Journalists love to wax nostalgic about the good old days before the internet and current pressures on staffing and budgets, but for some communities, the good old days of journalism weren’t all that good.

In the US, just as some neighbourhoods are food deserts that lack good local options to buy healthy food at affordable prices, some communities are news deserts, with few options for local information. The lack of local news outlets is a long-standing concern in the US state of New Jersey. 

The Great Recession only made matters worse, exacerbating long-standing issues with cuts at local newspapers and the elimination of state funding for public radio and TV. AOL’s hyperlocal play Patch came in to fill the gap, but quickly faded away.

When local news isn’t local

One would think that New Jersey, being on the populous east coast, would be well served, but sandwiched between the megalopolises of New York City and Philadelphia, large chunks of the media ostensibly serving New Jersey are actually focused on these big neighbours, rather than the cities and smaller towns in between.

For instance, it’s hard to believe, but the state does not have its own local network TV stations. “There is really very little New Jersey focused news on those airwaves,” said Molly de Aguiar, the media and communications program director for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. “The people have been so poorly served for so long because so much of it has come out of New York and Philadelphia.” 

What little New Jersey news that is broadcast comes from public radio, but five years ago New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cut state funding for public broadcasting. The state sold nine public radio licences and they were all bought by, you guessed it, stations serving New York and Philadelphia.

To address long-standing deficiencies in the local news market, the Geraldine R. Dodge and Knight foundations have partnered with Montclair State University to help build a new news ecosystem with a range of media groups from hyperlocal start-ups to established commercial and public news organisations, including public radio stations and major commercial newspapers in the state.

They are exploring how to build sustainable local news services that respond to community needs, and how to develop news services that help encourage people to be more engaged in their communities.  

Lessons in sustainability 

The cuts facing news organisations in New Jersey have been a double-edged sword, says Josh Stearns, Director of Journalism and Sustainability for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The cutbacks at both local newspapers and Patch saw a dramatic decline in the newsgathering capacity in the state, he said.

But it also led to many journalists striking out on their own to create something new. “What we are seeing in New Jersey is this flowering of hyperlocal news experiments,” Stearns said. “They are often the ‘mom and pop shops’ of local news, the one and two person, very local operations.”

“People are very tied to their local communities, and it is out of love for their community that they decide to start these local news enterprises,” he added.

 Many of these local news entrepreneurs are former staff journalists but some are just civically engaged citizens, he says, but adds that they are producing journalism that is good enough that it could run in any of the major metro daily newspapers in the state.

The Dodge and Knight foundations fund the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, and they have been working with the hyperlocals to find paths to sustainability.

Most of the news start-ups all launched with one revenue stream: advertising. During a two year project, Stearns has been working with them to develop two additional revenue streams. 

He is quick to stress that there is no silver bullet, and he says that what works largely depends on the community. Questions of sustainability are at the heart of the experiment, Stearns said, although they haven’t developed any completely novel revenue streams.

Instead, they are looking at what works best across the state and the nation, and are collaborating with the start-ups to find the revenue streams that are best suited to them and the communities they serve.

They have held focus groups and other community engagement efforts, and they “have done a lot of analysis of market opportunity,” he said. Stearns has a number of examples of what is working for the start-ups.

  • Crowdfunding – Two sites have found success with crowdfunding, which Stearns is quick to point out is a catalyst strategy rather than a sustainability strategy. “In both cases, the crowdfunding gave them a pool of money that they could invest in building longer-term sustainability strategies,” he said.

For one site in New Brunswick, New Jersey, it allowed them to invest in bi-lingual video, a service no one else was providing. Stearns likened the fundraising project to funding drives that are common on local public radio in the US, and Stearns said that he hopes that the site is able to turn this crowdfunding drive into a membership program.

In the lower east side of Manhattan, The Lo-down used a crowdfunding campaign to fund a “one-year solutions-journalism oriented series on businesses survival” in the neighbourhood. With the campaign, “(t)hey found common cause with other businesses in the community,” Stearns said. That led some businesses to support the campaign with substantial amounts, and helped create a sponsorship program that didn’t exist before. 

  • ServicesKevin Coughlin of Morristown Green has found success in selling videos of local events. The Dodge Foundation helped him create a price list for the videos, both to sell video coverage and also to provide video services for local groups. 
  • Events – Events have also become a revenue source for some sites. Sheepshead Bites, “a neighborhood news site serving the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn”, has launched a successful food event.

And, like a lot of small community newspapers, New Brunswick Today has launched a successful local awards program and awards dinner.
Stearns said that events is the revenue strategy they are most excited to experiment with, and they are researching how to operationalise events for sites too small to afford their own staff. “How many sites would it take to fund one person over a year planning events?” he asked.

A hub for services

The Center for Cooperative Media also offers other common services and shared resources that the news start-ups can tap in to, including the NJ News Commons. The foundations and the center also offer simple business and management consulting, such as learning how to prioritise their time “so they have the capacity to experiment rather than just getting out ‘x’ number of articles a day,” de Aguiar said.

They also offer some platform support with a responsive theme for the open-source CMS WordPress, and they are considering what back office services they might provide, such as the centralised services that small sites would have benefitted from, had they been part of a larger chain.  

Stearns and de Aguiar are both refreshingly frank about the challenges these start-ups face as well as the challenge of providing news across the state.

New Jersey has 565 municipalities. “It’s a lot for such a small state, and not nearly all of them, not even close, have their own news sources,” de Aguiar said. These small ‘mom-and-pop’ news start-ups must work hard to find a mix of revenue and business models that work in their communities. 

“One of the biggest takeaways [is that] this is very time- and labour-intensive work. We don’t pretend that it is not. We believe very strongly that it is worth the time and the effort,” de Aguiar said. 

Stearns and de Aguiar are looking to share what they learn in New Jersey with other funders across the country. And they are both incredibly positive that, with this new news eco-system, they can help build something that serves New Jersey citizens better than the metro-dominated news services of the past.

Stearns said, “In New Jersey, we have these very real struggles, but we also have these adventurous people who are striking out on their own and trying to change how news is done and try something new.”