New Jersey, long overshadowed by the media glare of New York City and Philadelphia, is poised to re-make the face of news.
It can’t happen soon enough, according to Chris Daggett of the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which is leading a philanthropic drive to transform the Garden State into a test-bed for journalistic ventures to augment “legacy” media ravaged by changing economics.
“I personally have an enormously deep and abiding concern about democracy, and it sounds a little bit grandiose, maybe, but even the most jaded and cynical people in the country probably grudgingly agree that democracy doesn’t succeed without a thriving news system, and a thriving free press,” the Dodge president said Friday at a conference called Innovating the Local News Ecosystem.
The two-day event was hosted by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media, a Dodge-supported enterprise to incubate news start-ups and broker partnerships between them and news organizations weakened by shrinking advertising dollars.
Daggett cited 167 layoffs announced this month at The Star-Ledger, which has purged two-thirds of its staff in five years. New Jersey also remains among the few states without a commercial TV station, he noted.
The former gubernatorial candidate and state environmental commissioner made media projects a priority soon after he became president and CEO in 2010 at the Dodge Foundation, a private trust that has funded arts, education and environmental causes.
TEXTING ALDUS MANUTIUS
In February, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded a $2 million grant to Dodge for local journalism experiments. This followed an $800,000 Knight grant in 2012.
The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, delivering the conference keynote on Thursday, suggested there is no one-size-fits-all model for success in today’s swiftly evolving media landscape.
But he expressed a belief that local information will continue to matter to consumers, despite the global reach of their electronic devices. The winning entrepreneurs, he predicted, will be those who deep-dive into data to learn their users’ needs–and who remain nimble enough to re-invent themselves every two years as technology rockets forward.
Newton compared journalists on this quest to Aldus Manutius, the 15th-century Italian publisher who took Gutenberg’s printing press to the next level with small, affordable books for the masses.
More than 250 digital pioneers and indie publishers–some of them refugees from newspapers and AOL’s costly Patch experiment–participated in panel discussions about revenue streams, viral postings, collaborations with would-be rivals, and tools and mindsets for one-person, 24-7 newsgathering, among other topics on Friday.
They came from as far as the Pacific Northwest (The West Seattle Blog) and upstate New York (The Batavian, The Watershed Post). Speakers included Merrill Brown, founding editor of MSNBC.com who now heads the School of Communications and Media at Montclair State; USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer; Dean Praetorius of the Huffington Post, and media pundits Jeff Jarvis and Ken Doctor.
‘TIME TO BLOW THE DOORS OFF’
Many participants, representing online-only operations, are scrambling to re-brand themselves on the same internet that took a bite out of their former employers.
Disclosure: Morristown Green is one of them, as a member of the New Jersey News Commons. Centered at Montclair State and backed by Dodge, the 76-member consortium includes statewide sites like NJ Spotlight and hyperlocals including Baristanet, Red Bank Green, Planet Princeton, Elizabeth Inside Out, Cliffview Pilot and Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
“Our overall vision for the state is a thriving information and news ecosystem in which nonprofit and for-profit news and information organizations, as well as individuals, have access to the services, training and collaborative opportunities to provide the comprehensive coverage that we believe the state deserves,” Daggett told the conference.
“For me, democracy starts with citizen engagement. And citizen engagement starts where? At the local level. Not at the global level. Not at the national level. Not even at the state level. It starts at the local level, and all of you are involved, in many ways, at the local level.”
Few are more involved, or more closely watched, than Justin Auciello of Jersey Shore Hurricane News.
A professional planner, he started posting Hurricane Sandy updates on Facebook as a hobby. Now, his page boasts 220,000 followers who contribute photos and blurbs about traffic jams, car crashes and brush fires.
“I try to be a model for how ordinary, everyday citizens, through their own personal training–I trained myself–can make a difference in media,” said Auciello, who advised conference members to know their limits, always carry a smartphone charger and drink plenty of water when chasing breaking news.
The popularity of JSHN led to a blogging deal with a Philadelphia public radio station, and a Dodge grant to replicate his Facebook experience on a personal website where he can sell his own ads. Citizen ‘Cane dreams of hiring staff and turning off his police scanner now and then.
“I hope I can build this to the point where I can take a breather when something happens,” Auciello said.
Dodge aims to encourage more risk-takers like this, according to Daggett. The Knight grant will be spent on programs to develop viable business models and promote community engagement, quality reporting and business skills, he said. Seed grants, training and legal support are anticipated.
“Now’s the time…to blow the doors off,” Daggett said. “It’s almost a civic obligation in my mind for foundations to be part of this.”
“Don’t rely on us totally,” Daggett cautioned. “You have to figure out the different means to bringing revenues that are not just foundation-based.”