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El Paso Matters

Strong journalism comes first: How El Paso Matters launched a thriving reader donation program

Written by: Katie Hawkins-Gaar

In 2017, Robert Moore made the difficult decision to walk away from his position as editor of the El Paso Times. After 25 years of working various positions in the Times newsroom, Moore said it had become “really clear that that was not a sustainable future, for me personally or for journalism.” 

So Moore began freelancing, writing for regional publications like Texas Monthly and national outlets such as The Washington Post, NPR and ProPublica. All of his reporting centered around El Paso, Texas — the place he called home — specifically on issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border.  

As a freelancer, Moore found great success. His work with ProPublica was honored with the 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for New Media; he contributed to Washington Post coverage of an El Paso mass shooting that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News; and he contributed to an NPR series that won a 2020 Edward R. Murrow Award and was a finalist for a 2021 duPont-Columbia Award. 

Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about the state of local journalism. “I did a lot of very satisfying and important work while I was freelancing, but I was always concerned about the ongoing decline of journalism locally, most especially in El Paso,” Moore said.

Today, Moore is the president and CEO of El Paso Matters, a 10-person nonprofit newsroom that’s on track to raise $150,000 from community donors and $155,000 in major gifts this year. 

Here’s how they got there.

A challenging start, some early wins

In 2019, Moore began conversations with the El Paso Community Foundation about the possibility of creating a nonprofit news organization in his hometown — one that didn’t charge for access to its journalism and relied primarily on reader donations and philanthropy to fund its work. By the following year, after a slow start in raising funds, he gave it a go.

“I just decided I can’t keep trying to sell a hypothetical,” Moore said. On February 14, 2020, he launched El Paso Matters as its sole employee.

“El Paso Matters is bringing [a] nonprofit news approach to build something new for our region — community supported in-depth reporting on the issues that affect our lives now and shape our future,” Moore wrote in an introductory article. “The key to our success,” he made clear, would be support from readers.

Three weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in force in El Paso.

For some entrepreneurs, this timing may have been catastrophic. But Moore hit some lucky breaks: El Paso Matters was among the first 50 news organizations in the U.S. and Canada to receive a $100,000 emergency grant to support local reporting on the impact of the pandemic.

That money allowed Moore to hire some full-time reporters and shift his focus toward raising money. “Throughout the year, I was able to build a grant base and begin a small donor base,” he said. Moore, who continued to serve as an editor and writer in addition to fundraising, was able to raise around $50,000 in 2020.

The following year, El Paso Matters received a $1 million grant from the American Journalism Project. That money was “a game-changer,” said Moore, enabling the nonprofit newsroom to hire an audience development director and membership director. “It allowed us to begin building up both our audience and our donations,” he explained.

Building those programs was slow, though. Throughout 2021 and most of 2022, reader donations were flat.

‘Let’s give it a shot’

Frustrated with the lack of audience and revenue growth, Moore began asking for advice from his colleagues working in nonprofit news, including Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White. White told him her newsroom had benefited from working with the News Revenue Hub.

“I decided, okay, let’s give it a shot,” Moore recalled. In January 2022, El Paso Matters joined the Hub. Around six months later — after plenty of planning sessions with Hub staffers, campaign experiments, and other trials and errors, Moore said — their audience size and reader revenue began to take off.

Moore said that he, along with El Paso Matters’ membership and events director Alison Westermann and audience development leader Angela Saavedra, learned several key skills from working closely with the Hub: how to make the most of SEO, grow your audience, build a stronger relationship with readers, and ask for money — often.

By the end of 2022, readership on grew by 87% compared to the previous year. The number and amount of reader donations grew by more than 40%, with 336 new donors in 2022. This year, El Paso Matters is on target to hit both its donor goals and its overall revenue goal. The newsroom is also just short of being on track for its 2023 audience goal, a 10% increase in pageviews and site visits.

“It took us a while, but we’re finally hitting our stride,” Moore said. “I’m an old-school news guy and I don’t want to ask people for money too often. Working with the Hub has helped me get past that.”

Strong journalism comes first

Abbey Gingras, director of consulting services at the News Revenue Hub, knows the value of offering SEO training, audience support and fundraising consulting. But, she said none of those things matter without a solid journalism foundation — something El Paso Matters undoubtedly has.

“A strong membership program can’t exist without strong journalism,” Gingras said. “And El Paso Matters produces really excellent journalism.”

With a focus on in-depth and investigative reporting about El Paso and the Paso del Norte region, the El Paso Matters team regularly produces coverage that informs local conversations and policy. Gingras specifically highlighted their political and local government coverage, as well as their crucial role in providing context and accuracy to issues surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border, a topic of international interest.

For Moore, solid journalism is non-negotiable. “The most important metric for us is the change we can impact through our reporting,” he said, pointing to some standout examples: El Paso Matters’ in-depth coverage led the city government to reverse plans to lay off all library staff following the worst of the pandemic; prompted police to begin equipping patrol officers with Narcan to try to prevent opioid overdose deaths; and resulted in the resignation of El Paso’s District Attorney, after exposing massive failures and abuses in the DA’s Office.

The El Paso Matters team regularly documents these wins, sharing them with readers and stakeholders in their annual impact report.

“El Paso Matters is a relatively new newsroom, but they’ve immediately established themselves as a go-to source of information that’s really doggedly covering these important issues,” said Gingras. “They lead with good journalism. And in many ways their donor success has followed that.”

‘This is my calling’

A few weeks ago, Moore revisited the five-year business plan that he developed when he began El Paso Matters. At the time, the audience and revenue goals he set seemed aggressive. In reviewing those plans, he discovered that “we’ve blown past everything we wanted to do by year five in year three.”

That progress feels good, and gives Moore and his team an opportunity to step back and think about what’s next — including offering local coverage beyond heavy news topics.

“I think sometimes people just need a break,” Moore said. He’s hoping to offer more reporting “celebrating the uniqueness of El Paso” and what makes it such a great place to live.

And while Moore, who will soon turn 63, knows he won’t be working in journalism forever, he’s committed to building a strong and sustainable newsroom so he can hand it off to the next generation of news leaders.

“This is my calling,” he said. “It’s my chance to do something good for a community that has given me everything I have.”

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