The Lens: Innovations and Lessons Learned

With its $7,500 award from the INNovation Fund, The Lens developed The Speakers Bureau to connect the local community face-to-face with Lens reporters and editors, explaining how and why they report the news.

Responses provided by Karen Gadbois.

What was your organization trying to achieve?

We wanted to monetize a service that we had been providing to the community for free. The Lens has been demonstrating its commitment to our audience by introducing our reporters to the public. In the past, these types of in-person events have resulted in not just a more engaged and informed audience, but also more readers and donors. They allow the public to put a face to the organization and establish trust in a time when trust in the media is waning. I realized that many organizations we were working with had a budget for speakers.

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

The INNovation Fund enabled us to more aggressively promote the project and see it as a revenue-generator, rather than a time-sucker.

What were the key successes of the project?

We are approached on a weekly basis to speak before community groups, as well as other larger non-profit and for-profit entities. One organization that hosts international visitors had us meeting and presenting to their groups regularly, and we had never asked for compensation. When we created The Speakers Bureau, they were the first group to transition from our free policy to a compensated one. They were happy to do so and we continue to provide them with speakers today.

What were the critical success factors (market types, internal capacity)?

Your staff has to buy-in and be available during off hours to make this work.

What were the lessons learned?

In the words of my late mother-in-law “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” We learned that the information and insight we had was valuable, and that because many organizations budget for speaker fees, we had an opportunity to capture something that had been previously left on the table. This has also allowed us to speak about the non-profit nature of our business and interact with individual donors in the audience.

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

Yes. While I think it is important to highlight the reporters’ expertise, there is also a demand for the development staff. In a time when there is much distrust regarding media, it is important for our staff to work towards sustainability while maintaining transparency. This engages readers and engenders trust.

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

If you decide to try this as an organization, it is important that your reporters feel comfortable and informed about what their role is, and recognize that public speaking is an art unto itself. Not everyone is comfortable in that role. Be sure that you are aware of the group’s point of view. There have been times when we have been asked to speak before an organization that had an expectation that we were unable to meet. Be clear when negotiating that the organization is aware of the role of journalism.

What was your general funding profile at that time?

Forty-three percent of our budget comes from the local and national foundations. The rest consists of direct donations, and fees for Speakers Bureau service coming in at the end. While it does not represent a significant portion of our budget, this effort is more of a “shaking of the sofa cushions.” It is part of a larger strategy for sustainability, with the only cost being staff time.

What is the market/community that you serve?

We serve a diverse community of individuals interested in civic engagement and public policy, here in New Orleans as well as the greater region. We are on the front lines of climate change and maintain a robust reporting focus on environmental issues.