San Francisco Public Press: Innovations and Lessons Learned

With its $35,000 award from the INNovation Fund, San Francisco Public Press set out to apply community organizing and influencer marketing approaches and leverage relationships with community and local interest groups leaders to build broader audiences and expand engagement. As of this report, the project was still underway.

Responses provided by Lila LaHood have been edited and condensed.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

Our goal was to present and host discussions with 40 community groups to raise awareness about our brand of public interest journalism, build trust with the community and expand our membership.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

The INNovation Fund grant allowed us to hire a director of membership and community to develop and manage the Public Press Live program and street outreach activities, as well as broader membership and outreach initiatives. We also used funds from this project to pay for program supplies, equipment, additional staff for street outreach and events, and table rental fees.

We launched this project in May 2016, so we are still working on executing the full slate of community events and the larger conference.

What were the key successes of the project?

Audience Outcomes

We made face-to-face connections with people associated with organizations throughout San Francisco and tracked our activities with the following metrics:

Public Press Live Impact as of Feb. 22, 2017
Events completed: 16
Events scheduled for Spring 2017: 8
Types of organizations: civic, neighborhood, arts, social justice, business, community, nonprofit, environment
Neighborhoods served: Mission, Tenderloin, Haight, Downtown, Potrero Hill, Panhandle and citywide
Attendees: 660
Emails collected: 195
Video interviews: 12
Story tips collected: 79
New memberships: 6
Blog posts: 4
Newspapers distributed: 1,457

We customize presentations and discussions for each Public Press Live event based on preliminary discussions with leaders of the groups we visit. Some presentations focus on a specific reporting project, others offer more of an organization overview. Topics for focused presentations have included: sea level rise in the Bay Area, the persistent challenges of homelessness, increased segregation in local public schools, the cost of living in San Francisco, local ballot measures, and the role of local media organizations in the “fake news” era.

We staffed booths/tables at several larger outreach events, so some people picked up newspapers without attending a presentation or formal group discussion. This is why the number of newspapers distributed exceeds the number people we counted as attending Public Press Live events.

Editorial Outcomes

We engaged in conversations with community members who introduced us to new sources and collected story tips that are shaping our coverage. As a small news organization focused on in-depth investigations and policy reporting, we are committed to integrating community feedback in our work. We listen actively, track story tips and incorporate those tips in our reporting.

We are especially attuned to concerns that we hear raised at more than one meeting. Public Press reporters are currently working on a series of stories about development in southeastern San Francisco, inspired by story tips generated at recent Public Press Live events. We are also exploring stories on immigrant concerns about racial profiling and threatened deportation in light of recent executive orders from Washington.

What were the critical success factors (ex: market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

In addition to introducing hundreds of new readers to our organization, Public Press Live has helped us forge connections with community leaders throughout San Francisco. The increased awareness of our organization and the public-interest investigations we produce has translated into relationships with connectors who are likely to share our investigations with their broader networks.

We expect that our conversion rate for memberships generated by Public Press Live events will increase over time. We find that people who join our newsletter mailing list and then become paid members are typically on the list for at least six months — and often one or two years — prior to moving to membership.

All of our outreach activities are undertaken with a long-term vision for bringing our reporting to a broader, more diverse audience, expanding the visibility of the Public Press and connecting with more individuals who will share our investigations with others — and who may decide down the line to make a financial contribution to support the organization.

What were the lessons learned?

The Public Press Live initiative grew out of our first-round INNovation Fund project: a street outreach program, which helped us evaluate the benefits and limitations of pursuing more direct interactions with our community. Face-to-face encounters are great for introducing people to the organization and print product, and for making secondary impressions with those who may have only seen Public Press articles on social media.

From that first project, we learned to focus our street outreach efforts in settings conducive to community engagement — typically, where people are participating in leisurely activities and not rushing to or from work — and we have continued to strategically incorporate street outreach in our ongoing outreach efforts.

We also found that we made the strongest connections when we had time for extended conversations about our reporting and to discuss community members’ concerns about local issues.

Our goal with Public Press Live has been to foster more of those rich conversations with the increased efficiency of communicating with small groups through presentations and moderated discussions. Since working out the logistics of producing and scheduling these events, we’ve found these presentations to be quite effective in helping us connect with more diverse local groups and expanding the reach of our reports beyond our existing networks.

Now that we have developed consistent systems for scheduling and running Public Press Live events, we will focus more energy on generating blog posts and social media content from those events.

Do you plan to do this project again?

We are happy with many of the outcomes we have achieved with Public Press Live so far and plan to continue it indefinitely. Now that we have systems and methods in place, it is much easier to schedule and run Public Press Live events more frequently with less preparation time required for each event.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?

Yes.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

Several aspects of this project took longer than we expected. We hired a part-time contractor in May and June who a) developed the initial list of neighborhood and community organizations for us to approach and made a first round of contacts, b) worked with the leadership team to create a streamlined slide deck, equipment box and event checklist, and c) created outlines for 10-minute, 30-minute and one-hour sessions incorporating both presentations and discussions. We designed these to fit various time slots that groups requested for our participation in their meetings.

In August, we hired Daphne Magnawa as our membership and outreach coordinator to manage the Public Press Live program along with our formal membership program, and other events and outreach.

Daphne — now our director of membership and community — has done a great job executing this project and has accelerated our event schedule for the next several months. When we first started the program, it was more challenging than we expected to fill our calendar with Public Press Live events. We learned that most community groups only meet once a month, and we often needed to schedule with groups several months in advance. Based on our experience with this pilot initiative, we are better equipped to handle the long-range scheduling required to manage Public Press Live as an ongoing program.

Describe the market/community that you serve.

Geographically, we focus most of our reporting and engagement efforts in San Francisco, CA. About 20 percent of our reporting extends to the greater Bay Area, and we occasionally cover statewide issues. We report stories that have broad impact — cost of housing, sea level rise, public education — and also investigate issues affecting marginalized groups to cover important stories that are underreported by the commercial press.

What was your organization’s revenue mix (i.e. sources and %) prior to the project? Did the revenue mix change as a result of the project?

Our revenue mix in 2015 was about 65 percent memberships, subscriptions and other donations from individuals, 25 percent from grants, 8 percent from renting desks to freelance journalists, and the rest from single copy sales and miscellaneous income.

Our revenue mix shifted significantly because we received several new grants in 2016, and a much larger percentage of our funding (about 60 percent) came from charitable foundations.

We expect that our Public Press Live initiative and other ongoing outreach activities will have a long-term positive effect on our ability to expand our membership program. We continue to find that, as with many public radio stations, about 10 percent of our regular audience members (for our purposes, newsletter subscribers) donate to the organization. We know that significantly growing our audience (and making up for those we lose by attrition) will be essential to the stability and long-term health of the organization.