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March 3, 2023

Local Fix: How to build a Wise Woman Council

Welcome to the Local Fix. Every so often we look at key questions in journalism sustainability and community engagement through the lens of local news. But first, we always begin with one good idea…

Check the recs for tools and services

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How to build a Wise Woman Council

Everyone has those moments when you wish you could phone a friend for help. What about calling a Wise Woman Council? At the Bay City News Foundation, which serves the Bay Area media ecosystem with collaborative coverage of local governments and other public issues, executive director Kat Rowlands has developed a group of supporters with different kinds of expertise who offer advice throughout the year. It’s made up of 40 former colleagues from throughout her career, mentors who have advised her on entrepreneurship and management, and leaders in local and nonprofit journalism. 

“The Wise Women Council is not intended to be formal or carry the same fiscal or governing responsibility as a Board of Directors or even an Advisory Board. No meetings. No obligatory donations. No reports or committees,” Rowlands shared with the Fix. “The only thing I ask is for them to be willing to pick up the phone when I call for advice, support or brainstorming. Their value comes in part by being outside of my normal circles and everyday contacts with staff, colleagues or board members.”

And why all women? “I was frustrated by the prevalence of all-male boards and ‘manels’ that failed to bring women’s voices to the table so this group counters that lack of representation. I want to be sure I am tapping into the important experience and perspective these women bring to the field and it’s also a way to support them by giving them some recognition and a shout-out.”

Some newsrooms have developed community advisory boards, or other entities that guide an outlet’s reporting in new ways. BCNF has many different ways that residents can provide input on the service’s coverage, but having this collection of women in her corner helps Rowlands think through challenges as she leads and builds her newsroom. She bought Bay City News Service in 2018 — which has existed since 1979 and was where she got her first journalism internship — and then launched the nonprofit foundation behind it. Rowlands is constantly experimenting and iterating as a unique model in this space, so having the Wise Woman Council to bounce ideas off of comes in handy. This Council is also a great example of how women of diverse backgrounds can create networks to support one another, something important to consider as we head further into Women’s History Month.

Here’s what Rowlands has learned about developing her Wise Woman Council:

  • Get to the point: “People are busy and have a lot of other obligations so making participation easy is the key. Making very limited, specific asks is more likely to result in a response. Plus, it makes them feel good about being able to help in a concrete way.”
  • Encourage honesty: “I keep them posted on our progress about once or twice per year and ask that they be willing to give honest and confidential feedback, as some did with our latest strategic plan and when we added new products or coverage where they have experience. When I’ve had staff openings, they helped by suggesting good people or giving references for candidates. If there was something new we wanted to try on our free site, LocalNewsMatters.org, with data, photos, social media, tech tools or partnerships, these women have done it all and pointed me in the right direction.”
  • Build what’s needed, for the field and for yourself: “Some members of  this group were behind the creation of WomenDoNews.org, an effort to get more representation of women journalists into Wikipedia to even the playing field. They also provided support and offered help when things didn’t go well or I just needed to vent with someone who understands how tough this work can be.”

Learn more about Bay City News Foundation’s work and other tips for building a group of advisors:

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On our radar



Happy Women’s History Month,

Christine & Pinay

The Local Fix is a project of Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program, which supports work that aims to transform journalism so everyone has access to information they need to participate in our democracy.

Disclosure: Some projects mentioned in this newsletter may be funded by Democracy Fund. You can find a full list of the organizations here.
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