Journalism

At VTDigger, donations from readers make a huge impact

Anne Galloway is the editor of VTDigger.org and the executive director of Vermont Journalism Trust. VTDigger recently raised $25,000 as part of the Knight News Match, a commitment from Knight to match up to $25,000 in donations to select nonprofit news organizations through Jan. 19, 2017. For a full list of participating organizations visit knightfoundation.org/newsmatch

In 2016, we anticipate that more than $450,000 of our $1.1 million budget will come from readers.

Because of the support of our avid reader base, in the past 14 months we have been able to double our newsroom staff from seven editors and reporters to a total of 15 full-time and part-time staffers who produce and vet content for our daily news operation.

That $450,000 covers the cost of more than half of our news staff. Like other nonprofits plowing new ground in the digital space, we apply for grants, sell underwriting and distribute news content. These crucial sources of revenue, however, are growing more slowly than reader contributions.

From 2014 to 2015, we doubled the total amount of reader donations from $166,000 to $338,000. Because of this growth driven by readers, VTDigger’s coverage has improved immensely.

VTDigger now has the largest newsroom in Vermont (not counting sports and feature reporters at other newspapers). We now have enough staff to continue our daily watchdog reporting focused on local government and to report on community news in four counties.

In addition, we have been able to pursue large investigative stories, including a series about allegations of fraud at Vermont-based ski getaway Jay Peak Resort. We broke the story two years before federal regulators last April charged Jay Peak developers with misusing $200 million in immigrant investor funds through the EB-5 visa program, which grants permanent residency to foreigners who invest $500,000 or more in U.S. businesses and create at least 10 full-time jobs.

There is no question that without reader contributions, we would not have been able to break the Jay Peak story or publish the kind of in-depth daily beat reporting on politics, health care, education, crime, business, energy and the environment that Vermont readers have come to rely on.  

That isn’t to say raising money this way is easy. We work hard to ensure our coverage is rigorous, thorough and fair-minded. We take a lot of guff from all sides — right, left and center.

And at the end of the day, only about 1 percent of readers give. This year we anticipate about 2,000 people will donate out of nearly 200,000 unique readers a month.  

Our three-person business office has experimented with digital marketing campaigns in the past few years that have helped to get readers’ attention. We started with an overhaul of our donation page, which is open source, and has custom integration with WordPress, MailChimp, PayPal and donor management software Donor Tools. The system we launched in 2014 allows us to accept monthly donations, track donations accurately and send out automatic thank you notes by email.

Other tools we’ve used include email campaigns and direct mail letters that highlight our best investigative work and drop down messages about the impact of our journalism. We also feature readers who upload testimonials about why they love the Digger.  

Matches from foundations and individuals have been critical to the effort. This year’s annual fund goal was a big reach — $300,000 — a third higher than last year’s target. We knew we had to pursue matching donations as a strategy to help reach that daunting number quickly. Luckily, a few of our larger donors offered to let us use their gifts to attract matching support.

But by far the largest challenge grant came from the Knight News Match. We were blown away when 262 readers responded, and we met the $25,000 match challenge in just three days.  

On Dec. 29, we met the $300,000 goal we had set for the year.

We are grateful that so many readers understand our dedication to watchdog journalism and are willing to make a commitment to support us.

Follow Anne Galloway on Twitter @gallowayvtd.