How To Attend a Journalism Conference Without Ever Leaving Your House

21 Tools and Lessons for Local News from the Online News Association and Local Independent Online News Publishers

Over the last week two very different conferences brought together journalists from around the country. In Los Angeles more than 2,000 journalists attended the Online News Association (ONA) conference and a week later just over 100 local newsrooms convened in Chicago for the Local Independent Online News (LION) publishers summit.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to ONA or LION, I’ve collected slides, tips and resources from many of the presentations and workshops.

(A version of this post originally appeared in the weekly Local Fix newsletter, which covers innovation and community engagement in local news.)

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How to Navigate the Future of News

By Josh Stearns and Molly de Aguiar

Our work on journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation is rooted in the idea that there is no one model for local news. We believe that creating more sustainable local news is going to demand that we reimagine journalism as a service to communities. Doing so requires that journalists listen and respond to the strengths and challenges of their unique places when they define their coverage and develop their business models.

None of that is to say that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from the experiments and experiences of local publishers around the country. But there is a difference between trying to spread ideas and trying to replicate models. If we want to build stronger local journalism from the ground up we can’t impose models — even those that work elsewhere — from the top down.

If we want to build stronger local journalism from the ground up we can’t impose models from the top down.

Instead we are constantly on the look out for “replicable knowledge” — proven or promising ideas that can be adapted to the local context. It is not enough, however, to simply hand someone a toolkit and walk away. Adapting innovative lessons from other sectors and communities takes time and a willingness to test and revise.

Photo by Dani Armengol Garreta, used via creative commons

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Beyond the Numbers: Media Diversity and Local News

Creating more diverse journalism can’t just be about slotting people of color into the newsrooms we have, it has to be about transforming our institutions, our culture, and our storytelling.

I’ve written before about the need for newsrooms to better reflect the diversity of their communities. This work isn’t tangential to creating more sustainable, impactful and engaged journalism, it is central to it.

You may have seen the headline this week over at the Columbia Journalism Review: “At many local newspapers, there are no reporters of color.” The piece is a follow-up to an earlier article where Alex William examined how unequal hiring practices, not the number of qualified candidates, contribute to lack of diversity in America’s newsrooms. While the Columbia Journalism Review piece focuses on local newsrooms, the International Business Times reported on the percentage of people of color working at the biggest new digital media outlets, concluding that most lag behind legacy media.

Chart by Alex William and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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New Study Highlights Unequal Access to Local News and Information in New Jersey

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns

If you are a resident of Morristown, New Jersey you get 23 times more news coverage per capita than the state’s largest city, Newark, NJ. Residents in Morristown have access to 2.5 times more coverage per capita than New Brunswick.

New research, from Rutgers University, being released today explores the health of the local news ecosystem in three diverse New Jersey cities. The study suggests that there is more work to do to ensure all residents of New Jersey have access to the information they need about their communities.

“If journalism and access to information are pillars of self government then these findings suggest those tools of democracy are not being distributed evenly, and that should be cause for concern,” said Prof. Philip Napoli, the study’s lead author. The report was co-authored by Sarah Stonbely, Kathleen McCollough, and Bryce Renninger. Continue reading

Journalism That Connects Us

A New Experiment with the Center for Investigative Reporting

At the Dodge Foundation, we just gave a first-time grant to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) for a collaborative investigative reporting project here in New Jersey.


I’ve been an admirer of CIR for a while now, not just for the quality and impact of its investigative journalism, but also for its creative storytelling which helps illuminate and illustrate issues in unconventional ways.

Pioneering Creative Storytelling

Here’s one example: last fall, CIR published an investigation of California strawberry growers’ pesticide use (“Dark Side of the Strawberry”), which found dangerous levels of chemicals used to grow the fruit year-round and keep it cheap for shoppers. Rather than simply publishing this series — hoping people would read it and be compelled to take some kind of action — CIR developed a whole series of community engagement activities around the investigation to ensure that the public got the information they needed about the pesticides. It created an app that allowed people to type in their zip codes to check for what chemicals were being used near their homes and how much were being used; it also mailed out postcards letting people know how to look up whether they lived in pesticide hotspots or not.

But they didn’t stop there.

alicia'smiracle CIR also commissioned a play in partnership to tell the strawberry story. “Alicia’s Miracle” was a one-act play imagining a pregnant woman who lives and works near strawberry fields. The play premiered at the Tides Theatre in San Francisco, which hosted community discussions after each performance. CIR also took the play to Oxnard and Salinas — ground zero for the strawberry fields — where the cast performed the play in English and Spanish.

Using alternative storytelling techniques like this — pairing art and investigative journalism — to help inform and engage the public around pressing issues is groundbreaking. CIR also routinely uses poets and poetry for storytelling, as well as other art forms, like graphic novels.

I appreciate the innovation of these approaches, and more importantly that community engagement is at the heart of what CIR does. This is an incredibly clever way that we get to a more civically engaged public.

Building Networks, Leveraging Partnerships

My colleagues and I at Dodge frequently talk about what amazing, creative things might happen if we facilitated more collaboration between our arts, education, environment, and media grantees. We believe it would lead to greater impact of their work and ultimately better communities here in New Jersey.

Which brings us to the new grant to CIR — for a large-scale investigative reporting project led by CIR in collaboration with a number of Dodge grantees and other organizations. This initiative will not only bring some much-needed solutions-oriented journalism to this state, but also the kind of creative storytelling and engagement that would help our grantees expand their reach into the communities around issues they care about. Moreover, we hope this project will foster deeper connections between Dodge grantees as they work together.

dodge-logo-bufferAlthough we’re just at the beginning of this grant, CIR has led a convening of Dodge grantees and others to gauge interest, explore shared issues and concerns, and map out potential ideas and a plan for collaborating and engaging community over the coming year.

This would be a good time to note that Dodge is not funding CIR for the content of the reporting — we have no stake or say in that. Rather, this is an experiment on several levels that we’re eager to test and observe, including how to develop and shepherd a large collaborative project like this, nurturing better partnerships, and inviting more community participation around issues that they care about. Fundamentally, we want to explore the power of creative, meaningful community engagement: what impact it has on the community, on local news organizations, and on the nonprofits we fund across the state.

Fundamentally, we want to explore the power of creative, meaningful community engagement: what impact it has on the community, on local news organizations, and on the nonprofits we fund across the state.

A year from now, we hope to see that the New Jersey news organizations participating in this project will have clear examples and guidance, through CIR’s expertise, on how they too can create more engagement around their reporting, leading to a broader base of community support for their organizations over time. Additionally, we hope that participating Dodge grantees will also learn new and clever community building and engagement skills in order to expand and mobilize their constituents around issues they work on every day.

Over time, we can see this work having a transformational impact on local news, community organizations and civic participation in New Jersey.

As with all of our work focused on the New Jersey news ecosystem, we will share what we’re learning, including what’s not working. In the meantime, for further information about CIR, you can visit their website and listen to their Reveal podcast and public radio show.

How We Are Working with Universities to Strengthen Local Journalism

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns


Photo by Alan Levine, used via Creative Commons

Across the country, people are taking a fresh look at the role of universities in the journalism landscape and as critical anchor institutions for helping meet community information needs.

A lot of attention has been focused on journalism schools as producers of original reporting and their potential to help fill the gaps in local coverage facing many communities around college campuses. However, just as important is the role of universities in helping build the infrastructure for more sustainable journalism.

Campuses can be:

1) Trainers — Leveraging their resources, skills, knowledge and technology colleges can train current journalists in best practices.

2) Advertisers — Local newsrooms should tap into various budgets across college campuses for sponsorship and ad dollars. (For more on this see my blog post here)

3) Conveners — Campuses have great meeting spaces and technology making them terrific hosts for local events. They can also help draw in experts and scholars on a given issue from around the nation.

4) Practitioners — The teaching hospital model for journalism education involves students directly in covering local communities alone or in partnership with local outlets.

5) Consultants — Universities are full of experts, and not only in subject areas where they have departments, but also in terms of event planners, marketing, technology and more.

6) R&D — Schools can be terrific laboratories for research and development. They can help with mapping and research or create space for cutting edge experiments and technology development.

As part of our journalism and sustainability project at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation we are currently partnering with six departments across four universities on projects that involve students, faculty, staff and newsrooms:

Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University:

A key part of the ecosystem approach we are pioneering in New Jersey is built on the Center for Cooperative Media and NJ News Commons at Montclair State University. The Center and NJ News Commons act as a clearinghouse of free support, services and resources for journalists across New Jersey. The Center and Commons offer business and journalism training, opportunities for collaborative reporting, a Story Exchange for sharing content, personalized coaching, peer-to-peer learning, legal help and many other services. MSU has also taken the lead on mobilizing efforts around open data in New Jersey and sponsored two hackathon events connecting journalists and programmers.

Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY:

In recent years the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism has contributed important research to help model possible sustainability paths for local news. Currently, we are partnering with CUNY in a number of ways. They are doing a series of in-depth reports and events on best practices in local news ads, sales, events, membership and other revenue and engagement strategies. They have also just published a legal guide tailored for local news entrepreneurs and offered a free business training for news start-ups this summer.

Media and the Public Interest Initiative at Rutgers University:

In a project that we are co-funding with the Democracy Fund, professor Phil Napoli of the Media and the Public Interest Initiative and grad students from Rutgers and NYU are undertaking a major research effort in New Jersey focused on three reports. 1) Developing methods for assessing quality journalism, 2) Mapping the media landscape in Newark, New Brunswick and Morristown and 3) Interviews, observation and focus groups around people’s news and info needs, desires and habits. While still in process, this research has already helped us understand the needs of local communities in more direct ways.

Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law at Rutgers University:

Prof. Ellen Goodman of Rutgers Law School and the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law is creating a living document detailing and responding to the legal questions of local journalists and providing general legal guidance. This is the start of a larger project focused on creating a First Amendment Lab at Rutgers that might over time help serve as a new legal backbone for independent media in the state.

Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University:

Professor Todd Wolfson is working with students at Rutgers University on an in-depth project designed to train students and communities new modes of journalism through the lens of urban poverty and social justice. The project has four dimensions: 1. Working with students to report on issues of poverty, unemployment and socio-economic struggles, 2. Partnerships with local community groups and service organizations, 3. Training partners from these groups in basic media production practices so they can also tell and share their stories and 4. Develop a platform to share and distribute these stories.

Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University:

In Professor Rich Gordan’s analytics class students become digital media consultants for local news sites, applying what they are learning in the classroom to develop concrete advice and action plans for newsrooms. This year his students worked with three of our sites over the course of a semester and developed valuable action plans for the sites to strengthen their presence from social to SEO.

At their best, these experiments between local newsrooms and universities are desgined to create positive feedback loops. Research informs trainings which inform experiments and learning in local newsrooms which feed back into meaningful real-world research.

University loop.001

Universities are not always perfect partners, but by working closely with staff and faculty in a range of departments we have been able to test a range of important experiments in the state. Our ecosystem approach to supporting journalism in New Jersey focuses on building strong local news through collaboration, and universities are important partners in that work.

Creating A New Model of Technology Support for Community Journalism

By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns

When we set out to invest in creative experiences in journalism sustainability and community engagement we promised we’d share everything we are learning. We wanted to be sure to document what worked but also, just as importantly, what didn’t work.

This is one of those things that didn’t work.

Our ecosystem approach in New Jersey is rooted in the idea that new journalism networks need new kinds of support. When most reporting was happening inside big newsrooms, those institutions provided legal protection, web development, administration and sales capacity. But today we need to rethink how we give community journalists access to those important tools and resources. (In an earlier post, I described how we are approaching new kinds of legal support for this post-industrial journalism age.)

Testing A Shared Web Maintenance Team

We had heard from local news sites that they wanted more access to web development and tech support, so we found a local firm who knew the journalism landscape and was eager to help. This firm, 99 Robots, wanted to test a new $99 per month payment plan that would give clients unlimited access to basic tech support for their sites (we subsidized our local partner sites by paying 75% of the monthly cost).

It was a win-win — or so it seemed — but here is what we learned:

Photo by Hans Gerwitz, used via creative commons

1) Challenge One: Giving The User What They Want

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. When we discussed the idea of a shared web support team most of the local journalists responded positively, but once the partnership went live few newsrooms actually signed up.

The $99 a month plan was focused on basic web maintenance — updating plug-ins, doing backups, etc. — tasks local publishers didn’t love spending time on but mostly knew how to do themselves. We thought that our sites were looking for basic support on web administration and maintenance, but through this process we learned what they really wanted was access to graphic designers, data journalists and news app developers. Local sites wanted to work with developers who could help them take their sites to the next level, not simply keep them running where they were.

If we had surveyed the sites a bit more extensively, or done some observation of their workflow we might have recognized this earlier. But it may have been that we needed this experiment to learn this lesson.

2) Challenge Two: Time

Whether it be business development, web maintanance or reporting experiments local journalists are constantly trying to free up small blocks of time to do the hard work of running their business, caring for their site or simply trying something new. We thought that a service like this could free up their time to focus on other projects, but sometimes working with a consultant can eat up even more of your time (especially during the early on boarding stage). Many of our sites were more likley to just jump in and do it them selves than delegate out to a third party, and manage that process.

3) Challenge Three: Control

Having someone take over basic maintenance of your sites requires handing over the keys to your business — your livelihood — to another person. This is no small thing and some of our sites had a hard time giving up control to 99 Robots, worrying that someone unfamiliar with their site might break something. And those fears were somewhat founded — we had one incident where changes in one part of the site ended up erasing a bunch of content in the site archives. 99 Robots was able to fix it, but it cause a few days of panic. Time and control go hand in hand and together they can create profound barriers to testing new ideas.

4) Challenge Four: Cost

99 Robots underestimated what it would take to serve local news sites and other small businesses and it quickly became clear that their $99 a month plan wasn’t sustainable for them. While they agreed to grandfather our partner sites in, if we had wanted to try to scale up this experiment to the entire state 99 Robots wouldn’t have been able to make it work. If you go to the 99 Robots website today, you won’t find a $99 a month plan anymore.

Image by Sean MacEntee, used via creative commons

Fail Often to Succeed Sooner

Throughout this experiment, the team at 99 Robots were great to work with. They were willing to join us in this experiment and when it became clear that it wasn’t working we were able to debrief the experience and each go our own way. In the end, we stuck with it for three months.

A few things did work: One service 99 Robots offered that many publishers liked was an emergency hotline if your site goes down. Working with 99 Robots was also a reminder of best practices in terms of site backups, web maintenance, and data hygine for local news sites. Even this short experiment served as a bit of spring cleaning for the sites that participated.

We haven’t given up on the idea of creating a shared service around technology, web design, data journalism or news app development. We think there are real opportunities for someone to work at a statewide association or college campus and serve a network of local sites. And we think there are partnership opportunities between big and small newsrooms that can help fill these gaps.

So if you are a web developer with a hankering for news or a journalism hacker looking for a new challenge, get in touch. We are looking forward to building on this experience to further the discussion about how we bring cutting edge tools and skills to local newsrooms in New Jersey and beyond.

Molly de Aguiar is the Program Director for Media and Communications and Josh Stearns is the Director of Journalism Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

The Dodge Foundation’s Media grants seek to strengthen and grow the New Jersey news ecosystem and support local journalism as a critical space for innovation, creativity and community building. For more information on this work, visit the Local News Lab and the Dodge Foundation’s website.

(* “Fail often to succeed sooner” is a quote from David Kelley of IDEO)