May 23, 2023
What we learned from almost 10 years of the Local News Lab: Transformative grantmaking means letting go
By Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns
This is the story of a $2 million grant that has had a sprawling impact on local journalism and journalism funding around the world for 10 years now. It’s also a story about all the things that wouldn’t exist without a leap of faith at a pivotal moment, and how funders too often miss profound opportunities for growth and change when we refuse to trust and get out of the way.
The story begins in 2011 when the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey launched a new “Informed and Engaged Communities” program, with a focus on making New Jersey a model for local news innovation in a state that (in)famously gets most of its local news from New York and Philadelphia media. Dodge’s CEO at the time, Chris Daggett, had spent years in public service and believed in the role of media and storytelling in creating a healthy democracy. The program was led by one of us (Molly) and the other (Josh) joined the team later. The budget was tiny – about $250,000 a year – which didn’t match the boldness of the vision or the urgency of the need.
We knew we would need strong partners to transform journalism in the state. We initially found that partner in the Knight Foundation’s Community program. After a pilot grant, Knight invested $2 million over two years and encouraged us to experiment like crazy, take big risks, and spend the money on whatever seemed to be working locally. They trusted local leaders and communities to chart the path forward. That led to groundbreaking community engagement projects, creative revenue experiments, and it helped shift the relationship between newsrooms, nonprofits, and communities across the state.
That level of trust in local wisdom and solutions is far too rare. How many funders can truthfully say they create these kinds of opportunities regularly, or even at all?
We recently stepped back to trace the biggest ripple effects from our work together starting a decade ago. We wanted to make visible what is possible when a funder trusts its partners, and gives them the freedom to dream and, importantly, the resources to act. This story is not linear, but we’ve organized it semi-chronologically. None of what follows is about us, or meant to claim credit. Every one of the changes we describe below were made possible by networks of people working tirelessly towards a shared vision.