“In an age of participatory media, news demands participation. Or to quote Benjamin Barber, ‘People are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic.’ For people to pay attention to an important story, it’s possible that we need to work to make it possible for people to have an impact on the outcome of the story… Ideally, we can find better ways to do this than turning our Twitter icons green in solidarity with Iranian activists. Reporting on local civic issues offers the possibility of connecting people to opportunities for action in their own communities.” — Ethan Zuckerman (“Metrics for Civic Impact of Journalism”)
As a journalism funder, a common lament I hear from journalists and philanthropy colleagues is that the public is both uninformed and apathetic about civic issues — that people care more about cat videos and celebrity gossip than quality journalism. I don’t believe this.
I share Benjamin Barber’s view that “people are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic” and that, as Ethan Zuckerman points out, news rooms need to understand that news is a civic tool that people are eager to put to use, but are rarely given the opportunity.
At the Dodge Foundation, we fundamentally believe that community engagement is key to the sustainability of local journalism — and so do our colleagues at the Democracy Fund. This is why we have partnered with them to support “News Voices New Jersey,” a bold effort by Free Press to build meaningful relationships between local news rooms and their communities, to create a collaborative network of people invested in the future of local news toward vibrant, inclusive communities.
To understand this work, and start to see the possibilities and opportunities to reshape the local news landscape in New Jersey, we are sharing the announcement of the New Voices initiative below, led by Mike Rispoli and Fiona Morgan of Free Press.
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.
Free Press’ New Jersey Project Aims to Connect Newsrooms & Communities
by Mike Rispoli and Fiona Morgan
The conversation about the future of journalism has long focused on how to save newspapers, how to adopt new technologies for reporting and distribution and how to find sustainable business models to preserve the news as we’ve known it.
While these efforts are important, they focus on the business of journalism while overlooking journalism’s purpose — and the people it serves. Journalism isn’t just another industry; it’s the Fourth Estate, the institution charged with holding the powerful accountable. News organizations are supposed to inform their audiences and act in the public interest, and they play an indispensable role in any democracy.
But what happens to our communities when quality journalism diminishes or disappears altogether?
It’s not pretty. Communities lose out if they don’t have multiple news outlets that cover a variety of issues and feature a range of viewpoints. Studies have shown that when local news media is deficient or disappears altogether from a community, civic participation drops, corruption increases and lawmakers bring in less funding.
The future of journalism is, in fact, intertwined with how people participate in society. Communities need journalism, and newsrooms need communities — not as passive audiences but as active partners that will both shape and support local journalism and stand up for press freedom when it’s under threat.
We think the best hope for public-interest journalism to survive and thrive lies in engaging the public and empowering local media. That’s why Free Press is launching the project News Voices — as a way to connect newsrooms and communities and build a collaborative network of people invested in local journalism.
The first stop on this project is New Jersey. We plan to take what we learn there to other states across the U.S.
What Is News Voices?
Free Press had an idea a couple of years ago: What if we built a network of residents, civic leaders, journalists, academics and our amazing members, and brought everyone together to advocate for quality and sustainable journalism? If everyone has a stake in the future of news, shouldn’t we bring a diverse set of voices into the fold?
Free Press knows how to organize: Just in the last year we mobilized people to fight for real Net Neutrality and speak out against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. What we learned from those fights and others is that the best ideas come from the ground up.
In New Jersey we’re going to harness people power to foster better local journalism. We want to bring together people from a variety of backgrounds, with shared interests, to make our communities and local news institutions stronger. That begins by elevating residents’ voices and giving them a greater stake in local news reporting.
This is an opportunity to bring underserved communities, neighborhoods and people into the conversation about the future of journalism — and to make the media aware of and responsive to their concerns. News Voices will give people a platform to speak to reporters, talk about the issues they care about and feel connected to the outlets covering their neighborhoods.
This kind of engagement will also benefit news reporters and editors who keep being told to do more with less. Our goal is to give them more to work with — more sources, stronger community relationships, tips for stories, and, most importantly, a readership that’s invested in the news they produce.
Over the next two years, we’re going to meet with local leaders and newsrooms to deepen our understanding of media in New Jersey. We’re going to listen to people’s concerns, hold forums to spark conversations between journalists and communities, and facilitate concrete next steps to strengthen relationships between reporters and the audiences they serve. We’ll publish research on New Jersey media and what we learn in the course of this project. We’ll produce tools that will enable newsrooms to maintain this level of engagement once our project is complete, and we’ll propose policies for lawmakers to protect local journalism and safeguard press freedom.
Throughout this work, we’ll be transparent about our approach, the data we find and both our successes and failures.
Why New Jersey?
The crisis in journalism is affecting communities across the country. As print, online and broadcast news outlets large and small have closed their doors in the past decade, the greatest impacts have been on state government reporting and local-level accountability coverage. The online news ventures that have emerged to fill some of those gaps face an uncertain future.
The Garden State is a microcosm of these challenges and opportunities. New Jersey is one of the most underserved states when it comes to the news; if it were its own market, it would be the fourth largest in the country. But the state is sandwiched between two of the nation’s largest media markets, New York and Philadelphia, which means the area’s dominant broadcast outlets often overlook the issues New Jersey residents care about.
The lack of substantive broadcast media in New Jersey has given print media — local, regional and statewide — an outsized influence when it comes to reporting and providing information to communities. Given the state’s considerable government bureaucracy (565 municipalities, 12 forms of government) and history of government misconduct, local journalism has always played an important role when it comes to disseminating information and providing a check on power.
And there’s plenty to cover. The state has a nationally prominent governor with presidential ambitions. Communities in Asbury Park, Jersey City and Newark are undergoing major changes, leaving some longtime residents feeling ignored or disenfranchised. Atlantic City, known for its casinos and nightlife, is suffering from amajor economic downturn that could lead to bankruptcy. And towns throughout the state — particularly along the Jersey Shore — are still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed many homes and left many residents without jobs.
Perhaps because so many of these developments haven’t drawn the coverage they deserve, a healthy startup journalism community has sprung up in the state. Both nonprofit and for-profit online news organizations, like Brick City Live, New Brunswick Today and NJ Spotlight are growing audiences and gaining footholds in their communities. Projects like Jersey Shore Hurricane News are experimenting with social media platforms and unconventional methods of delivering the news. Montclair State University and Rutgers are researching the state’s media ecosystem and helping to build monetary and reader support for news entrepreneurs.
The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has led the way in philanthropic commitments to funding sustainable local journalism in the state. And the Dodge Foundation is joining with the Democracy Fund to support the launch of the News Voices project.
Building a Community Around the News
What News Voices brings to this dynamic network of local journalism outlets and institutional supporters is a focus on communities. We’re starting from the ground up and using organizing tools to reach out to residents, neighborhood groups, activists and other community leaders.
A key to all of this is understanding that we don’t have all the answers. To build a community around the news, we need to listen to residents and newsrooms to make sure they’re helping us drive this project.
That’s why we need to include as many viewpoints as possible. This project will succeed only if we hear from you. If you’re a journalist, tell us about the stories you want to report on. If you’re a member of the public, tell us how the media could better serve your community.
Original photo by Flickr user J. Stephen Conn
No union is more profound than marriage,
for it embodies the highest ideals of love,
fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.
In forming a marital union,
two people become
something greater than once they were.
As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate,
marriage embodies a love that may endure
even past death.
It would misunderstand these men and women to say
they disrespect the idea of marriage.
Their plea is that they do respect it,
respect it so deeply that they seek
to find its fulfillment for themselves.
Their hope is not to be condemned
to live in loneliness, excluded
from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.
They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.
The Constitution grants them that right.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
Finding effective board members is not for the faint of heart. It is hard work. Most boards have made it harder by having done it so poorly in the past that there are few left on the board unscathed and willing to try again — or anew.
So sad, because once you master the science of finding the right people, the rest is fun, assuming, of course, that you like meeting people and sharing your passion for the organization on whose behalf you seek board members.
Let’s break the science down into small steps that, if followed as the footprints on the floor used by dance instructors, will ensure your goal of having board members who understand both the organization and the job of being a board member for that organization before they even say “yes.” Mix in some art along the way and you will build a strong board that both understands its job and is willing (dare I say, “eager”) to do it.
This 12-step process should be led by the Governance Committee which will pull in everyone else, including the executive director, to assist in the implementation of the process.
- Write a board member job description. There are plenty of samples on the Web and you can always ask other organizations to share their board member job descriptions. Do understand that there is a difference in both form and function between a job description and a list of responsibilities. For example, I am well into my third decade working in a profession — academia — that has no job description, but does have an implied set of responsibilities. I am also well into my second decade of a job — executive director — where there is a very clear and explicit job description, with very clear and specific tasks and responsibilities stated within. The former position comes with tremendous independence and freedom (and not just academic freedom) and very little accountability to anyone other than myself. The latter comes with complete accountability to others. It isn’t happenstance that the former has just a list of responsibilities and the other a job description. Board members are absolutely accountable — to the public, to donors and to the mission.
- Create the ideal Board profile. Here’s where a little art is needed as board members must forget what is currently on the board and instead think about what is ideally needed on the board, while thinking beyond the mission. There is no value in packing a board with mission expertise that replicates what is on staff.
- Now see what you’ve got. This is where the actual — who and what is sitting around the board table now — meets the ideal — what we said we wanted and needed going forward.
- Identify the specific gaps and then prioritize them. Now you know what you are looking for — an ABC or an EFG.
- Target recruitment sources. Your smart phone is not a recruitment source! Those resources are the places where an A or a B or a C are likely to be during working hours, after hours, weekends, nights, etc. And this requires a little art, as you have to think creatively as to where folks can be found. Yes, places of work; so, approach the human resources department of a major corporation. Contact local chapters of professional associations or the formal/informal association of religious leaders in a community or a local college or university. Today, everyone wants and needs more than just diversity of skills; they want demographic diversity, as well. There is an increasing segregation of professional associations: National Society of Hispanic MBAs; National Association of Black Accountants; Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (love the name —Out in STEM); Association of Black Psychologists, Association for Women in Communications; Chambers of Commerce come without adjectives and with, including the Asian American Chamber, the Hispanic Chamber, the African American Chamber, National Lesbian and Gay Law Association. This list could go on and on. Most of these organizations have local chapters all around the country. Finding all of these incredibly rich sources of board members is simple science but also where some of that hard work comes in.
- Assign board members to reach out to each of the potential recruitment sources to explain your needs and see how they might help.
- Get your ducks in order: what information and materials will you share and when? (Do not make the mistake of sharing too little; the better informed a candidate is when s/he accepts an offer to join a board the more likely s/he will be an active board member.) What will the recruitment process look like? Who and how many will meet with a candidate first and will it be over the phone or face to face? What will happen next and with whom: a visit to the office; a site visit to see the mission in action; another interview? (And, yes, there should be more than one interview and a chance to see the mission in action.) What do you need and want to learn about the candidates, and where and how along the recruitment process will this happen? The more you treat the process, as you would a staff hire, the more successful you will be in bringing the right people on. Don’t forget the reference checks! Or, if just the mere mention of this makes you queasy, institute a requirement that everyone must serve six to 12 months on a committee before being eligible to be nominated to the board. This reduces reliance on the art of selecting the best people.
- Lots of hard work: implement the process you’ve built. Lots of art, too, in divining who will be a good board member and who won’t.
- Nominate viable candidates who are still interested in joining the board and hold the election.
- Notify candidates of their election and share with them the calendar of dates, times and agenda for the different components of the orientation program; assign a mentor to each new board member.
- Mark on the calendar the date for the mid-year “review” with each new board members.
- Now, breathe, and start the process again!
Laura Otten is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here.