Local donors help nonprofit news outlets weather ‘a very tough climate’

Marquita Brown
Published in
8 min readApr 10, 2024


Arizona Luminaria reporter Carolina Cuellar at an Arizona Board of Regents meeting. Photo by Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria.

In the fall of 2022, Arizona Luminaria, a digital local news outlet, launched in Tucson. It aimed to inform residents about local and state issues, with a focus on immigrant communities. The previous year in Madison, Wisconsin, Isthmus, a decades-old newspaper covering local news and culture, had converted to a nonprofit.

As they prepared to conduct end-of-year fundraising, both outlets were placing a bet.

Their wager was that they would produce quality journalism at a time of marked distrust in news media, significant disinvestments and revenue struggles for traditional media — and a great need for reliable local news. To survive past the startup phase as nonprofits, the news outlets also had to communicate that their work is a worthwhile investment and essential to the viability of not only their community but also society. In turn, their community and a handful of high-wealth donors needed to indicate through their financial support that they agreed.

Both Isthmus and Arizona Luminaria participated in the NewsMatch collaborative fundraising initiative in 2022 and again in 2023. And last year, both saw significantly higher contributions from their audiences.

That fundraising success reflects a trend among other nonprofit news outlets participating in NewsMatch. Despite the odds, they’re seeing increased community support.

For NewsMatch each year, nonprofit newsrooms garner individual donations from Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, and a coalition of national and regional funders — a total of 17 in 2023 — partially matches those gifts.

In 2023, for a second consecutive year, news organizations participating in NewsMatch secured more matching gifts from major donors, family foundations and local businesses in their communities than from the national fund. Data from NewsMatch 2023, the most recent campaign, indicate that participating news organizations saw strong performance among individual donors (both small-dollar and major) as well, raising more than $47 million from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31 — an increase of more than 24% compared to 2022 and the highest amount in program history. The number of unique donors and new donors both increased over 2022.

Since 2017, nonprofit news organizations participating in NewsMatch have leveraged $31 million in funding from the campaign to help them generate more than $299 million in support from their communities.

“NewsMatch is a conversation between newsrooms and their communities,” said Karen Rundlet, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which manages the program to benefit its network of about 450 independent, nonprofit news organizations. “While the Press Forward initiative is a funder-to-funder conversation to activate investment in local news, NewsMatch is about members of the INN Network sharing the value of their work with their communities. News providers are explaining how they contribute to a healthier society and a healthier democracy.”

‘Passionate about serving your readers’

Although the money raised through NewsMatch is significant, it’s not the whole story.

Irene Fischler McKisson, the principal executive of Arizona Luminaria, said that her publication’s increased community support was largely due to “doing really great journalism.”

“It sounds like a simple thing, and it’s not when you’re building something from scratch,” Fischler McKisson said. “The hardest thing is putting systems in place to have the amazing journalism, but the more high-quality journalism we do, the easier it becomes to fundraise.”

As we have grown, I’ve seen that just snowball into more members, more readers.”

To participate in NewsMatch, organizations have to be members of the Institute for Nonprofit News. INN vets all members according to standards for editorial independence, journalism quality and financial transparency. INN’s surveys of the membership have shown that these outlets, in addition to being mission-driven, emphasize diversity and inclusion: their staff is more diverse than the media industry overall and their coverage is increasingly serving communities of color.

Arizona Luminaria publishes some content in Spanish and has grown its budget from less than $250,000 to roughly $385,000 in 2023. Last year, in its second NewsMatch campaign, Arizona Luminaria doubled the amount it raised in individual donations and increased its local match funding by 40%, moving from one to three local match funders. In total, Arizona Luminaria received nearly $36,000 in matching funds and goal-based bonuses through NewsMatch.

Chelsea Curtis, Arizona Luminaria reporter and grantee of IWMF’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists. Photo by Michael McKisson for Arizona Luminaria

Veronica Cruz-Mercado, a donor and a member of Arizona Luminaria’s board of directors, said she appreciates the publication’s commitment to and focus on community-centered journalism and news reports that are in-depth and “highly contextual.” Much of the outlet’s reporting is translated into Spanish, or from Spanish to English, and it’s all free, which means it’s accessible to the community, she said.

“It’s really important that we have more options for trusted and responsibly reported news stories,” Cruz-Mercado said.

That’s particularly true now, she said. “It’s not just a volatile time or a risky time for the news industry, it’s a pretty precarious time for democracy, for the country itself. I think you feel that heightened volatility during election years.”

Cruz-Mercado stressed the need for news organizations that produce factual reporting driven by ethics and values to inform voters about candidates and issues.

“It’s just important that we support these organizations for holding people accountable, who are asking the questions of folks in power, who are diving deep into issues that impact our community.”

‘It’s not the world we come from’

NewsMatch serves as a tool that facilitates news outlets’ fundraising capacity. In addition to some seed funding, newsrooms get training and other resources for identifying and engaging their community, particularly donors. Then the opportunity is for the news outlets to leverage community support to bolster donations.

“It’s about asking the community whether the investment in news is worth it,” Rundlet said. “Time and time again, the community says ‘yes, it is.’”

Training and support are critical for news outlet leaders who likely have a background in journalism but not fundraising.

Before co-founding Arizona Luminaria, Fischler McKisson spent almost 20 years working at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, her hometown. She worked on the business and editorial sides of the news organization but didn’t have experience as a fundraiser. That’s now a big part of her role at Arizona Luminaria.

Fundraising is a significant change from daily journalism but “not a huge leap,” she said.

“If you started a news organization, it’s because you are passionate about serving your readers. A big part of fundraising is just getting other people excited about the thing that you’re doing and bringing them along on the ride with you.”

Judith Davidoff and other Isthmus leaders faced a learning curve when they took over the publication in 2020. Isthmus launched in 1976, but the coronavirus pandemic almost shuttered it.

At the onset of the pandemic, as businesses and other institutions across the country shut down, local businesses pulled their advertising from Isthmus. Not long afterward, the newspaper’s publishers at the time announced plans to close Isthmus. Davidoff and several other longtime Isthmus staffers stepped up to save the newspaper. The publishers agreed to an asset transfer and transferred intellectual property at no cost. Davidoff and her team applied for nonprofit status in October 2020, and the next year in March, they received the formal recognition.

The new team handles every aspect of the business, from design to delivering the print product each month. None of them had professional fundraising experience, Davidoff said. “It’s not the world we come from.” To get up to speed, she said, she and other leaders talked to peers at other news organizations and experts at INN. NewsMatch is now their major year-end fundraiser.

For the 2023 campaign, they prioritized building their own community matching funds from local supporters — increasing the number of local match funders from zero to 17 and raising $33,600 in local matches. Isthmus also increased individual contributions in their second year of running the campaign.

That support is an indication that donors trust the work of the journalists at Isthmus, said Eve Galanter, a longtime reader who has supported the news outlet for decades.

“I can be assured it’s going to be factual. And I’m gonna learn from it. And I might even have a good laugh about it. I can’t ask for more than that.”

Galanter has deep community ties. She is a former member of the Madison, Wisconsin city council. She used to be the director of the Madison regional office for former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl. She also has rich ties to local news as a member of the board of directors for PBS Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. She also is a founder of the Wisconsin Civic Games, a competition for high school students that the foundation supports.

She was disappointed when she learned in 2020 that Isthmus was shutting down. The newspaper’s resurgence is meaningful to her.

“When you find out that the rumors are true, and then it is not going to be there, it does create a sense of loss,” she said. “It takes a while before you remember that you shouldn’t bother looking for the box, or for it being piled up at the grocery store.”

“So this Thursday, I’m going to the grocery store. I may or may not need a lot, but I want to pick up my Isthmus.”

Davidoff says her organization needs to keep building on its achievements for long-term success.

“All of this success with the fundraising does need to be kept in perspective,” Davidoff said. “I do think we did a great job. Are we in a position right now of sustainability into the future? No. That’s what we’re trying to build. We’re seven people essentially still doing it all.”

Sustainability is still a big question for Isthmus. The team is working on a strategy and framework to address that. Building support in the volatile climate for journalism is an ongoing challenge.

“I do think we live in very depressing times. I’m very sad and frustrated about the lack of trust in media,” Davidoff said. She writes a monthly column, and Isthmus publishes a newsletter to “really address media literacy and explain why we do what we do and to take on those topics.” That content addresses issues such as the lack of local county beat reporters and explains media literacy subjects such as embargoes. Davidoff has also written about topics such as gatekeeping by public information officers to try to help the public understand the obstacles journalists face while trying to gather news.

“It’s a very tough climate,” Davidoff said. “I think sometimes you just have to focus on the small successes and remember why you’re in this business and take satisfaction out of writing a good story.”

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Marquita Brown

An independent journalist, word wrangler and story whisperer. marquitabrown.com