A place-based foundation in New Jersey paved the way for collaborative news ecosystems
Much of what we know about how to strengthen local news ecosystems is the result of experimentation. One of the pioneers of that work is Molly de Aguiar.
Now president of the Independence Public Media Foundation in Philadelphia, she launched an ecosystem approach to media grantmaking while leading the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Informed Communities program from 2011 to 2017. The network she fostered in New Jersey continues to thrive, and it serves as a model for statewide news infrastructure and national-local funder partnerships.
“What I did at Dodge is not the way that I think many foundations would undertake this work,” de Aguiar said. “It wasn’t rooted in a lot of assessment and research and convenings. We didn’t have a budget to do that, and I was new at grantmaking, so I just jumped in.”
Before the term “news desert” came into parlance, New Jersey was a prime example: Situated between the media markets of New York and Philadelphia, the state received little coverage from the major media in either. In a 2009 essay for The New Republic, Princeton sociologist Paul Starr bemoaned the end of “the age of newspapers” and predicted a new era of corruption, citing his home state as case in point. Drastic cuts at the Star-Ledger had hobbled statehouse reporting in a state known for flamboyant political scandals. Then in 2010, Gov. Chris Christie announced the state would eliminate funding for the New Jersey Network of public television and radio.
The Community Foundation of New Jersey convened a group of funders, academics, and public media outlets in 2010 to begin thinking about a way to respond to the crisis. The seed of an idea began to grow — creating a New Jersey-centric entity that could serve the state’s news needs. Dodge was at the table, and its new president at the time, Chris Daggett, had a strong interest in advancing democracy and local media’s role in it through the foundation’s Informed Communities grantmaking.
take a deep dive Into the media landscape
By 2012, the Dodge Foundation made a grant to help establish the Center for Cooperative Media (CCM) at Montclair State University as a statewide hub for collaboration and experimentation.
“We were bound by a very small budget,” de Aguiar recalled, “but we had a fundamental desire to support the entire ecosystem, and we believed that there needed to be an entity whose job it was to serve all of the newsrooms and journalists across the state. We were specifically looking for something that would be cohesive and collaborative.”
When Dodge received a grant from the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge later that year, de Aguiar invested in a handful of media outlets and supported CCM’s operations.
She worked closely with CCM’s leadership to convene across the state to better understand its information needs. Being part of the Knight cohort gave Dodge access to human-centered design workshops and help with network mapping.
An additional $2 million grant to Dodge in 2014 gave de Aguiar the resources to hire Josh Stearns to join her team and roughly tripled the amount of money she was able to grant over the next three years. While Stearns worked with five small newsrooms to understand their business needs, it was clear that community engagement needed to be addressed across the ecosystem. So Dodge made grants to the national advocacy organization Free Press for its News Voices: New Jersey project and to the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) to coordinate a large-scale collaborative investigation on toxic pollution.
“The investments fed into one another and strengthened the entire ecosystem,” she said. “While CCM was doing its work to serve newsrooms and build collaboration among them, the concurrent work by CIR and Free Press were also helping to build and strengthen the network of local newsrooms and journalists across the state. Those collaborations built on another’s successes.”
The investment from Knight also made is possible to fund more experimentation: de Aguiar connected New Jersey outlets with engagement services Hearken and GroundSource and hired the Listening Post Collective to work with Jersey Shore Hurricane News. She made additional grants to CIR to produce a theater and comedy show based on the toxic pollution reporting, which helped bring Dodge’s arts, environmental, and education grantees together with the media grantees.
“Through all of it, I learned some big lessons about ceding control of the grantmaking, trusting that the people closest to the work know what’s best, including what resources they need. I did my best to bring them those resources and then got out of their way.” De Aguiar also communicated frequently with grantees, encouraging them to connect with one another.
“I’ve always felt the sweet spot for grantmaking is to provide both operating support and some experimental funds,” she said. “It’s important to offer stability, but I’ve seen great things come from giving organizations extra resources and encouragement to be creative.”
Dodge also communicated publicly about the grantmaking through blog posts, conference presentations, and, eventually, co-founding the Local News Lab and the Local Fix (now managed by Democracy Fund) as resources for news organizations and funders.
Today, Dodge continues to build on the foundation of this collaborative news ecosystem.
Meghan Van Dyk, the current program officer for Dodge’s Informed Communities program, said this groundwork, as well as Dodge’s belief in providing general operating support to grantees, “continues to shape our thinking as Dodge develops refreshed strategies through our new vision of an equitable New Jersey through creative, engaged, sustainable communities.”
“The questions we’re asking foundation-wide boil down to how Dodge can focus our resources so those most directly impacted by structural inequities have greater voice, power, and influence,” Van Dyk said. “We value the role and importance of media and narrative in creating change and are exploring how our investments in the news ecosystem can ensure it is more reflective of and better serve African-American, Latinx, Middle Eastern, and Indigenous communities.”