REINVENTING LOCAL NEWS IN NEW JERSEY
New Jersey residents have always had to go out of their way to find news about their own state.
Nestled between New York City and Philadelphia, the news in New Jersey has long been dominated by these two cities, making it difficult for residents of the most densely populate state in the nation to find the local coverage that matters most to them.
Concerned by the elimination of state funding for public media, the dramatic cutback of coverage and staff at New Jersey newspapers, and the collective impact these forces and others are having on civic engagement and democracy, the Dodge Foundation launched a new focus on funding Media.
Dodge has become a catalyst working to grow and strengthen local news coverage in New Jersey by working to build the foundation needed for news organizations to become sustainable enterprises.
“Our overall vision for the state is a thriving information and news ecosystem in which nonprofit and for-profit news and information organizations, as well as individuals, have access to the services, training and collaborative opportunities to provide the comprehensive coverage that we believe the state deserves,” Dodge President & CEO Chris Daggett said.
The Dodge Foundation’s commitment to fulfilling that vision began four years ago with one bold question.
“We brought together local and national news leaders, funders and academics at the time and asked the question, ‘How can we make New Jersey a leader in news innovation for the 21st century?’” Dodge Media Program Director Molly de Aguiar recalled. “The conversation coalesced around the idea of supporting the ecosystem by establishing a hub or clearinghouse to provide a suite of services to the ecosystem and to nurture resource and idea sharing — what ultimately became the Center for Cooperative Media and its NJ News Commons initiative at Montclair State University.”
Dodge’s strategy goes beyond the more than $2.2 million in media grants it has awarded in recent years to fund several news operations for work in New Jersey, ranging from NJ Spotlight and Paterson Press to New Jersey Public Radio and ProPublica, among others.
“From the beginning, we have tried to build something of lasting value here in New Jersey,” said de Aguiar. “Our approach is not to plug the gaps in coverage that exist throughout the state — we don’t have enough money to sustain that strategy over the long term. Instead, we want to build a strong foundation of resources and opportunities — business and journalism training, services and coaching — and we want to foster a culture of collaboration and resource sharing to strengthen the entire news and information ecosystem.”
Working with Montclair State University, which was developing its new School of Communication and Media, Dodge’s financial support contributed to the creation of the Center for Cooperative Media. In addition to providing office space and use of the university’s radio and television studios, the Center and its NJ News Commons initiative offer business and journalism training, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and coaching and other services, in addition to innovative tools to share content.
The entities have engaged more than 80 community news organizations in the state as partners which are taking advantage of the training and services, said Ju-Don Marshall Roberts, the Center’s director.
As Marshall Roberts and her team tackles big-picture questions like how to optimize the partners’ content for mobile, and identifies underserved communities and issues, Debbie Galant, director of the NJ News Commons, is on the ground working to highlight members’ work, including through a daily newsletter, and coordinate collaborative projects, including work on immigration.
“The big questions are still around sustainability — what are the right revenue streams to bring the organizations to profitability,” Marshall Roberts said. “There’s no template for that answer. It’s very situational, dependent on demographics and the level of engagement in each community.“
A big boost
A two-year, $2 million grant from the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation to Dodge will further help the Foundation and its partners find solutions.
Through the newly launched Local News Lab, de Aguiar and Dodge’s new Director for Journalism and Sustainability Josh Stearns will spearhead efforts to test revenue models and identify and address other business and journalism needs at six news sites in New Jersey and New York, in partnership with both Montclair State and CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and Center for Community and Ethnic Media. The six pilot sites include Brick City Live, Morristown Green, New Brunswick Today and Jersey Shore Hurricane News in New Jersey, and The Lo-Down and Sheepshead Bites in New York.
The ultimate goal, de Aguiar said, is to demonstrate how to support a news ecosystem in a way that is financially sustainable, enables comprehensive coverage of New Jersey’s most pressing issues and has at its core a dedication to understanding and serving community information needs.
Marshall Roberts credited Dodge with bringing new partners to the table, including Citizens Campaign, strengthening the ecosystem in unforeseen ways, she said.
“The level of collaboration is unparallelled in terms of news ecosystems around the country. A lot of people are watching us,” Marshall Roberts said. “We are very hopeful and see the sparks that hyperlocals are making in their communities, getting a foothold in many communities in terms of audience growth and an ability to sustain themselves.”
De Aguiar said Dodge sees its effort as necessarily collaborative and broad, and invites all partners, including citizens, with a stake in ensuring access to relevant and meaningful news and information.
At an April 2014 conference at Montclair State University to discuss ways to re-invent local news industry in New Jersey, Daggett encouraged the more than 200 journalists to take risks and engage the communities they serve in all facets of their operations.
“In the last three-and-a-half years we’ve developed the foundation,” Daggett said. “Now is the time to take that foundation and blow the doors off it.”