually costs to produce journalism? 
Person Putting Coin in a Piggy Bank. Talk money with your audience.
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.

This spring, The Discourse took home a Canadian Journalism Award for best community investigative feature. That story was part of a series exploring how low-income renters in Nanaimo were organizing in response to cuts and alleged bullying from their nonprofit housing provider.

We decided to add up how much it cost us to produce that series. It took more than 470 hours of writing and reporting spread out over nine months. A total of 26,209 words over eight feature stories, with more than $20,000 spent on wages, lawyers and administrative fees. Yikes.

The question became, should we tell our readers what it actually cost to produce this series? 

Honesty is the best policy

For The Tyee’s founding editor David Beers, the answer is yes. “Some big discussions have to be happening right now about how we pay for public interest journalism, investigative journalism, in-depth solutions, journalism,” he says.

And to understand why it’s important to talk about it, it’s worth considering how we got here.

“Why is this not top of mind for people? Because the costs of investigative reporting were hidden for so long,” says Beers, who has worked in major U.S. outlets like the San Francisco Examiner and Mother Jones.

“We were completely deluded. We actually thought that what paid the bills at the newspaper were big investigative features,” he continues. “Investigative reporting has always been subsidized by other means.”

The Tyee has spent two decades growing a community of readers, known as Builders, who collectively contribute more than $1 million, kicking in an average of $15 a month. 

For smaller independent outlets, Beers says the education around how we fund journalism needs to be constant, alongside the high-quality journalism itself that builds trust. As Joy Mayer of the Trusting News project explains, research shows most people believe journalism is in good financial shape. Without transparency about the hard decisions behind the scenes, it could become too late to ask.

Transparency when times are tough

It’s one thing to communicate how readers can support the journalism. But just how transparent should you be when the financial situation is dire?

The Discourse grappled with this question when it faced financial instability in 2019. In the end, we shared with readers our “do or die” moment: funding was running out, and we needed readers to pitch in for the reporting to continue. While we didn’t bring in enough reader revenue to avoid layoffs, we learned that most supporters believed in The Discourse’s mission so much they continued to support it, long after the cut-backs. The transparency, I think, paid off.

“Most of us were raised not to talk about money,” Erin Whitney, self-professed “spreadsheet-loving” former operations manager of The Independent, wrote to readers at the end of last year. “When I look back at the financial records of The Independent before my time, I’m honestly shocked at what was accomplished with so little.” 

The thing is, she added, most of what the outlet published was contributed voluntarily by then editor-in-chief Drew Brown. She went on to describe how improved finances supported more assignments and a more predictable publishing schedule. “We’ve taken a big step forward in 2022,” she wrote. “Please help us NOT have to take two steps back in 2023.”

When Peterborough Currents faced tough times last spring, co-founders Will Pearson and Ayesha Barmania also came to their audience with financial fearlessness. In an appeal to readers, they broke down the numbers: about $9,000 in the bank, $1,700 in monthly reader revenue — and about $5,000 a month in expenses. They had to make some hard decisions. 

“We live in a culture that values financial success above almost everything else. In that context, it’s hard to divulge that Peterborough Currents is going broke,” they wrote. “And yet… we still think Peterborough Currents is an immense success.”

They appealed to readers for support. In a few weeks, more than 100 of them stepped up to contribute. 

While The Tyee doesn’t share how much it has in the bank, its annual impact reports, published online, break down revenue and expenditures in charts, giving readers a sense for how much it costs to produce high-quality in-depth journalism and how much creativity is involved in making it work.

The takeaway

If you’re comfortable sharing, share away. Because, ultimately, creating and delivering journalism in 2023 has no perfect playbook or business model, says Beers. “It’s built on trust, credibility, track record, which is a hard thing to earn. And yet, it’s woven intricately into the fabric of our democracy,” he says. “It’s a very funny thing, right? Like, if the court system was voluntary, and people paid for it if they felt like it. This is a very odd way to go about something so vital to society. All the more reason to do a lot of educating around it.”

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