To strengthen local news & information, community engagement is at the core

communities / Article

New Brunswick Today team member Kaila Boulware works an outdoor event in February 2015, part of a crowdfunding campaign to support the local watchdog-journalism website and newspaper, which is being supported by the Dodge Foundation. (Photo courtesy of New Brunswick Today)  

This post is one in a series on what four community and place-based foundations are learning by funding media projects that help to meet their local information needs. All are funded through the Knight Community Information Challenge.

For a New Jersey-based foundation immersed in a major effort to enhance a weak regional news and information system, "community engagement" is more than a buzz phrase. Project managers are promoting the idea that for local news and information providers, it is:

  • the right strategy to serve their communities;
  • the best way to improve the journalism and information that they produce;
  • and (perhaps) the ideal path to financial sustainability.

Alas, many mainstream news media have been and continue to be weak on community engagement. The best forms of engagement when it comes to local journalism involve interacting with - and as a result - understanding the needs of the community often before reporting a story -- not just afterward.


"Foundations take on projects to improve local news and information" by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 10/30/14

"Small news startups try to survive and cover 'ignored' New Jersey news" by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 11/19/14

"How Smart Chicago gets everyday people to guide future of civic tech" by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 12/10/14

"A foundation eager to act learns to listen first" by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 12/17/14

"In Wisconsin, a vacant newspaper building takes new life" by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 01/21/15

So say Josh Stearns and Molly de Aguiar of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who have honed in on community engagement as a cornerstone of Dodge's efforts to build a stronger news ecosystem for New Jersey. Their latest challenge has become not only to expand community-engagement activities by New Jersey and regional news entities, but to figure out what good community engagement is and discover best practices that can be deployed by local news organizations.

The last time I wrote about the place-based foundation's local-news efforts, it had begun supporting six small local-news enterprises serving audiences in New Jersey and some neighborhoods in New York City: Brick City Live, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, The Lo-Down, Morristown Green, New Brunswick Today, and Sheepshead Bites.

The Jersey news outlets, all of them relatively young, represent a start to reinvigorating local news for New Jersey residents, who have long lived with limited local news due to being dominated by the big New York City and Philadelphia media markets. Jersey residents have had to do with even less in recent years, following major cuts in jobs and coverage by New Jersey's larger and older mainstream news organizations.

Dodge’s emphasis early on was (and still is) to experiment with multiple revenue streams as a way to identify local-news sustainability models that work. Stearns, who is Dodge's director of journalism and sustainability, has been working with the six sites as coach and mentor, often nudging them toward revenue-generating experiments that touch on or are based in engaging with their communities.

He has also been seeking outside experts to work with all of the local news grantees. For instance, Dodge and Montclair University earlier this year brought in Melody Kramer, until recently a digital strategist and editor for NPR (and currently a visiting Nieman Fellow), for an all-day bootcamp on newsroom analytics and membership models, which Stearns wrote about here.  Each of the six Dodge local-news grantees also is getting two hours of individual coaching time with Kramer, primarily to work on membership and loyalty programs.

Dodge Foundation grantee New Brunswick Today ran a successful online fundraising campaign, a form of community engagement, using the Beacon crowdfunding platform.  

Membership programs for local-news organizations, whether for- or non-profit, are a promising revenue opportunity. (Just ask Texas Tribune.) But as important as a revenue stream is, membership itself is a great way to get news consumers more engaged in a newsrooms’ work. Buying a membership doesn't guarantee engagement; but a local-news organization can take advantage of its members to actively engage a slice of its audience that's already expressed a devotion to the news brand. Examples would be to invite members to join a focus group or online forum where they can advise editors on what they want to see covered, or invite them to a members-only event with a newsmaker.

de Aguiar, Dodge's director of media, cites parallels between the emphasis on identifying and delivering a list of multiple, working revenue streams for local-news providers to choose from, and community-engagement techniques and activities. She and Stearns are working on developing a "menu" of engagement ideas that the six grantee sites – and other local-news providers in and outside of the New Jersey/New York City area – can utilize.

"Just as we want our news partners to have a number of revenue streams to choose from," says de Aguiar, "they will need multiple community-engagement techniques to select from as well." Small news organizations have come to understand the importance of multiple revenue streams in the digital age; they also need to deploy multiple engagement techniques and activities.

Stearns and de Aguiar are busy hunting for the best examples of successful community engagement that can work in the context of local journalism. There's some good stuff out there: de Aguiar is a fan of the news-engagement ideas suggested by Jennifer Brandel of Curious Nation. Steve Buttry, visiting scholar at Louisiana State's Manship School of Mass Communication, has written extensively on ideas for news engagement.

Some of the ideas from those experts and others include what traditional-minded journalists might consider heresy: Letting the community know in advance what is being planned, so residents can inform and participate in reporting. … Inviting members of the public with expertise in a topic to accompany a local journalist on a reporting excursion. … Asking residents what questions they have, then assigning reporters to news projects that answer those questions.

The Dodge media team will be bringing the best of the engagement experiments and models to their local-news grantees, so that they'll give them a try with some help from the Dodge Foundation. de Aguiar’s hope is that the news operations will become more participatory at their core, and thus increase likelihood for long-term sustainability.

At the core of Dodge's work to grow the New Jersey news ecosystem is the belief that "community engagement improves the journalism" that news providers produce, says de Aguiar. "That is how we're approaching this." It's expected that engagement, done well, also will improve local-news organizations' financials.

Steve Outing is a writer and digital media consultant.

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