Collaborations between newsrooms and community members could be key to saving local news, says an expert in journalism and community engagement.

By Allison Ridgway for the Local News Conference

Collaborations between newsrooms and community members could be key to saving local news, says an expert in journalism and community engagement.

Growing sustainable journalism models in areas that are underserved by  local news organizations is more complicated than aiding individual outlets, says Josh Stearns, associate director of the U.S.-based Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program. Instead, he said, stakeholders must find innovative ways to bring newsrooms and community members together to maintain local news.

“The health of local media used to be easily measured by the health of a few institutions,” Stearns said at a recent conference on the future of local journalism. “Today, we have to understand not just the health of individual organizations, but also the networks and relationships between them. We have to understand both the newsrooms and the ecosystems they are a part of.”

Stearns’ luncheon address at the conference, which was hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, focused on finding a framework for creating healthy local news ecosystems.

“The future of local news,” he said, “will be built not as a series of disconnected institutions, but as a network of connected and collaborative ones that, together, create a diverse, vibrant public square.”

While working with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 2014, Stearns and Molly de Aguiar created New Jersey’s Local News Labto study interventions for struggling news ecosystems. They worked with six small New Jersey outlets – both online and print – to experiment with new strategies for community engagement, collaboration and financial sustainability.

After one year, all six participating newsrooms saw increases in web traffic and engagement and all developed at least one new revenue stream. Local journalists also ended up with better connections with citizens and fellow reporters thanks to the creation of collaboration hubs, the sharing of common training and support services among newsrooms, and new community engagement initiatives.

The Local News Lab, along with other organizations and universities, created new shared service programs including the Sales Academy, a program that offers newsrooms marketing and ad sales training, and an online list of legal questions and answers for New Jersey journalists.

“I think that a healthy news ecosystem is one that is cohesive, and a cohesive news ecosystem is one that balances the need for collaboration with the role of competition,” said Stearns.

Stearns found that shared services like legal networks and technology co-ops can help small newsrooms become more efficient and enable them to use each other’s strengths – from social media development to community event planning – to ensure that the entire news ecosystem thrives.

Collaboration also means working with community members who need local news to make informed decisions and have their voices heard, he added.

Free Press, for example – one of the Local News Lab’s newsroom participants – created the “News Voices New Jersey” to invite community members to meet with journalists and discuss local issues that mattered to them. Strategies included public forums, community advisory boards and events hosted by the newsroom.

Another Lab participant, the Media Mobilizing Project, created numerous community storytelling projects to give a voice to community members and issues often ignored by the media. One example of this was a video series about casino workers organizing and fighting against poor working standards.

“Right now the incentives to do community engagement work are up against the incentives for getting as many stories and bylines on a page as possible at any given time,” Stearns said in an interview before the conference. “But some news organizations are realizing that deep engagement with communities is fundamental to the sustainability of local news.”

While connecting with community members, many of the news organization participants found new ways to create readership incentives. For example, more than 500 people signed up to a loyalty card pilot program during Brick City Live’s first year with the Lab, and the Newark-based news blog used their initial revenue to create a sustainable app-based version of the program.

Most recently, the New Jersey legislature introduced a new bill that would allocate $100-million from the state budget to support public interest-media in the state. Free Press used the connections it had made with the community and other newsrooms to advocate  for this legislation.

Stearns, who joined Democracy Fund one year ago to take the experimental models into areas with compromised local news systems, said the project is  currently identifying three to five regions where its Ecosystem News Project will support local news innovation in ways similar to the approach used in  New Jersey.

The methods employed to address  New Jersey’s local news issues won’t work for every new region, he said, as all news ecosystems are different, but the framework created will help the organization collaborate and form a “deep partnership” with local stakeholders.

“We’re not going to be a national funder who swoops in and says, ‘Here’s how we fix the news,’” said Stearns. “We’re going to say, ‘Here’s what we’ve learned, here’s some resources – let’s work together.’”