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June 16, 2014, 11:52 a.m.
Business Models

In New Jersey, with $2 million from Knight, the Local News Lab launches to seek revenue models

Six pilot sites will serve as guinea pigs as the Local News Lab tries to locate solutions for a sustainable news ecosystem in New Jersey.

The Local News Lab launches today, supported by a $2 million grant awarded by the Knight Foundation in February. The site will showcase the progress of six New Jersey-based local journalism sites being incubated by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in an effort to “try to understand and develop viable revenue models for both nonprofit and for profit news organizations.”

“The New Jersey effort is part of a strategic decision to really drive investment and double down on the ones where we saw the greatest amount of progress,” says Knight’s director of journalism and media innovation John Bracken. He said the Dodge Foundation “in particular has really run with it, in terms of driving investment in news and information projects in New Jersey.” (Full disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)

The grant is supported by both Knight’s journalism program and its Community Information Challenge initiative, which traditionally offers matching grants to local community organizations looking to fund media programs.

In this round, however, Knight decided to forgo the matching grants and instead increase its giving to four organizations. One of those was the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which has supported media in New Jersey for the last three and a half years, and has previously received Knight funding in conjunction with WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio and Montclair State University — those three organizations split $800,000 in 2012. (Update: We originally had WHYY listed here instead of WNYC/New Jersey Public Radio — sorry.)

After the announcement in February, Josh Stearns was brought on as director of what would become the Local News Lab. “Knight has been investing a lot of money in creating a culture shift at community and place-based foundations,” he says. “This fits within that.”

In some ways, the Local News Lab is a consolidation of many efforts in the local news arena in New Jersey in recent years. CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis and Montclair University’s Debra Galant have both led efforts to encourage and support a healthy news ecosystem in the region, and Dodge has been committed to supporting community media in the region, giving a total of $2.2 million to New Jersey media organizations. Now, Knight and Dodge are teaming up to throw big support into learning how community engagement can make a local news organization sustainable.

“Not everything they do is going to work. A lot of the things Josh is going to try are not going to work,” says Bracken. “Learning that, having them be able to articulate what does and does not work so that all of us — those of us at the funding level as well as at the execution level on the ground — can benefit.”

New Jersey, nestled between Philadelphia and New York City, is an interesting media market — at once proven to be fertile ground for hyperlocals, but underserved by mainstream media. “Given New Jersey’s relatively small size, we have always seen this as a statewide effort and potential model for other states, rather than focusing on one particular city or region within the state,” writes Dodge’s Molly de Aguiar in an email.

The Local News Lab is launching with six pilot sites — Jersey Shore Hurricane News, Brick City Live, The Lo-Down, Morristown Green, New Brunswick Today and Sheepshead Bites. The sites have staff sizes ranging from one to four, and each focuses on local news in their region. Stearns says the sites take a range of approaches, with some recently founded while others have been around for a decade.

“We want this to be a testing ground,” says Stearns. “I think one of the core premises here is there’s not going to be a silver bullet.” The idea is to see what revenue strategies — e.g., events, membership, advertising — work for what kinds of sites, and to produce materials that can serve as guidelines for other news organizations. Stearns is especially interested in pulling from community engagement strategies outside of journalism — for example, he’s been looking at things like political organizing and citizen science to figure out how they can be applied to local journalism.

Bracken says Knight has done research into the relationship between sustainable business practice and community engagement. “Just launching with foundation support or sponsorship — if you don’t have engaged audiences, the likelihood of longterm success and sustainability becomes much lower,” he says.

Over the two-year grant period, the Local News Lab will produce regular posts about their progress, and work to connect local news entrepreneurs with national leaders in business and technological strategies for journalism. One thing Stearns says he hopes to work out soon is what kinds of resources can be shared by a news network. For example, the Investigative News Network now employs a small team that works on tech issues for all 100-plus of its members. Could that work for the local New Jersey news ecosystem? What about shared resources around ad sales, legal support, or insurance? Asks Stearns: “Do we want to create or help foster somebody who is doing a wedding planner model but for news events?” These are the questions the Lab will be working to answer.

Stearns says his team is still working out what the metrics for success will be for the Lab, but it’s clear that sustainability is the primary goal — not just for the pilot sites, but for anyone trying to produce news in and around New Jersey. “Sustainable has to mean more than paying the bills. Some of the sites I’ve been talking to, those folks work around the clock, seven days a week. That’s not sustainable,” he says. “The challenge for them is they’re working flat out every day to get content on the site and sell the ads they have. The key for them is I’m here, Debbie is there, Jeff is there — we’re putting together a team that’s built around supporting them.”

Bracken also cited the leadership of Dodge’s Chris Daggett and the unique attributes of the New Jersey media landscape as reasons for Knight’s unprecedented support of local journalism efforts there. The other grantees in Knight’s community round were the Smart Chicago Collaborative, Wisconsin’s Incourage Community Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, none of whom were awarded more than $500,000.

Map of local news sites in New Jersey from C.W. Anderson and Katie McCollough’s report, “The New Jersey Media Ecosystem: Distributed News in a Digital Age.”

POSTED     June 16, 2014, 11:52 a.m.
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