The Dodge Foundation's Journalism Sustainability Project has a dizzying number of moving parts. Community is the steady hub at its center.
"It is a bit of a juggling act. But it's really exciting," says Josh Stearns, Director of Journalism and Sustainability, who (along with Media Director Molly de Aguiar), runs the program at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. "The nature of an ecosystem is that there are all these moving pieces, so we're trying to make sure we're moving them all but also keeping them connected."
Says Stearns, "A lot of my work at the Free Press carries through to the work I'm doing now. Which is: regardless of what model journalists pursue in thinking about their own organization, how can we put communities at the center of that?"
Dodge is trying to move beyond thinking that duplicates independent online news models in a plug-and-play way. Over the past several years, innovators in the indie news world have learned that some things work some of the time. Revenue models, membership programs and events are all part of the solution -- but they must be adapted to the needs of the place. It's a community-first approach, Stearns says.
"We're saying (to news sites): Let's take this menu of ideas that's out there and test some ideas with your communities, really do some deep listening with your communities, really figure out what are the distinct needs of your communities. What would they want to pay for? Be members of? Or come to an event about?" said Stearns.
The goal: Over the course of two years, each of six selected sites will experiment with up to three new revenue models. Dodge's backing and support means these small startup companies won't be risking their entire business by experimenting. It's hoped that the lessons learned can be applied to stabilize these companies, and grow the rest of the ecosystem in New Jersey.
The New Jersey ecosystem
Many philanthropic, university and news partners have come together to bring New Jersey to this whole-system approach to staving off a media desert.
In 2012, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Knight Foundation came together through an $800,000 Knight Community Information Challenge grant to create the New Jersey News Commons. Founded by a number of partners, the Commons is housed at Montclair (N.J.) State University's Center for Cooperative Media.
Run by Debbie Galant, founder of Baristanet, the Commons has 120 member sites today, vs. 30 a year ago. Through the Commons, news sites are freely sharing their content through the Story Exchange using a tool called iCopyright.
As an organizing body, the goals of NJ News Commons include: bringing as many news producers as possible to the table, encouraging collaboration, and attracting institutional resources (administrative, legal or other types of assistance).
The News Commons is at the side of its members as they are "transforming, shrinking, changing, and becoming much more like networks," Stearns says.
NJ News Commons, Phase I and Phase II
If Phase 1 of the New Jersey ecosystem build-out is the NJ News Commons, then Phase II is the Journalism Sustainability Project.
Inspired by the success of the News Commons, Knight and Dodge came together again to establish a larger effort to take the ecosystem to the next level. This time, Knight gave Dodge a $2 million, two-year Community Information grant.
Stearns (who formerly was Press Freedom Director at the national nonprofit Free Press) was brought in by Dodge earlier this year to run the Journalism Sustainability Project. Stearns and team are documenting their learning and sharing their process on the Local News Lab website, and delivering relevant news through the LocalFix newsletter.
Six sites for incubation and experimentation
The Journalism Sustainability Project brings an important piece to Phase II of the ecosystem work. Six sites have been identified to act as an incubation and experimentation lab, where new ideas -- from revenue models to community engagement strategies -- will be tested. Dodge expects to be able to see what's working and what's not, identify gaps, and in turn, create trainings and target resources where needed.
Dodge will be working with four sites in New Jersey (New Brunswick Today, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, Morristown Green and Brick City Live), as well as two in New York (The Lo-Down and Sheepshead Bites).
Bites has now merged with Corner Media Network, which has seven sites -- so Dodge is working with the Corner Media publisher in general. The network shares back-office services, and Stearns will be looking at whether that might be the appropriate scale.
Jersey Shore Hurricane Newsbegan as a Facebook page. Working with Stearns, the founder, who is an urban planner, will build a full site that will incorporate the best pieces of his Facebook approach.
"When we launch his new site, it's not going to look like a normal neighborhood news site," Stearns says. "It's going to be something different that really embodies that two-way-news style he's been pioneering."
Off the back-burner
Stearns says his role with the sites is serving as a startup coach, mentor or extra set of hands to assist them when they are developing something new, such as a revenue stream, needed audience research or vendor selection.
"For a lot of these sites, I try to figure out which things constantly get back-burnered for them but could be really transformative in helping them move the ball forward," Stearns says.
Dodge will also provide strategic assistance, fleshing out ideas so they can be implemented.
"My role is multi-faceted depending on where each of the sites is at. But in general, it's that kind of business-development-meets-community-development strategy."
Rutgers: Deep listening, deep intelligence
Rutgers University is conducting deep listening research into the communities that will help inform the approaches taken by the sites. The primary researcher at Rutgers has been doing audience-based work for a long time. According to Stearns, Rutgers will be doing three tiers of research:
- Researching audience needs and wants as defined by the audience themselves.
- Examining current news resources, focusing on a few communities to understand what kind of content currently exists there.
- Identifying gaps, with the goal of assessing how they can be bridged.
The goal is to inform strategic actions to fortify the news sites.
In addition, Dodge is working with community organizers who will apply their on-the-ground knowledge to news and journalism.
The Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism will conduct best practice research (mostly on revenue models and generation), and draw on lessons from news sites nationwide.
"We'll see a white paper from CUNY about best practices for membership, for events, for using print products as a revenue stream," Stearns says. "We're going to take that best practice research and then test to see what really works in these small local sites. Then we can start creating trainings around that."
The NJ News Commons will also base trainings on what Dodge learns, adding their own tweaks and customization. "We really don't expect to find silver bullets. We think we'll find trends and lessons with the idea that they're always going to have to be adapted to the unique context of that community or that news organization," Stearns says.
Equally important, human-centered design methods will also be applied.
Stearns is excited that they'll be piloting some community first reporting projects -- possibly from public media elsewhere -- into New Jersey to see how they work. The challenge there will be to see how then can be adapted for a small one or two person local news site. Although these experiments are not yet decided, Dodge is looking at projects like ListeningPostNOLA, Curious City Chicago and some things under way at the Public Insight Network.
Added dimension: Experiments in philanthropy
Dodge is not only trying to build community driven news, but also look at the idea of community driven philanthropy. "The other piece of what we're trying to think really carefully about and experiment with as well philanthropy," Steans says. Dodge is a place-based foundation supporting six all commercial news sites. "It's a unique thing," he says.
Along the way, Dodge is asking questions. For example, how can crowdfunding be leveraged to bring other kinds of supports, sponsorships and philanthropy. "We're looking at a range of things from how can local journalists who don't have a big national platform, leverage the crowdfunding platforms that are out there right now. We're looking at Kickstarter of course, or Beacon or Patreon which represent a really different model," Stearns says.
As Dodge forges new paths, they're documenting all of this work so it can be shared with other foundation leaders.
Keeping up with digital
One of the most challenging aspects of working as a boot-strapped online publisher is the ever evolving digital frontier. You're working all the time and new models and tools are constantly being invented. How do you keep up with that?
Stearns explained: "Almost without fail most of them said, 'I'm part of the Lion Publishers or I'm on X Listserv, but for the most part I just don't have time.' I said: 'Great. That's something I can definitely do for you.'" So he created a list of the 25 people who are the original project partners and did a roundup of the most important news and what it might mean for local journalists. The newsletter was so popular that Dodge took it public. It now has almost 600 subscribers.
"I pay special attention to highlighting great stories or experiments where they're being tried," Stearns says. In addition, Dodge is blogging at Medium, and on its own blog. All those posts are being picked up by PBS, Media Shift and Idea Shift.
This feeds into Stearns' work trying to give independent online news publishers the access they need to training and connecting with others and innovative ideas at journalism conferences.
"The cost of a plane ticket and a hotel room and that many days away from the site is just unrealistic," Stearns says. "So often their voices aren't represented at the big journalism gatherings."