Local Fix: Building Better News Products, #PubRadioVoice and Spreading the (Journalism) Plague

Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good Idea: Be The Calm in the Storm. The storm this week on the east coast looked pretty bad, and in Boston and Rhode Island it lived up to many of the worst case scenarios. In the face of storms like this people turn to the media, and newsrooms have to strike a delicate balance in their coverage. This service trackeris a nice example of how you can provide real useful real time info as the storm unfolds. It is simple, not flashy, just useful.

From Snapchat to the Plague

We are awash in new mobile and social channels to distribute our work and engage our communities. This is both exciting and overwhelming. As such, I try not to cover every shiny new thing unless it really has some potential for local newsrooms. This week Snapchat introduced a new “Discover” feature and partnerships with a handful of big publishers. At Neiman Lab Josh Benton argues that “By putting mobile-native news adjacent to messages from friends, Snapchat could be helping create part of the low-friction news experience many want and need.” Early reviews are positive but we’ve yet to see how the program will expand to smaller local newsrooms. I recently got tipped off to a much more geographically based social sharing tool called Plague. With Plague you can only share a link with four people who are close by. David Cohn has a nice write up of the app and some thoughts about its usefulness to journalists and communities. When it comes to using content from social apps, the New York Times raised some interesting questionsthis week when it put Instagram photos on its front page. (See also this update with more details, and more questions.)

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Local Fix: News Events, Empathic Design, Finding Solutions and Fellowships

Welcome to the Local Fix. Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good Idea: Hang out on your front porch. The Front Porch Forum is a community news and information outlet in Burlington, Vermont, which focuses on fostering local conversation and engagement. TechPresident profiles how the husband and wife team turned an email list into a vibrant online civic hub. For local news organizations there is value in thinking about how we create spaces for our communities to gather and connect online beyond Facebook and other third party social sites.

Problems Scream, Solutions Whisper

In early January, David Bornstein of the Fixes column at the New York Times wrote a terrific piece on “The News We Need to Hear,” arguing that “while journalism has a robust framework for describing problems and their urgency, it needs to strengthen its muscles for exploring questions like: Who is doing better and how?” Bornstein is also the founder of the Solutions Journalism Network which this weeklaunched a useful new toolkit for doing solutions oriented stories. Mallory Jean Tenore has a good summary of the toolkit and an overview of other similar tools and resources for newsrooms. I’ve written before about research that suggestscommunities are hungry for reporting that helps them solve local issues.

Engagement + Revenue = News Events

Events big and small hold great potential as tools to engage your audiences, extend your reporting and diversify your revenue. But don’t let anyone tell you that events are easy – they are a lot of work. Thankfully there are more and more resources to help you design an event strategy for your news organization. In addition to my reporting and the American Press Institute’s guide, here are a few other links: Over at INMA the Dallas Morning News shares “5 ways to build a profitable event business.” And at the end of last year Nieman Lab looked at the San Francisco Chronicle’s use of events as part of their new membership program. But events aren’t just for big metro daily papers. I know of a number of small one and two person local community news operations who are hosting film festivals, food events and more. If you are experimenting with events and community gatherings I’d love to know (just reply to this email).

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Impact is Not a Four Letter Word

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of nonprofit organizations more than when a funder asks about impact.

Foundations demand that nonprofits measure and understand the impact of their work, but rarely give their grantees the resources to do that kind of evaluation. On top of that, many foundations have a low tolerance for risk or failure (i.e. lack of impact) as well as a reluctance to provide stable, long-term support. This is an especially difficult combination for start-ups, which need the time and patience from funders to show results.

folding yard stick

On the flipside, nonprofits argue that evidence of impact is not so black and white – that they can’t know for sure if their work is directly resulting in change because there are too many factors outside their control. Which is often true. We all (nonprofits and funders) have to be comfortable with some level of uncertainty. But shying away from assessment because we can’t prove things is also a cop out for trying to understand whether the work is making a difference.

Which Metrics Matter?

In Media, there is so much being written about metrics these days—from page views and unique visitors to “attention minutes,” conversion rates, and renewal rates. The common thread through all of these articles and blog posts is that there is no consensus on what metrics should and do matter most. Among funders too, there are many unanswered questions about how to evaluate media grants and not enough open dialogue on the subject, which is why Media Impact Funders just released “Funder Perspectives: Assessing Media Investments.” This report, which is well worth reading, shares the results of survey responses from 30 large and small foundations as well as follow-up interviews with a handful of foundation staff (including me) to shed light on how foundations of differing sizes and media strategies are thinking about impact.

In the report, I point to the work of ProPublica and its president Dick Tofel’s leadership on the subject of impact:

“Some funders prefer to allow grantees to develop methods from the bottom up. ‘We’d like to see more of our grantees approach measurement like ProPublica – being clear about their mission and goals, and then assessing their work against what they say they intend to accomplish. Tracking it carefully and honestly, in order to learn and adapt along the way,’ noted Molly de Aguiar, Program Director of Media & Communications at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.”

Allow me to elaborate on that. And full disclosure: ProPublica is a grantee of the Dodge Foundation.

Impact Starts with a Clear Mission

Dick Tofel wrote a paper for the Gates Foundation called “Nonprofit Journalism: Issues Around Impact” that I would recommend to anyone looking for a very straightforward approach to this topic. Measuring impact, he emphasizes, starts with being clear about your mission. If your news organization’s mission is to inform the public, you should first understand where the gaps in information are. Measuring your impact means trying to assess whether your community believes it is more knowledgeable as a result of your reporting. Did your coverage directly help fill their gaps in information and understanding? Was it an important factor? Did it play some role?

Likewise, if you’re an investigative news organization, like ProPublica, and your mission is to expose abuses of power and spur reform, you should be asking, “What does it take to fix this, and who can fix it?” and then track whether or not anything changed as a result of your reporting. The same questions apply: Did your work directly lead to the change you wanted to see? Was it an important factor? Did it play some role?

Why Honest Assessment Matters

Assessment requires a level of honesty that can be difficult to admit to, but is necessary for gaining the loyalty and trust of your community first, and second, the loyalty and trust of your funders. If you’re not purposefully asking your community whether and how your work is making a difference, you’re just guessing about your impact. You’re not learning what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, and therefore you do not have a clear understanding of how to effectively allocate your resources. Tofel’s advice to news organizations is to operate as transparently as possible. “Tell the world what kind of change you think you are having. The world will let you know whether they agree.”

There are plenty of free tools (e.g. polls and surveys and interviews) that news organizations can incorporate into the reporting process – preferably at all stages of the reporting process – and use regularly to engage audiences on what they do and don’t know, what issues they’d like to see covered, and what knowledge and experience the community can contribute to the understanding of a topic. It’s an iterative process that reveals how your news organization’s value is perceived by the community, as well as tremendous insight about where you should focus your energies based on the kinds of stories and issues your readers say they care about most.

Funders, You’re on the Hook Too

What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander, and so honest assessment is a requirement for funders too.

Foundations approach their support for media in different ways. Some support journalism for journalism’s sake – toward a more informed and engaged public. Others support media to advance understanding of a particular issue, like health or education. The aforementioned Media Impact Funders report does a good job outlining the diversity of approaches. Regardless of the strategy though, I think one of the key questions for funders to consider is whether we’re funding at the right level to achieve the kind of impact we want to see.


Imagine the issue you’re trying to address as an iceberg, with the easier, perhaps less permanent (but still valuable) solutions at the tip – what you see above the water – and the deep, systems-level solutions at the massive bottom of the iceberg underneath the water. The solutions at the top of the iceberg require far fewer resources than the solutions for enduring change required at the bottom of the iceberg.

So, at what level are you trying to have impact on a particular issue – where are you on the iceberg? – and do your grants match the resources required for that level of change?

If we’re not honestly assessing these questions and attempting to understand our impact, then we don’t know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, and therefore we do not have a clear understanding of how to effectively allocate our resources.

Funny how that works both ways.

Impact is not a four letter word. The more we ask questions and challenge our assumptions, the more we are transparent about what we’re trying to accomplish and share what we’re learning, the closer we get to making the difference that we want to see in this world.

For additional reading on impact, I also highly recommend Chalkbeat founder Elizabeth Green’s excellent paper “What We Talk About When We Talk About Impact.

Ruler image by Humusak and iceberg image by Martin Fuchs, both via Creative Commons

Legal Tips for Local News Publishers

This guest post by Amy Gahran originally appeared on the Knight Digital Media Center website. It is reposted here with permission.

Like any publisher, people who provide community news or information have legal concerns. Especially, how can you minimize the risk of lawsuits that could threaten your scarce resources and time — without compromising your ethics, mission, or community?  In a Jan. 8 call-in podcast, Rutgers University law professor Ellen Goodman  answered general questions about local publishers and the law.

Goodman, who authored the nonprofit media section of the landmark 2011 Knight/FCC report on theInformation Needs of Communities, shared her legal expertise related to local news gathering and publishing. Currently she’s working on a project in which journalism and law students are collaboratively developing a legal FAQ for local news reporters and publishers, focusing on digital media and relatively new entrants to the field (such as bloggers and citizen journalists)

In this podcast (presented by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, N.J.), Goodman took a call about the difficulty that local news publishers often have in acquiring libel insurance. She offered the context that U.S. courts generally tend to support publishers in libel and defamation cases; it’s very hard for plaintiffs to win. Still, the time and cost of responding to such lawsuits can be overwhelming. Liability insurance usually is used to cover the cost of fighting claims (or getting them dismissed), rather than to pay damages. Continue reading

Support Watchdog Reporting in New Brunswick

Local, hard-hitting watchdog journalism is alive and kicking in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The team behind New Brunswick Today is taking on some of the area’s most important stories, covering city corruption, making government more transparent, and giving diverse communities across the city a voice.

Since 2011, this independent, bilingual community news organization has been providing fearless, independent coverage on a shoestring budget. This week they launched a crowd-funding campaign, asking the city they love to help them grow, bring on more reporters and expand the impact of their reporting.


At the Dodge Foundation we chose New Brunswick Today as one of six partner newsrooms for our journalism sustainability project because we were excited about their mission and passion for serving the people of New Brunswick. They are digital first but print a monthly newspaper to reach parts of their community who don’t have easy access to the web. They seek out sources in the community and publish in English and Spanish. They are creative, passionate, and generous, testing new ideas and offering lessons and advice to other community news organizations across the state.

Most of all, they are risk takers, willing to tackle tough topics and stand up for the public’s right to know. But they can’t do it alone. That’s why the Dodge Foundation is matching the first $5,000 in community donations to New Brunswick Today. Continue reading

Building Journalism With Community, Not For It

build with not for

At the end of last year Kristin Hare of the Poynter Institute was collecting tech resolutions for 2015 and asked for mine. Here is what I wrote:

In 2015 I want to help more journalists build with their communities, not just for their communities.

At so many publications, journalists are rebuilding their newsrooms around new technologies from smartphones to social networks. But for the most part, the community is left on the other side of the screen. In 2015 there is a huge opportunity to engage communities in the work of helping build powerful journalism.

I want to help newsrooms design reporting projects, engagement strategies, web apps and more, through deeper collaboration, listening and empathy with our communities. Building for the community puts people at the end of the process. Building with community puts them at the start.

In the new year, let’s start the debate about journalism and technology with our communities.

At the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation we believe that journalism sustainability is rooted in building stronger relationships between communities and newsrooms. The distinction between “building with” instead of “building for” feels at first like semantics. However, when we begin to use it as a lens to examine journalism as both a process and a product, we see numerous small and large ways it challenges the status quo.  Continue reading

Local Fix: On Profits and Podcasts, Startups and Sustainability, and Third Party Platforms

Each week we look at key debates in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news, starting with one good idea… 

One Good Idea: Write better headlines. Maria Konnikova reports on new research that shows headlines have a huge effect on readers’ perception and retention of articles. “It’s not always easy to be both interesting and accurate,” she concludes, “but, as Ecker’s study shows, it’s better than being exciting and wrong.”

From Startup to Sustainability

This fall I got hooked on Alex Blumberg’s podcast Startup, which he describes as “A series about what happens when someone who knows nothing about business starts one.” That could describe a lot of great journalists who are launching or leading news startups. Blumberg gives a fairly ubvarnished look at his process and there is a lot of lessons for anyone working to build sustainable media organizations. On her blog Sarah Marshall offers 10 very concrete and useful lessons in what she calls “lean journalism” from her time as tech editor at Journalism.co.uk.

I wrote earlier about Philly Gun Crisis ending daily publication. NiemanLab has a deep dive into “Why Philadelphia’s Gun Crisis Reporting Project couldn’t make it” with some frank reflections on priorities and sustainability from founder Jim MacMillan. At the end of last year John Battelle gave his prescription for “What Media Must Do To Survive” – which for him comes down to “convening power.” Does a publication bring together a community of people who depend on it?

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