The unconventional fundraising effort organized to benefit the Tampa Bay Times feels at times like a sort of Yelp for journalism, with the campaign’s website gathering testimonials for its journalists that are the equivalent of five-star ratings.

“Thank you for the stories you tell and reporting the news,” wrote a benefactor making a $100 donation in the name of Pulitzer-winning feature writer Lane DeGregory. “Your strong writing pokes hearts, minds, and funny bones,” a $500 donor wrote about columnist Stephanie Hayes. “That’s rare, and we appreciate you.” A $250 donor honoring arts and music reporter Maggie Duffy said simply: “Excellent coverage of the Arts. Thanks for your good work.”

The “It’s Your Times” drive allows philanthropic-minded readers to honor individual journalists with their donations. The campaign, which ends Friday, aims to raise $173,000, the equivalent of one week’s newsroom budget.

It’s also a sign of the financial stress on many local and regional news organizations that are struggling to stay afloat. Across the country, advertising revenue has fallen dramatically after peaking in 2005, dealing a devastating blow to the newspaper industry. From 2018 until early 2020, some 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers vanished, according to one study, a trend since exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Tampa Bay Times, which has about 120 newsroom employees, recently scaled back production of its printed newspaper to two days a week and received a $8.5 million Paycheck Protection Program loan, a coronavirus bailout measure intended to help businesses hit by the pandemic.

“Advertising revenue in print is not on the upswing, and while digital revenue is growing, we’ve got to find other means to help fund a sustainable model in journalism,” said the paper’s editor, Mark Katches. “Philanthropy and grant funding are increasingly becoming sort of another leg of the stool for newsrooms like ours to bring in revenue.”

The campaign was inspired by a similar effort by the 19th, a nonprofit news outlet, he said. And it was not entirely out of character for the Times, a for-profit news organization that is owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, which has raised money for some of its reporting initiatives. Katches likened this new effort — which was an experiment for the newspaper — to campaign drives run by public radio stations.

Yet the presentation of this particular effort — allowing donors to pay tribute to individual reporters — could bring the newspaper a little closer to conflict-of-interest guardrails that journalists have traditionally avoided.

What would happen, for example, if a local business group or politician donated in the name of a beat reporter who covers them?

Katches doesn’t anticipate that becoming an issue. Nearly all the donations have come from individuals, mostly family and friends of the journalists, and the money goes to the newsroom as a whole rather than being earmarked for individual journalists, he said. If a problematic donation comes in, “we can turn it back.”

“We’re not auctioning off our staff,” Katches added. “This is just an opportunity for people to show their support of the people they read. In the local journalism world, we are very close to the ground, and this is just another means of engagement.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said she sees no immediate problem with the campaign but generally advocates for news organizations to take every opportunity to “pull back the curtain” and educate their audiences about the role ethics plays in their business decisions.

“These news organizations are going to have to try to find ways to fund the journalism they do, and I hope that when they look at those new ways, ethics are a central part of the conversation, and I wish they would do more to disclose those ethical considerations and guardrails,” she said.

Fundraising at for-profit news outlets “is very novel” but has become incredibly widespread in just the past few years, said Rusty Coats, executive director of Journalism Funding Partners, the nonprofit entity managing the campaign for the Tampa Bay paper.

This summer, the Ford Foundation donated $1 million to the Times-Picayune and Advocate in Louisiana, via a community fund. The Seattle Times was among the first for-profit newspapers to incorporate community funding initiatives for its journalism, an experiment that began in 2011.

The Tampa Bay paper has a newsroom staff member devoted to fundraising, and Coats said his group is readying to launch 35 fundraising initiatives for other news outlets this fall, but the Tampa Bay paper is unique in taking it “to a whole new level with really highlighting the journalists themselves.”

In addition to a leader board showing which journalists were “responsible” for the most donations, the campaign website includes a video that showcases Tampa Bay Times’s journalists working during the pandemic.

Bringing “the people who are behind the news out in front and [making] them part of the pitch, if you will, is really important if you want to create a community groundswell of support,” Coats said. “People have to see themselves in the coverage, and the people doing the coverage as part of their community.”

Culver, the media ethicist, also applauds the campaign’s use of a video showing “actual reporters going out and doing the work,” noting that 2019 Pew Research Center data found that Americans give high approval ratings to local journalists who are connected to their communities. “We now have data that shows news organizations that appear disconnected from their community actually suffer lower trust levels.”

Katches said the newsroom will probably fall short of its fundraising goal, but they are open to adjusting their approach in the future.

“We’re journalists, and this is all new to us. It was worth trying,” he said. “It’s a success because we didn’t know where we’d end up, . . . and you’ve got to be ambitious with your asks and learn to adjust.”

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