The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is taking a whole systems approach to creating sustainable media start-ups in New Jersey. And the Knight Foundation is supporting Dodge's work with a $2 million grant over two years.
For the past three years the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has been stepping up out of a sense of alarm about a lack of news coverage in the state.
"When I came in (as foundation chief) I had a deep concern for the decline of investigative journalism and the role of media in a democracy," says Chris Daggett, President and Chief Executive Officer.
Daggett missed the kind of coverage that used to come from a beat reporter with decades of experience researching and writing on a subject. “The Star-Ledger used to have a subject matter expert in every imaginable area — transportation, health care” to name a few, Daggett says. “The press was much more involved in public policy.”
A news ecosystem consists of “old growth” media — newspapers, broadcast and other traditional outlets — and “new growth” media — Web sites and other digital news providers that serve the information needs of an audience. Although news sites are launching all the time in New Jersey and globally, they need start-up business assistance to become viable, sustainable publishers and information services.
“Our overarching areas of focus are financial sustainability, growth of the ecosystem, community engagement and quality of journalism,” says Molly de Aguiar, Director of Media and Communications. To get started the foundation is partnering with the New Jersey News Commons at The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
The Commons is a hub and service provider for all of the news organizations and journalists in New Jersey. The Commons provides training and workshops, refers publishers to legal counsel, offers seed grants for sites as well as curates the highest quality journalism throughout the state.
“We have a big bet with the Commons,” Daggett says.
Business model assistance
With the grant money, Dodge will be hiring a sustainability director who will be charged with helping news sites find the right formula for sustainability.
Since there’s no one size fits all solution, Dodge will work with news sites to develop whatever they need regarding their revenue model — from putting together a membership strategy to selling services to ad sales – the whole range of approaches. In one priority, Dodge is planning better ad sales training for media entrepreneurs, and looking at ways to aggregate that into an ad sales network to benefit all the sites as a group. Commercial and non-profit sites are eligible.
“We’ll also spend some money developing customizable digital marketing tools for news sites and we’ll conduct audience research,” de Aguiar says. “We want to develop some templates for events that help news sites raise money and engage their communities. Some of this will be grants, some of it will simply be contracting services, like research and training.”
Filling in the gaps
As important as building the business skills of local publishers, is understanding and fortifying the strength of the New Jersey ecosystem itself.
Dodge will conduct an ecosystem scan from multiple perspectives to understand the strength of New Jersey’s new growth and old growth media and their coverage by locality, subject domain and audience need.
Geography is one concern. “The local areas are the hardest hit by the decline in news,” Daggett says. “We have town hall meetings without anyone being a watchdog.” Another concern is audience. “We are looking at the idea of creating beat sites geared to specific audiences — health care, senior, environmental,” Daggett says.
Through a competitive process, Dodge will provide seed money to sites to fill gaps in news coverage.
More collaboration a clear sign of progress
There hasn’t always been a Commons but now that there is one, collaboration among news sites has improved.
The News Commons — run by Debbie Galant — has talked 30-plus sites in New Jersey into freely sharing their content through the NJ News Commons Story Exchange. For small sites, this means much broader distribution of their work, and in turn greater traffic. To facilitate this they are using a tool called Repost.us
An important connection
The changes in Dodge’s granting priorities emerged in part from Daggett’s deep conviction that without a strong media and a strong press, democracy will not thrive. Daggett’s passion for public policy arises from the time he spent in in public service. He’d served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Gov. Tom Kean and also as a regional administrator for the EPA. Not surprisingly, he’s a policy junkie.
In 2009, fed up with the two party system in New Jersey, Daggett was running for governor as an independent. That’s also when he established a serendipitous relationship with a knowledgeable media friend.
“It really took off when I got endorsed by the state's largest newspaper,” Daggett says.
It just so happens that Jeff Jarvis lives across the street from Daggett. Jarvis is Professor, Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. A leading voice on the future of media, Jarvis writes an influential blog, Buzzmachine.com, and is the author of the books, What Would Google Do? and Public Parts.
“Jeff wandered across the street and asked, “How can I help?” Daggett says,
Later when Daggett joined Dodge, they brought in Jarvis as a consultant.
With Jarvis’ involvement, "We got interested in media. We got more strategic about it. We developed a passion for it,” Daggett says.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is a private, place based foundation and it's the largest private funder focused only on New Jersey. They based their application for Knight funding on their commitment to place, in their case an entire state.
Dodge had received $800,000 from Knight over the previous two years. The latest $2 million award — $1 million per year — will be treated as a matching grant by Dodge, Daggett says.
“We are small enough geographically that we can have a statewide impact with our work,” Daggett says.