July 27, 2015

Molly de Aguiar: "Fundamentally, our work is about building relationships and trust"

A conversation about public media in the Garden State with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s Molly de Aguiar

WATERSHED: Your organization is a longtime, mainline public-media funder — and a household fixture in North Jersey in the ’70s and ’80s, via the public-broadcasting anchors WNET and WNYC. How has the emergence of the small news nonprofits shaken up a public-media landscape that’s traditionally been oriented around large, centralized public-media institutions?

DE AGUIAR: The Dodge Foundation has indeed made many grants to public media over the past 35 years or so, but we didn’t actually have a specific “media” or “journalism” focus until about five years ago.

We felt compelled to do more comprehensive grantmaking in support of local news here in New Jersey in light of the dramatic shifts in the media landscape and an ever more urgent sense that we need strong local journalism for our communities and for democracy to thrive.

New Jersey has a very challenging media landscape — local news has always been in short supply because much of the news we get comes from New York or Philadelphia. You referenced WNYC and WNET as staple public media stations in your north Jersey household — those are both based in New York.

In fact, the state of New Jersey eliminated its support for public media in 2011 and transferred the public radio and television licenses to WNYC and WNET in New York and WHYY in Philadelphia.

However, over the past several years, a network of locally-owned and operated community journalism sites has been emerging alongside the remaining legacy media. These sites are being helmed by diverse local stakeholders, from former newspaper journalists to concerned community members and citizen reporters.

And this ecosystem of sites — large and small, nonprofit and for-profit — presents an opportunity, we believe, to better serve communities by being more collaborative and connected to one another, and by meaningfully engaging the public around the news and information that communities identify as being most important to them.

It’s fascinating how ideas about networks, news commons and news ecosystems have taken root in New Jersey and not, for example, in the cutting-edge, entrepreneurial Bay Area. What are the conditions in the Garden State that have produced this focus on innovation in practice and organization, rather than on technology and killer apps?

Our efforts to support and strengthen the local news landscape in New Jersey have grown out of necessity — a sense of alarm for losing what few local sources of news and information we had as the digital age disrupted the business of journalism, but also a sense of excitement and opportunity for reimagining what a 21st century news ecosystem looks like and establishing New Jersey as a leader in local news innovation.

Full_Color_Dodge_Logo_for_Websites_and_OnlineWhen we launched our focus on journalism funding five years ago, I think we were lucky to have an incredible mix of smart, talented people like Debbie Galant and Jeff Jarvis, willing to lend their expertise to help guide this experiment.

And I don’t think this effort could have happened without philanthropic dollars to launch such an ambitious effort, including our partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

There are too few funders in the U.S. who see journalism as crucial to strengthening the fabric of our communities.

You mentioned technology and killer apps — those are tools, as you know, that are often helpful and sometimes not. But fundamentally, our work is about building relationships and trust among and between news organizations and communities.

We have done this by establishing the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which provides an incredible array of support, services, learning opportunities, and a collaborative community for journalists in New Jersey.

We are also working hand in hand with a number of partner sites to better understand what sustainability looks like for a local news organization, which we believe includes a diversity of (earned and contributed) revenue sources as well as robust and meaningful community engagement.

All of this work takes a massive amount of time and patience — building relationships is very labor intensive. Technology and apps can certainly facilitate and improve the work, but people power and human connection will always be needed too.

In terms of impact funding, with its need for data, how does the foundation’s theory of change quantify and define that sense of urgency? Does the foundation’s fundamental work of “building relationships and trust” make it necessary to expand our understanding of the actual information needs of communities?  

Our metrics for success are multi-layered, so there’s not a simple answer to this question. We care about the individual health of the partner sites we work with: are they creating new, solid revenue streams? Are they expanding their audiences? Are the owners of these sites able to pay themselves? Do they have to work 80 hours a week just to make ends meet?

But also, is the ecosystem itself healthy and growing? And, are we successfully facilitating better, deeper relationships between local news organizations and their communities? Is that resulting in more community investment in local news?

Philanthropy requires a lot of patience. This work is just starting, and I don’t think we’ll have clear answers to most of these questions – at least not the macro level questions – for some time.

To your second question, understanding the actual information needs of any community is fundamental to the sustainability of local journalism whether in New Jersey or elsewhere — it needs to be relevant to people’s lives.

A transformative factor for small producers is low-friction backbone services. How do ideas of networks, ecologies and the commons open up possibilities for shared services in operations, technology, marketing, development?

Sharing and collaboration are the new currency in this digital media landscape, and that includes content as well as the back shop functions you pointed out.

The Center for Cooperative Media has done a great job facilitating content sharing among news organizations across the state through its Story Exchange. My Dodge colleague Josh Stearns is currently exploring shared back-shop functions with our six local partner sites.

We launched a shared website tech-support back shop, which our partners thought they wanted, but after some experimentation, they realized that what they really wanted graphic design support more than IT support. So we’re looking into that.

We’ve also set up some legal support with a partnership with Rutgers-Camden, and the Center has an OPRA Sherpa which will help news sites craft and submit OPRA requests as well as staff who can help make legal referrals.

We are exploring a number of other shared functions including ad networks, sales support, accounting and events coordinators.

This is a huge area of opportunity for the sites as well as for entrepreneurs looking to build businesses serving the NJ news ecosystem.

Another Knight grantee along with the Dodge Foundation is Radiotopia, which amounts to a very interesting investment in pure infrastructure and program development. How has the philanthropic landscape changed for journalism-infrastructure projects? Should the other service and membership organizations out there be paying attention?

This is an interesting question. The trend in philanthropy is not to fund infrastructure — not to give general operating support and capacity building grants. It’s often more attractive to fund discrete projects with clear goals, outcomes and a set timeline.

Funding infrastructure requires patience, and philanthropy often doesn’t have enough patience.

I’m grateful that one of the Dodge Foundation’s core values is to make general operating support grants, recognizing that nonprofit have to pay rent and salaries and all the other costs of doing business.

We severely handicap nonprofits when we refuse to give operating support. Dodge also provides a variety of capacity building workshops for our grantees on how to build and develop a nonprofit board and also how to improve your organization’s communications; these wrap-around services are really critical for nonprofits.

So, it was a logical move, when we launched our Media grantmaking program, to focus on the infrastructure needs of the New Jersey news ecosystem — given the need for infrastructure support as well as Dodge’s willingness to give that kind of support.

In order to best support the whole ecosystem in New Jersey, it was clear that we needed a centralized system/hub to offer that support, which is why our first grant was to establish the Center for Cooperative Media.

Service and membership organizations are also vital to providing support — although I think there are perhaps too many separate service and membership organizations, and that they should join forces to provide more robust services for the field.

I very much appreciated INN’s focus on sustainability for news organizations under Kevin Davis’ leadership, and I hope INN doesn’t move away from that.

It makes sense that service organizations could network or join forces in some manner, but on the flip side, the member organizations in the journalism field emerged to serve distinct needs, and especially the smaller, newer ones (such as INN) lack scale to derive revenue from members to develop high-impact programs across geographic regions.
I don’t know that I agree that member organizations emerge to serve distinct needs. There are lots of nonprofits out there that duplicate efforts because they’re unfamiliar with or unaware of what already exists in the field. Or believe that they can provide services better than others, so they start their own organization rather than trying to improve upon what exists. (This is true of all nonprofits — I’m not limiting my comments to just the journalism field or membership organizations).

Is the future of journalism-service organizations one of large centralized institutions or of networks of small, highly focused bureaus?

I doubt the future of journalism service organizations is either or — it’s both large and small, centralized and decentralized, but I would like to see more connections and collaboration between them. There are probably some mergers that would make sense too.

Public media has a long history of content commissioning, especially on the film and video side. Do you see any opportunities for commissioning to take on a more significant role for all the “new public media” coming up in the digital medium?

I’m going to punt on this question primarily because I’m not focused on content at all right now — although I get many many requests to support content for public media.

I will say this: if I transition to funding content, I would seek out work that better reflects the diversity in our communities than the requests I currently get.

The public-broadcasting divestment by the state of New Jersey in 2011 took place under Gov. Chris Christie, and the subsequent emergence of the community-media projects you describe seems like an almost organic response. What are the characteristics of the “information ecosystem” in New Jersey that is making (and will make) it possible for these community media organizations fill in the gaps?  

The divestment was perhaps a catalyst to what was already a shifting landscape, but the upheaval in the media sector — the democratization of publishing tools, newspaper industry layoffs, unemployed journalists, the major gaps in coverage — is what shaped the ecosystem we have in New Jersey.

I would recommend this blog post by Jeff Jarvis which is a very clear explanation of what we mean by the ecosystem concept and what it looks like in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Let’s close with a question of deepening concern — that of what I’m calling, for lack of a better phrase, “information inequity,” in which issues of social import and communities with acute information needs are more often than not overlooked by the systems we have built. What do we need to learn and understand in order to turn this around? What needs to change?

I’m glad you asked this question — it’s a big issue and one that I care about deeply. In fact, it’s probably what I care about the most.

The recent Pew research (“Local News in a Digital Age”) that studied Macon, Sioux City and Denver showed that while Hispanic residents in Denver and African-American residents in Macon follow local news at significantly higher rates than white residents in those cities and expressed a “greater sense of agency when it comes to improving their community,” there aren’t nearly enough news outlets and sources serving their needs.

Also, we partnered with the Democracy Fund to support research led by Rutgers looking at access to and availability of news and information in three cities in New Jersey — we’ll be releasing this research soon, but what we found about the disparities of access to news and information is both revealing and troubling.

We are currently trying to tackle this issue on several fronts in New Jersey (although there’s so much more I want to do):

On the journalism-education front, we support Dr. Todd Wolfson at Rutgers to help journalism students become better listeners and community members through community-based storytelling projects; this project also trains community members how to be media makers themselves, empowering them to tell their own stories.

Related, we fund Media Mobilizing Project on a just-launched project to work in several communities in New Jersey on citizen media/storytelling training, as well as The Citizens Campaign, which conducts comprehensive citizen journalism training.

We also support Free Press, in partnership with the Democracy Fund, to build relationships between local news organizations and their communities, which we believe will lead to greater participation and inclusion of diverse voices from our communities. The Knight Digital Media Center recently wrote a good piece summarizing that work.

We also have a new grant to New America Media to help build relationships with foreign language news outlets in New Jersey and nurture collaboration between them and the English language media.

I would also point out that ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting (both grantees) do tremendous work fighting for those who are the most overlooked and the most impacted by the systems we have built.

There’s so much work to do on this front. We need a bigger pipeline of journalists of color and more opportunities for them to take leadership roles in news organizations. We need more diverse news rooms at every level.

We also need to support and lift up community voices and have community-led (not just journalist-led) conversations.

There are many opportunities for philanthropy to support work that breaks down these entrenched systems we have built.

We welcome discussion and feedback on our work via the Local News Lab and also on Twitter:

  • Molly de Aguiar: @grdodgemedia
  • Josh Stearns: @jcstearns

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