Creating a Cookbook of Community Experiences for Local Newsrooms


📷: Damian Siwiaszczyk (via creative commons)

Throughout the history of our country, news has been a centerpiece of democracy. Since the dawn of the printing press, news organizations have been the watchdogs of power. Yet this medium has been limited by the one-directional mode of communication. While modern journalism continues to remain a watchdog, the disruption of technology and social media to the industry has shifted this one-directional reporting into a complex chorus of communication and contributions; thus changing the methods of reporting and accountability.

Adapting to these new functions means developing strategies that understand the steady streams of information available through a variety of sources and seeks to establish a relationship of trust with the communities newsrooms are serving. This is particularly crucial for local newsrooms who have the unique opportunity to develop deep relationships and understand the needs of those to whom they report. Community engagement and participatory experiences offer local newsrooms the opportunity to build these relationships and explore new ways of fortifying the way information permeates our cultures and holds power accountable.

Designing community experiences can be a lot like cooking. To wind up with something nourishing and tasty on your plate, you have to consider the whole meal from end to end: from the tools you have available, to the quality of the ingredients you source, to where you plan to be eating — and who you want to be feeding. Different processes offer varying results, and the setting of the meal and the people invited to the table have a huge impact on the overall experience.

When we think about the health of our communities and their ability to interact with and understand the news, what’s the nourishment that’s feeding them? It matters where your “ingredients” come from — are they organic ideas that stem from the place you’re serving or are they manufactured and processed with the ideas your newsroom thinks people want? Are you hosting a block party, a community meal or leading a ritual, or is it a meal standing up in your kitchen or eaten at a drive-thru?

What you put in your body impacts how you feel and grow. The news that nourishes our mind influences how we connect, change and build the foundations of our society. Using community strategies at the core of a local news experience offers an opportunity to create a meaningful bond between reader and reporter. We can connect, heal and build trust with the community and strengthen a relationship between community and journalism.

In this new era of news we’re experiencing, enhanced through technology; community engagement and participatory experiences have become an important part of the news ecosystem. And as with anyone who has tried to make a dish without a recipe, it can be risky venturing into unknown new territory and helpful to have instructions to guide the way.

A Recipe Book for Community Experiences

This is why I’ve partnered with The Local News Lab to create a collection of recipes for creative community engagement. Modeled on the farm-to-table movement and rooted in locally sourced goods, this collection is a resource for local newsrooms. While the goal is for newsrooms to benefit from these “recipes,” we hope that anyone interested in crafting an enriched community experience will find it useful.

Over the last few months, we’ve been collecting case studies such as, The New Tropic’s #solveMIATransit project, and the Funk Parade in DC — vital examples of creative engagement and participatory environments that have formed community bonds, unlikely relationships and collaboration. (You can catch a sneak peek of some of these here in this inspirational list). While we continue to gather case studies, going forward our next steps will be dissecting and sharing them as recipes for newsrooms to follow or simply inspire. We’re exploring experiences and learnings from sources both inside and outside of journalism.


DC Funk Parade 2015 📷: S Pahkrin (via creative commons)

Now it’s time we hear from you! Got a secret (newsroom) family recipe for turning pop vox interviews into dance parties? Brewed up an event so good your whole town turned out? We want to learn from you!

If you have a “recipe” you’d like to share or an experience that inspired community connection, shoot me a note at or hit me up on Twitter @jmfbrooks and your story might be added to our collection.

Below are a few different questions to help you marinate (😉 ) depending on the role you play in the news ecosystem within your community.

  • You work in a local newsroom: If you work in a local newsroom — of any kind and in any position — I’m curious to learn more from you. What has community engagement meant to you or your newsroom? Where have you failed and where have you succeeded? Is there a community recipe you’re dying to try?
  • You produce a participatory community experience: Have you ever been part of creating a participatory community experience? (That’s any kind of creative community experience and honestly, the more out there the better!) Tell us all about it. Share your recipe! What made it special? How did it come together? Let’s schedule an interview!
  • You are a community member who cares about the news: Are you a person who cares about news and information in your community? Let’s chat about what a nourishing community news experience would mean to you.

Excited? Hungry for more? Us, too! Look for more about this project throughout the fall here and on the Local News Lab blog. Contact me at or find me on Twitter @jmfbrooks and let’s set up a tie to chat.

Jeanne Brooks is a senior advisor to the Local News Lab

Diverse, Inclusive & Informed:

What It Will Take To Build the Future of Journalism

Photo by John Dahl, distributed via Creative Commons

Holding a mirror to society, speaking truth to power and producing coverage and storytelling that can potentially build bridges between people and communities are critical functions I’ve always considered a part of journalism’s DNA. This is how newsrooms hold a crucial role in how we build informed communities and how we serve the public.

Though there is also a necessary obligation for journalism to turn that mirror onto itself and to examine if/how we are building newsrooms that truly reflect what the future of journalism should look like and if/how we are effectively covering the communities we serve.

Over the next few months, I’ll be advising the Local News Lab through the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to do just that — explore how local newsrooms and journalists cover communities in deep transition, the role of listening in community journalism and how philanthropy can support efforts to build diverse, inclusive newsrooms.

The very premise of this project, to research frameworks that support equity and diversity in newsrooms and deepen community journalism, requires suspending disbelief that the status quo cannot be changed. As both a technologist and an optimist, that is a premise I more than happily reject. But as I continue to explore the deeply entrenched barriers and biases I have lived both as a journalist of color and encountered in executing this research, I also understand my role to tell the story of what is possible, elevate the work of leaders who are carving a new path forward and present what will it take for all of us to build the future of informed communities. I believe in building in public and so, over the next few months, I will doing that in this space — sharing what I’ve learned, elevating voices building the future now and presenting frameworks to support efforts that strengthen communities through stronger journalism.

When writing about diversity and journalism, it is easy to speak past one another in a vacuum of empathy and posture of defensiveness without truly taking pause to listen, explore and expand a falsely fixed perception of possibility. That is why for the first phase of this project will be focused on listening, learning how to build a shared language for diverse newsrooms, examining what has worked in other cities and industries facing similar challenges and explore how to build the future we deserve. In doing so, there is an enormous opportunity to learn from both inside and outside the news industry and to become better together.

There is an opportunity in this challenge to interrogate ourselves, our values and the role of journalism in building informed communities. There are distinct possibilities to expand; where practicing empathy is a form of community engagement, where our newsrooms reflect America, where listening is not transactional but rather a valued form of leadership and where journalists regularly step outside their own contexts and into the context of the communities they cover.

My work, researching strategies for how philanthropy can support these efforts and deepen local community journalism, joins many, many other leaders in this field who continuously hold up the mirror to help build the future of diverse, inclusive newsrooms our communities truly deserve. They are adaptive change agents: individuals who both see themselves as agents to dismantling structural inequities that journalists of color regularly face and architects to building vibrant newsrooms reflective of the communities they serve. They understand that building the future is a practice in playing the long game and, as Meredith Clark writes in Poynter, that “diversity is a practice, not a target.” By creating journalism initiatives that represent those who don’t feel as though they’re being spoken to or for, these leaders ultimately create both better journalism and stronger communities.

This is what I’ve learned so far: meaningful progress on this front requires both a leadership commitment from all levels of the newsroom and dedicated financial resources. Building diverse, inclusive newsrooms and deepening community engagement is work.

As civic technologist Laurenellen McCann writes,

“What matters is our willingness to believe change is possible and to use that belief to push ourselves to be present (with each other) — to see the ways in which issues and experiences distant from our own connect to our own. What matters is that we don’t submit to cynicism… but instead use our critical eye as fuel for the fire. What matters is that we suspend our disbelief that the status quo can’t be changed — that’s the hardest part. That, and really, truly understanding that we need to try *without* the guarantee that we will succeed.”

It will not be easy. Hard things are hard, after all. But our newsrooms and communities deserve a future that works for all of us. I look forward to exploring more of what that looks like with you…

Sabrina Hersi Issa is a Senior Advisor for the Local News Lab

From Pizzas to Porsches:

Regional ad network seeks to help hyperlocal publishers hunt bigger game


By Chris Satullo, Local News Lab Fellow

A local news site cannot live by pizza ads alone.

It’s a lovely thought: Sustain a relentlessly local journalism enterprise by selling ads to the local merchants that serve the same community the website covers.

Lovely, but impractical.

In the real world, marketing dollars are scarce on Main Street, and some older merchants remain reluctant to spend them on ads they can’t touch, clip out, or post on the window.

Most local journalism entrepreneurs find they simply can’t pay the bills by “rolling up nickels” from that kind of Mom and Pop ad base. And many of them resent all the time it takes to chase down and seal those small-bore ad contracts, not to mention the need to help many small merchants design their ads.

These are hours most journalists would rather spend covering news.

So, you might suggest, hire an ad salesperson. Ahh, but the revenue stream is just too meager to support a skilled sales professional for enough hours to make an impact.

How to elude this Catch 22?

New Brunswick (N.J) Today, a digital community news site founded in 2011 and racking up 150,000 to 200,000 page views a month, is trying to do that in multiple ways, experimenting with how to build sustaining ad revenue while staying true to its local DNA.

Its first big innovation was a retro move. In 2013, it launched an occasional print version, to satisfy the traditionalists among its readers and ad buyers. The gambit has worked to a degree.

nbt box

Its latest effort, fueled by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in partnership with Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation, is to create a “cross-selling coalition” of like-minded news outlets in one region. New Brunswick Today used the grant to hire an ad salesperson tasked with the mission of teaming up with other local news publishers, digital or print, to perform a regional ad sales network. The goal: Pool enough eyeballs to entice bigger regional entities to buy ads.

What kind of entity? Sean Monahan, News Brunswick Today’s publisher, can swiftly run down the list of the kinds of regional businesses from whom he’s struggled to get callbacks: Hospitals. Colleges. Theaters. Supermarket chains. Car dealerships. Groups running franchise restaurants, or hotels. Big real estate firms.

“When you’re selling to a pizza parlor, it’s not hard to find the decision maker,” Monahan explains. “But with these regional businesses, decision making doesn’t sit with one person, but multiple executives. And these things happen on an annual scale — with a lot more planning. The cost of getting the transaction to happen … well, for a lot of advertisers we’re too small to even be worth the conversation.”

But say you could pitch those same executives on behalf a cohort of local publishers, with a large and loyal combined audience that maps well onto a coherent regional market — for example, New Jersey’s Monmouth and Middlesex Counties. Then, your cell phone might light up with more return calls.

Monahan’s hope is that within a year New Brunswick Today can build out a big enough regional network that ad revenue alone can cover the $6,000 a month it takes to sustain the news operation. Nowadays, foundation grants and an annual crowdfunding appeal to readers do as much as ad revenue to keep the site running.

The leading edge of the pitch to regional advertisers will of course be the business case: This is productive advertising well-targeted at your core market.But Monahan also claims his site offers a less tangible brand benefit:

“Our case is that people who read us have a deeper connection to us than to other papers,” Monahan says. “So being with us also is way for a business to send a signal to their potential customers that they care about the town as well.”

The $30,000 grant, part of an ongoing Dodge Foundation effort to help hyperlocal publishers develop sustainable business models, arrived in May.

The first big step, on July 1, was to bring onto full-time status Mark Welsh, a salesperson with experience at Yelp and Trulia and someone well known to Monahan and editor Charlie Kratovil.

Welsh is working simultaneously on two fronts: 1) Trying to entice partners to join the regional ad network (the goal is 10 partners in the first year) 2) Reaching out to regional businesses to make the case for buying local, even if for now it’s only New Brunswick Today.


Editor Charlie Kratovil and Publisher Sean Monahan, New Brunswick Today

So far, just one ad network partner, the Highland Park Planet, has signed on, but conversations continue with others in central New Jersey, including two Rutgers University outlets, the Daily Targum and Muckgers, and Reporte Hispano, a Spanish language newspaper serving New York metro suburbs.

Kratovil said the potential partners are “intrigued,” but the talks proceed slowly as the parties haggle over revenue splits and await decisions from “higher ups.”

Ad sales for New Brunswick Today by itself did perk up in July, coming in at around $3,600.

Welsh gets a mix of salary and commission.

The deal he’s pitching to potential news partners is a 50–50 split of net revenue, after his compensation is covered. Besides bagging some regional accounts, Welsh wants to sell as many of his existing advertisers into other publications in the nascent network, and to coax those publishers to offer their core clients a chance to be on New Brunswick Today and other partner sites.

Advertisers are not being sold clicks by the thousand, a once-dominant digital advertising model that never made a lot of sense for small community publishers. They’re buying monthly sponsorships that get them exposure on the web, on New Brunswick Today’s active social media channels and, oh yes, in that print edition.

“The print edition definitely helps us sell ads,” says Kratovil, the editor. “It cements the deal. There’s a print deadline that has to be met, so it keeps us on a cycle. And it makes it more clear to the advertiser what they are going to get.”

Kratovil, who also helped launch, said he realized in the early days of building his hyperactive hyperlocal site that print still had a purpose: “I kept running into older readers without computers, and they’d ask me to print out my articles and bring them to their house.”

His team has been producing four print editions a year, on a not entirely reliable schedule (this ink on paper stuff is a lot of work), but Kratovil would love to go to twice monthly next year once the ad network is up and humming.

The grant sets a goal of adding a partner a month. So it’s early and there’s a long way to go.

Monahan isn’t giving up his day job as a web developer just yet, but he’s optimistic: “We’ve got a year, with this grant. We’ll keep working out in concentric circles from New Brunswick and see how it goes.”

Chris Satullo is a media and civic engagement consultant who has worked in newspapers and public media. He is a Local News Lab Fellow.

New Report: Lessons Learned from the Local News Lab

Sharing what we’ve learned from our experiments in revenue and community engagment for local news.

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

LNL Report Image

For the last 18 months the Local News Lab has been supporting local journalists who seek to transform their business model and reconnect with their communities. Through a series of strategic investments, in-depth coaching and creative engagement projects we have learned volumes.

Today we are releasing a new report: “Lessons From the Local News Lab: Building a More Connected and Collaborative News Ecosystem.”

The six essays document key takeaways, replicable lessons and fresh ideas that we hope can be useful to other journalists, communities and foundations who care about the future of people’s access to local news and information.

Download a copy of the entire report here.

The report explores a series of big questions:

  • How might we foster innovation in revenue models for local news?
  • How might communities be more active participants in local news?
  • How might new networks help strengthen journalism sustainability and increase the availability of local news?
  • How might newsrooms, working with communities, better represent and respond to the diverse needs of local people?
  • How might philanthropy support local news beyond paying for content?

If you would rather read each section on the web, we’ve published the chapters as posts here on Medium. They are all linked below.

(Note: There is addition detail, charts, pictures and information on the grants we’ve made in the full report.)

This work has been made possible through generous support from the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.

Knight logo

Rethinking Philanthropy to Support Local News

Lessons from the Local News Lab — Part Five

This is part five of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism. Read part one, part two, part three, and part four.

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Rethinking Philanthropy

This project has not only been an experiment with local newsrooms, it has also allowed us to explore new roles for philanthropy, and we have learned a lot about how foundations, particularly community and place-based foundations, can support local news.

Over the past five years we have begun to rethink the barriers to flexible, agile philanthropy, the power of prototyping, smaller experimentation and risk taking, and the importance of being opportunistic.

13 Key Takeaways:

1. Funding Partnerships Strengthen Local News
Our work has been made possible through enormous support, partnership and information sharing from a number of other foundations (Knight, Democracy Fund, Rita Allen, Wyncote, McCormick, Open Society Foundations, and Gates, to name a few). These relationships have not only helped bring much needed resources to local journalists but also have helped guide our strategy and ensure that what we learn here can spread to other foundations and grantees.

2. Support Infrastructure Not Content
We fervently believe that communities and news organizations working together can transform local journalism, and that philanthropy’s most valuable role is to nurture networks, and provide a blend of operating support with experimental dollars. Funding content/beats is not a sustainable approach for news organizations or foundations — philanthropy can’t and won’t pay for journalist salaries indefinitely. Furthermore, funding content exposes both news organizations and foundations to criticism that foundations are deliberately influencing coverage. Instead, philanthropy should try to fund structures and systems that help support a broad array of journalism enterprises that strengthen the overall local news and information ecosystem.


3. The Thin Line Between For Profit and Nonprofit in Local News
While Dodge has provided substantial funding to large public and nonprofit newsrooms serving New Jersey, we also focus much of our attention on the sustainability of very small for-profit hyperlocal newsrooms. We believe local journalism can be a sustainable business, but that philanthropy can play an invaluable role in providing the runway that these “mom and pop” neighborhood newsrooms need to reach a critical mass of support from the community, and stand on their own two feet. These small newsrooms — mission-driven and community-centered — face very similar issues to nonprofits, and are not in it to get rich or return money to investors.

4. Foundations Can Fund For-Profit News
The IRS allows philanthropic foundations to provide grants to for-profit entities that align with the charitable mission of the foundation. More local foundations should consider the way small grants to small newsrooms can help local media adapt to the digital age and develop more sustainable revenue models in order to better serve the community. Philanthropy should understand that an investment in local news is an investment in the whole community, with benefits for a foundation’s entire portfolio of grantees.

5. Philanthropy Needs to Be More Patient
At its heart, this is culture change work and relationship-driven work, which take time and a deep investment in human capital. This work is circuitous and complicated. This is especially true when working with small newsrooms where health issues, community issues and financial issues can unpredictably slow down or derail progress. If we want to ensure that the work is community-grown, not funder-driven, it needs to be tied to the infrastructure and institutions of the community to be sustainable. We still have much to learn about the essential ingredients for a strong and vibrant local news ecosystem in the digital age, and we have to acknowledge that the recipe might keep changing.

Image via Sean MacEntee

6. Philanthropy Can Provide Much More Than Money
At the Dodge Foundation we have a long history of providing in-depth training and technical assistance to our grantees. Through our journalism sustainability work, we have expanded on that idea by providing ongoing coaching, workshops and conferences, and convenings that help facilitate new relationships for our partner sites within communities across New Jersey. By leveraging all the skills and resources of the foundation — and connecting grantees across issue areas — we expand the value of the dollars we provide.

7. Too Much Structure Misses Important Opportunities
Funding innovation in an industry that is undergoing transformation, and supporting ever-evolving civic organizations surfaces how ill-suited philanthropy is to capitalize on time-sensitive opportunities. Typically, the grantmaking process can last for months, with applicants required to submit documentation that takes weeks to complete. Encouraged by the Knight Foundation to take risks and fund experimentation, we focused on lowering the bar of entry by requiring minimal documentation, maintaining an openness to funding mission-driven for-profit ventures, and committing to quick decision-making. Funding decisions that took months now takes weeks or sometimes even just a few days.

8. Philanthropy Is Too Risk Averse
Sometimes making big change means making big bets, and too much of philanthropy is not willing to take those risks. This limits both the kinds of people and the kinds of ideas we seek. Through our Knight partnership, we strive to welcome ideas that might not work, but that could teach us important lessons, and we try to structure grants with opportunities to test, learn, revise and test more.

7512877940_2720e3be12_zImage via Michael Theis

9. Don’t Discount the Power of Small Grants
We continue to be amazed by what entrepreneurial people can do with small grants, particularly when given the encouragement to take risks and test new ideas. Different kinds of ideas require different levels of investments — not every grant needs to be a transformative moonshot to make a real impact in our communities. Small grants to cash-strapped organizations can feel like a windfall and provide the support to take their work to a new level.

10. Redefine Scale
We often hear people in philanthropy looking for projects that can work at scale. This tends to privilege bigger, more established organizations with the staff and resources to replicate projects. We found great value in working with much smaller news organizations, and helping them adapt to the unique context of their community. What we want to do is scale the learning. We know with certainty that there is no one-size-fits-all solution or model in this ever-changing journalism landscape, but we also know that there are distinct attributes of successful local news organizations and some clearly successful strategies for providing philanthropic support to them. Through our writing, presenting and one-on-one advising we’ve been trying to share what is replicable and help people adapt it to their local context. In this way, we are trying to support journalism at a human scale, not an industrial scale, while also sharing what we are learning as broadly as possible.

11. Start-up vs. Bridge Funding
We work with news sites that vary in age from one to seven years and see two very distinct needs in terms of funding. Some sites needed start-up funding to get off the ground and get a strong start. Others needed bridge funding to help them grow from start-up to sustainability, to transform some part of their operations to ensure a strong future. These represent very different challenges for local news organizations and philanthropy can help them both with funding and also with strategy.


Image via Ge.Ne

12. Grants That Buy Something Long Term
Lisa Williams, formerly of the Institute for Nonprofit News, smartly urges news organizations to think of using grants to build their long-term capacity. She puts it this way: “What can a grant from a foundation buy your organization that will help you simultaneously build your organization and reduce your reliance on philanthropic funding?” We tried to build that idea into our grantmaking, helping the organizations we are working with invest in products, programs and people that will ultimately pay for themselves.

13. We Need More Foundations Funding This Work
Across the state and country we need to cultivate new partners and encourage more donors and foundations to support community-driven journalism. Particularly for community and place-based foundations, local news and information is a key component of healthy, thriving communities, and its absence is a key indicator of failing communities. So while many foundations don’t think of themselves as journalism funders, and while journalism historically has not been a charitable endeavor, it’s time for foundations to start valuing and supporting local news as a vital community anchor.

This is part five of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism.
In the final essay, we will share what we’re focusing on for 2016 as well as a full listing of the grants we have made to date.

How Journalism Networks Can Strengthen Local News Ecosystems

Lessons from the Local News Lab — Part Four

This is part four of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism. Read part one, part two and part three.

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

A key part of the model we have been pursuing in New Jersey for the past five years is the idea that local news will be stronger working together than it is working in isolation. To that end, we continue to test strategies to help create a more connected, collaborative and inclusive media ecosystem where all the participants have avenues to work together and share resources.


This means building new kinds of networks and strengthening old networks to foster collaboration, sustainability and engagement.

  • Cohort of Local Newsrooms — At its most basic, the cohort of newsrooms that are part of the Local News Lab are a network in and of themselves. They regularly share what they are learning, advise each other, and look for ways to collaborate. We’ve seen a few examples of sites replicating each other’s revenue strategies and engagement efforts. Our hope is that this kind of sharing and peer-to-peer learning experiences can spread to other organizations in the state. However, while there is an incredible generosity amongst sites across the state, this kind of sharing doesn’t happen automatically. It benefits from some facilitation, structure and creating opportunities for sharing.
  • The Center for Cooperative Media — The Center for Cooperative Media and its NJ News Commons serves as a central hub for training and collaboration across the state. Over the past several years, we have seen membership in the NJ News Commons grow and they have served as important trust builders, service providers and event hosts. Particularly in the past year, they have also become important disseminators for the lessons we are learning with the partner sites. We’ve held a number of trainings with the Center including analytics, podcasts, events, ad sales and more. The Center also hosted a national conference on community engagement, “Engage Local” which included many of our sites and partners. The Center has become an “enabling structure,” helping coordinate and support other networks and collaborations.
Map image via the Center for Cooperative Media
  • New America Media — New America Media is the nation’s largest network of ethnic and foreign language media. They are working with us and the Center for Cooperative Media to help connect the ecosystem and build relationships with foreign language media sources in New Jersey. We believe that ethnic media outlets have lessons to teach other journalists in the state about engagement and service to community, and we think that new digital media outlets could share expertise with online tools and strategies with ethnic media outlets. There are other collaborative reporting possibilities that we are excited to explore as well, but all of that must be built on a strong foundation of trust. To that end, New America Media is holding in-person meetings and gatherings across the state.
  • Center for Investigative Reporting — The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is leading a large-scale collaborative investigative reporting project in New Jersey. The “Dirty Little Secrets” series is investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy with New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The project is coordinated by The Center for Investigative Reporting with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State. CIR will also be collaborating with other arts and environmental organizations across the state. As with the cohort of five sites, this large-scale collaboration benefits immensely from facilitation which is provided by both CIR and the Center for Cooperative Media / NJ News Commons.
Image from the Center for Cooperative Media

We have learned a lot about building journalism networks at the local level. And we have grappled with some very real challenges. Different kinds of networks and collaborations will serve different kinds of sites. In its first few years the Center for Cooperative Media and NJ News Commons has emphasized serving small local newsrooms and has not provided as much value for larger newsrooms. However, the CIR and Hearken collaborations are engaging larger newsrooms in meaningful ways.


Our ecosystem approach in New Jersey is rooted in the idea that as local news changes in shape and capacity, it needs new kinds of support. Therefore, we are also testing whether we can create shared services for the whole ecosystem that have historically only been easily accessible and built into well-established newsrooms.

We know that shared services at professional organizations can work. Places like the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Association for Alternative Newsmedia have created important offerings — like pooled insurance, technology support and ad networks — that serve their entire membership of small news organizations at scale. We don’t yet know if that can be duplicated in a geography like New Jersey.

In year one, we tested two of these shared services: technology and legal. We hope to test 1–2 other shared services, like marketing and events.

  • Tech — Local news sites reported that they wanted more access to web development and tech support, so we found a local firm that could give sites unlimited access to basic tech support for a small monthly fee. We realized pretty quickly that this was an idea that looked good on paper, but in practice it didn’t meet the real-life needs of our local news sites. Accordingly, we adjusted our strategy and began exploring other ways of getting small newsrooms access to tech and design resources. You can read what we learned from that experience here.
  • Legal — We are working with Ellen Goodman at Rutgers Law to create an online, growing list of legal questions and answers for journalists in New Jersey. Prof. Goodman is holding a summit on NJ legal issues for journalists in the state later this spring. However, local journalists need more than a reference guide to legal issues. They also need direct support. To respond to this need, we are working to create a network of pro-bono or low-cost media lawyers to support local sites.


Throughout our efforts over the past five years we have invested in informal information gathering and formal research to help us chart the landscape of news in New Jersey. Getting a lay of the land has been important for guiding our grantmaking and giving us a sense for what communities need and want. In the last year, we’ve specifically constructed this research in ways that are meant to directly serve local news organizations by gathering critical community information and user feedback that they couldn’t otherwise invest in.

  • Mapping Local Media — Prof. Phil Napoli at Rutgers University studied news sources in three New Jersey towns and found that “richer towns have more local news sources, creating more original content and posting more of it to social media, than do poorer communities.”
  • Focus Groups — Prof. Napoli and his team also conducted six focus groups (two in each city: Newark, New Brunswick, Morristown) to better understand people’s news habits and what they wanted and needed from local news. We then used that feedback to design revenue strategies with the local newsrooms. Prof. Napoli and his team are writing up their process for these focus groups to create a guide for other newsrooms who want to conduct similar efforts in their community.
  • Best Practices in New Revenue Models — CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism worked with a series of researchers to study best practices in membership models, print and digital revenue, and more. They produced a legal guide for news entrepreneurs and hosted a day-long event on new membership models for news. We supported aspects of this work with staff time.

This is part four of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism. In the next essay we’ll discuss innovations in philanthropy that can help support a brighter future for local news.

Rethinking Community Engagement Inside and Outside Newsrooms

Lessons from the Local News Lab — Part Three

This is part three of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism. Read part one, and part two.

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation

Expanding Community Engagement

As news organizations explore alternative revenue streams — from donations and events to services and memberships, we cannot ignore that each of these models depends on developing a community of people with deep affinity for the work journalists do. Sustainability for local news is, in fact, inextricably linked with meaningful community engagement that builds relationships and renews trust with the public which, in turn, leads to securing investment from individuals, advertisers and philanthropy.

Journalism has to do a better job at listening to what communities want and need, asking what problems they are trying to solve, and designing its work to meet more of those needs. This means reimagining journalism as a service not a product. This kind of community-driven reporting does not diminish professional journalists’ role or the importance of their craft, it actually enlarges it. It also results in journalism that is more relevant and consequential to people’s lives.

Community engagement in action at Capitol Public Radio, photo by jesikah maria ross


Decades of newsroom culture run counter to the idea of participatory journalism. As we look to help newsrooms open up to their communities, we have to focus not just on developing new skills but also on shifting culture. And this leads us to an interesting question we’ve been asking ourselves: how do you get people excited about something they don’t understand or have never seen?

This is where we see an invaluable role for philanthropy — to fund demonstration projects that help journalists and the public start to see the possibilities and rewards of more collaborative, service-oriented journalism that leads to news organizations becoming vibrant community hubs.

We are approaching this challenge by looking for the best creative sparks — the most innovative and impactful community driven projects around the country — and bringing them to New Jersey to demonstrate the potential of these new reporting methods. It took us much of the first year to design these demonstration projects, aligning organizational strengths with community needs as well as lining up a multi-faceted funding collaboration around this work. In addition to Dodge and Knight, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation joined us in funding pieces of this work.

In many ways, we are in the early stages of this work — as we have noted, relationship and trust building take time — but already we found that there were three keys to encouraging newsrooms to adopt and test these new reporting models:

  • First, we had to inspire them. Having a webinar with people currently involved in community reporting projects helped get our partner sites excited, imagining how they could adapt these strategies in their own communities.
  • Second, we had to show that it worked. Small sites — even those that are willing to take risks — are much more likely to adopt something that is proven. They can’t afford to invest in something that will demand a lot of time and resources without a sense that it will provide some kind of pay-off.
  • Third, we incentivized them by helping offset the costs of bringing on community engagement staff for two years. By the end of year two, our hope is that the engagement strategies will have yielded enough new revenue opportunities (e.g. crowdsourcing, increased advertising, events, memberships) and sufficiently broadened and deepened community ties that the news organizations will be able to, and will want, to support those staff roles themselves.

We have launched two demonstration projects in NJ:

Hearken — Hearken is a platform and a process designed to help newsrooms listen to communities and tap into their curiosity to shape stories that are immediately relevant and useful to local people.

Slides via Jennifer Brandel at Hearken

Three New Jersey newsrooms launched Hearken projects: Brick City Live (“Curious Brick City”), New Brunswick Today (“ NB Today Listens”) and NJTV (“Ask Away”) with funding support from both the Wyncote Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation in addition to Dodge and Knight. These newsrooms are some of the first in the country to adopt this platform, and it is also the first time Hearken has been used by a for-profit local newsroom, a digital only local newsroom and as a collaboration between three newsrooms. In addition, New Brunswick Today has implemented Hearken in both English and Spanish.

Hearken is also being used by the Center for Investigative Reporting in New Jersey as part of the collaborative “Dirty Little Secrets” project (which is described in more detail later).

The Listening Post — The Listening Post “uses cell phones, public signs, and roving recording devices to capture and share voices, information, and opinions.” The project, first started in New Orleans, describes its goal as creating and expanding conversations around important local issues.” Jersey Shore Hurricane News has just launched a pilot of the Listening Post to complement its social media-driven local reporting. Internews, the organization which oversees the project in New Orleans, will also be monitoring the effort and creating a toolkit for other newsrooms to set up their own Listening Posts.


Demonstration projects are one way we’re exposing news organizations to creative ways of rethinking their work. However, changing the relationship between newsrooms and communities should not be an effort that is driven by news organizations only. It is important to us to approach this issue from the viewpoint of both journalists and the communities they serve. Therefore, we are also investing in community organizing initiatives which provide opportunities for in-depth dialogue and media training to empower people and give them the tools to engage their newsrooms. We talk about this as creating community literacy for newsrooms and news literacy for communities.

The Dodge Foundation has partnered with two organizations, Free Press and Media Mobilizing Project, to facilitate new and stronger relationships between news organizations and community members by bringing them together in town hall style forums and fostering dialogue and exploration of local issues:

  • Free Press — Free Press’ “News Voices New Jersey” project is using community organizing techniques and creative community events to bring local residents together around issues that matter to them, and then exploring how journalism can play a role. So far, they have held two events with more than 200 people in attendance. Evaluations and feedback on the events were very positive from both community members and journalists. Already, in just the first six months of this work we are witnessing the impact of this work and see great potential to replicate it in other areas. This work is being funded over two years in partnership with the Democracy Fund.
Free Press gathering of journalists and local residents
  • Media Mobilizing Project — MMP’s “Neighborhoods to Newsrooms” project is empowering organizations and individuals by providing media training and giving voice to community members on issues they care about, while also building better relationships with traditional newsrooms and hyperlocal press. They are currently working with Rutgers’ “Journalism for Democracy” project in New Brunswick which brings together student journalists and community groups around social justice issues; they are also working hand-in-hand with Free Press at their events.

The investments in Hearken and the Listening Post as well as the work of Free Press and Media Mobilizing Project are meant to signal the importance we place on community-led, participatory journalism as key to the sustainability of local news, beyond newsroom diversifying their revenue streams.

Our survey of projects like these happening across the country coupled with results we’re seeing in New Jersey affirm for us that people will invest in the local news, when it is clear that the local news is investing in them. However, news organizations will have to have patience, perseverance, and faith that communities will come to value and sustain their local news outlets if given the opportunity to have their voices heard, and their issues addressed in meaningful ways. As we have said before, building and deepening relationships takes time even for the most adept newsrooms.

This is part three of six essays documenting what we have learned about building new networks for local news and fostering more creative, sustainable and community driven journalism. In the next essay we’ll discuss how we have built new kinds of networks to support local news.