We Make The Road By Walking: Local Journalism and Building Community

I’m excited to announce that I am joining the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as their Director for Journalism and Sustainability. After seven years working on journalism, media and technology issues at the national level I’ll be rolling up my sleeves and working with an emerging network of local news sites around New Jersey and New York City. We are going to be drawing on lessons from around the nation and launching a number of our own new experiments, helping newsrooms develop diverse, community-driven models for sustainability.

I’ve spent the last fifteen years working with a range of national nonprofits to transform institutions and build stronger networks in journalism, education and conservation. My last seven years have focused specifically on supporting public-service journalism and freedom of expression through research, organizing and public policy. This has been hugely rewarding, but I’ve been increasingly eager to work more directly with journalists and newsrooms.

The Dodge Foundation’s approach to supporting journalism in New Jersey has helped the state become a vibrant testing ground for meeting community information needs. New journalism start-ups are reinventing how reporting is done, but too often, journalists do not have the resources, flexibility, or support to bring that same level of creativity to building more sustainable newsrooms.

In a recent survey, Michele McLellan found that more than 60 percent of local news sites increased their revenues in 2013, but only one third actually reported a profit and half are scraping by with less than $50,000 in revenue. My hope, is to bring new capacity to these newsrooms, freeing them up to take risks, experiment with new ideas, build community and learn as we go.

I’m lucky to be working with an amazing team on this project. Molly de Aguiar and Chris Daggett at the Dodge Foundation are asking all the right questions and blazing new trails for how a foundation can build and support post-industrial journalism networks. The Center for Cooperative Media and New Jersey News Commons at Montclair State University are uniting journalists across the state and pushing collaborative models for editorial projects and back-end support. Jeff Jarvis at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism as well as Garry Pierre-Pierre at the Center for Community and Ethnic Media are advising the project and building a valuable library of resources and research.

The energy and passion in New Jersey journalism circles was evident last week when more than 200 people gathered at the Innovating Local News summit hosted by Montclair State University. At that event, Chris Daggett, the president of the Dodge Foundation outlined the goals for this new project:

  • Developing and testing new models for financial sustainability.
  • Expanding community engagement efforts, understanding local audiences and listening to local stakeholders.
  • Strengthening the quality of local news through trainings, coaching and legal support.
  • Growing the ecosystem to get more people than ever involved in local journalism.

And most importantly, with all of these questions we are not trying to reinvent the past, but instead, thinking about how to co-create the future of news with our communities. We want to take a networked, ecosystem approach to these questions, one which fosters diverse, local solutions supported by regional and national collaborations.

“Our primary goal from the outset has been to build a news and information infrastructure of lasting value,” wrote Molly de Aguiar, the foundation’s Director of Media and Communications, in an email. Their strategic approach, focused on cultivating a diverse ecosystem for news, was recently recognized by the Knight Foundation which gave them $2 million strengthen and grow efforts in New Jersey and beyond. “With Knight’s continued support, as well as other foundation partners, we’re poised to significantly expand our efforts, particularly related to exploring revenue opportunities, growing the number and variety of news and information outlets in the state, and nurturing creative and sustained community engagement.”

It is a big to-do list, but I couldn’t be more excited to get started. There is a lot we still don’t know about the road ahead, but sometimes you have to make the road by walking.

On a personal note, the mix of issues that the Dodge Foundation funds, beyond their media grantmaking, reflect many of my passions: education, conservation, the arts and poetry. I’m excited to explore the connections between all these different sectors which, like journalism, are reinventing themselves for our participatory, digital age.

The journalism sector needs more organizational architects who can help expand and strengthen public-service reporting. From data journalism to drones, new ways of reporting abound. Now it is time to turn that kind of creativity towards designing systems for communities and newsrooms to connect, collaborate and sustain each other.

Photograph by anemoneprojectors on Flickr, used under creative commons

* “We Make The Road By Walking” is the title of a book of conversations between the educator Paulo Freire and the organizer Myles Horton, both of whom have a lot to teach us about building community. Thanks to Kimberly Longey of Free Press, who introduced me to the term “organizational architect.”



  1. Congratulations, Josh, what a fabulous opportunity! I know the Dodge Foundation has been very generous to the NJ community for many years. As a former radio news director and reporter in NJ, I look forward to seeing the results of your work. Good luck!


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