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July 6, 2015, 12:53 p.m.
Audience & Social

A program in New Jersey is trying to get people to care about local news through community organizing

Free Press’ News Voices: New Jersey is meant to be “community-driven as opposed to being newsroom-driven.”

In all the conversations around the changing nature of the news business, the advocacy group Free Press thinks one group has been left out of the conversation too often: consumers.

As a result, the group has launched News Voices: New Jersey, an 18-month pilot program that will use community-organizing tactics as part of an effort to connect with news consumers across the Garden State and get them interested in the state of local news.

“We wanted this idea to be very community-driven as opposed to being newsroom-driven,” said Mike Rispoli, who is leading the effort for Free Press together with Fiona Morgan. “How do we protect journalism’s role as the fourth estate? We think that a project like News Voices can actually do that by allowing for the public to participate in that future of journalism discussion with the hope that by bringing them into the fold, by allowing the public to participate that they’ll actually be invested in its future.”

Starting this fall, News Voices will hold forums in six cities around New Jersey to try and reach constituencies throughout the state. The idea is that these forums will help News Voices develop tools to help communities better engage with their local news organizations. Though the project is still in its earliest days, Rispoli said he could imagine things such as guides instructing readers on how to successfully engage with newsrooms by pitching stories or writing effective letters to the editor.

“We’re going to try and come up with some ideas for people to work together coming off of that,” Rispoli said. “That may take the form of some joint projects. Like newsroom/community reporting projects. But we’re looking more to facilitate that discussion coming off of the forums rather than saying these are the types of things you should be doing.”

News Voices also plans to publish two research papers over the course of the program — one an assessment of the media ecosystem in New Jersey and the other based on the results of the forums and what News Voices learns through the project.

Despite the community focus, News Voices also says its committed to working with New Jersey news organizations of all sizes. Rispoli, himself a former journalist in New Jersey, said they’ve already had preliminary discussions with outlets throughout the state — from the Star-Ledger in Newark to the online startup Jersey Shore Hurricane News.

Though News Voices hasn’t reached any set agreements with news organizations yet, Rispoli said the outlets were interested in the ideas News Voices has put forward, noting that they were intrigued by the idea of having committed community members willing to advocate on their behalf.

“I was not sure how newsrooms would react to this idea, because I think that there is a natural and understandable reflex against anything that smells of advocacy when it comes to journalism, and rightfully so, he said. “I understand that. But I think there’s also an understanding that if you’re going to be a successful media outlet that you need to have a lot of acceptance from local communities.”

News Voices is being funded jointly by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Knight Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight also supports Nieman Lab.) For the Dodge Foundation, News Voices fits into its larger focus of funding media projects throughout New Jersey.

“This is a piece of a larger strategy we’re putting in place in New Jersey,” said Molly de Aguiar, Dodge’s director of media grants. In a blog post last week, de Aguiar encouraged Dodge grantees in all the areas the foundation funds to get involved with News Voices:

A note to all Dodge grantees who may be reading this: across our program areas, you consistently raise concerns about how little quality news and information there is about any of the issues you care about and work on every day. Here is your opportunity to get involved in this initiative and reshape local news and civic engagement for your community. This is not a journalism project for journalists only  —  we can work together to build better communities in New Jersey.

The New Jersey media ecosystem is a unique one as the state is split in half between the New York and Philadelphia media markets. As a result, smaller local media have an outsized influence, and Dodge has found a fertile environment to support local journalism.

That’s also why Dodge and Free Press are launching News Voices in New Jersey. Ultimately, if the pilot is successful, there’s a possibility that it could expand to other markets as well. “We think community organizing can present new models and tools for thinking about engagement,” said Josh Stearns, the director of journalism and sustainability at Dodge. “Tools and tactics that long have been used for activism can be used for a newsroom context.”

Postcard of people eating a picnic alongside the Garden State Parkway used under a Creative Commons license from the Boston Public Library.

POSTED     July 6, 2015, 12:53 p.m.
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