Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The power of partnerships in strengthening community information

March 26, 2013, 9:02 a.m., Posted by John Mooney and Hans Dekker

Several years ago, Knight Foundation helped the Community Foundation of New Jersey support a digital news start-up aimed at statewide policy issues. Here,  John Mooney, founding editor of NJ Spotlight and Hans Dekker, President of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, talk about the potential and pitfalls of partnerships between funders and news organizations.

Knight Foundation Media Learning Seminar gave NJ Spotlight and the Community Foundation of New Jersey a great opportunity to share the lessons of the many partnerships that have gone into the three-year-old project.

No doubt, NJ Spotlight wouldn’t be alive today without the power of partnerships, including with the Community Foundation. Each provides support, reach and accountability that all make NJ Spotlight a better and more successful news service.

But there’s no secret that they come with plenty of tests and challenges, too, and we thought that important to get across to the audience in Miami.

We broke it down into three categories of partnerships: financial, content, and governance.

RELATED LINK   

Case Studies: "How Four Community Foundations Information Projects Went From Idea to Impact"

                       

In our financial partnerships, foundations especially are getting very focused in their funding, where some provide operational support, others are growing very specific to beats and topics. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation specifically funded our health beat. Knight Foundation’s latest funding centers on coverage of the Hurricane Sandy recovery.

That of course, is not a bad thing, but it does require a change in mindset where you are choosing to cover specific beats related to the funding that is available for them.

Hans described the “fault line” in this kind of funding, where foundations will require more and more focus on the coverage and journalists chafe at the notion of maybe losing editorial control.

Earned income and the partnerships derived from sponsors and others bring their own host of challenges, too. NJ Spotlight still only draws about a quarter or third of its overall budget on this income. With limited traffic to what is largely a policy site, it’s hard to change the equation without moving broader to draw more readers. But then do you lose the brand and attractiveness of in-depth policy analysis – the “spinach” -- of the product we have created? And moving into other potential revenue streams, including pay walls, poses its own perils of limiting access to the news and information.

Content partnerships have proven a little easier, where sharing across platforms only adds to the exposure and reach of the service. Few of our partners pay as yet – and those that pay are limited – so it is not lucrative financially, but there is little doubt that NJ Spotlight’s arrangements with virtually all the public media in the state and much of the private media has put our work in front of more and more people.

The challenges come in breaking down the traditional competition that exists between news outlets and the cultural differences between any institutions. We rely on producing daily content, and our timeliness don’t always mesh with others who may seek from us more long-term projects. Still, the mindset has changed through this, where we are less compelled to get the story out first but to provide a different or more contextual take on a story.

Governance partnerships, too, require a change in how we have always done our jobs. The Community Foundation serves as NJ Spotlight’s fiscal agent, and its staff and board members also make up half of NJ Spotlight’s own board. That has put the foundation in the media business, not something they have any history with. Conversely, NJ Spotlight is mostly made up of former journalists who are not used to speaking to a board at all.

By and large, this governance partnership continues to evolve. There are tensions, to be sure, that largely revolve around the need for financial sustainability as it interacts with the foundation’s goals for civic engagement.  We are collectively trying to understand the appropriate ‘business plan’ for Spotlight and the type of content that the plan dictates. John spoke to the power of personal relationships in helping get through rough patches. Hans added that it’s like a parent with a teenaged child, someone they love to have around but also someone who needs to learn to fly on his own soon.

By John Mooney, founding editor of NJ Spotlight and Hans Dekker, President of the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

Read more in “How Four Community Information Projects Went from Idea to Impact.”