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Josh Stearns tells us about the Democracy Fund’s work in rebuilding local news

Josh Stearns

On the latest “What Works” podcast, I talk with Josh Stearns, the senior director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund.

The Democracy Fund is an independent foundation that works for something very basic and increasingly important: to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges. Josh leads the foundation’s work in rebuilding local news. The Democracy Fund supports media leaders, defends press freedom, and holds social media platforms accountable. (Ellen Clegg was stuck in traffic somewhere on the Zakim Bridge in Boston for the duration of this show, but she’ll return for the next episode!)

In our Quick Takes, I poach on Ellen’s territory and reports on a development in Iowa, the Hawkeye State. When two local weekly newspapers near Iowa City recently got into trouble, their owner found an unusual buyer: The Daily Iowan, the independent nonprofit student newspaper. Now there are plans to supplement local coverage with contributions from student journalists.

It’s not something I’d like to see everywhere — after all, we want to make sure there are jobs for student journalists after they graduate. But at least in this case, it sounds like the Iowa solution is going to be good for the weekly papers, good for the students and good for the communities they serve.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Hermione Malone tells us how philanthropies can partner with local news outlets

Hermione Malone, left, of the American Journalism Project

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Hermione Malone, vice president of strategy and startups for the American Journalism Project. The AJP describes itself as a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization that focuses on supporting the future of local news. The organization makes grants to nonprofit news organizations, partners with communities to launch new outlets, and coaches leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

Hermione oversees local philanthropy partnerships. In that role, she helps nonprofit news startups get launched and nurtures coalitions of community stakeholders and local philanthropies. Her career has included work in diversity and inclusion and in community outreach. As executive director of Go.Be, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, she coached businesses owned by people of color and women, helping them figure out how to grow.

Ellen’s got a Quick Take is on Permian Proud, a pink-slime site put up by Chevron that provides a gusher of one-sided PR spin. Mine is on new research by Josh Stearns, senior director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Josh has fresh evidence that shows that local news is vital for democracy.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Northampton editor departs

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Update: Hauser’s departure was one of eight layoffs or voluntary buyouts, according to publisher Michael Moses. Joan Livingston, the editor-in-chief of the Greenfield Reporter, will become editor-in-chief of the company’s Pioneer Valley papers, a newly created position. And in an especially ominous sign, Moses uses the word “rightsize.”

Original item: I’m not sure how a daily newspaper is supposed to continue without its top editor. But Brooke Hauser, editor-in-chief of Northampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, tweeted earlier this morning that her job has been eliminated.

Josh Stearns, who lives in the Northampton area and has been working on projects related to the future of journalism for many years, expressed his condolences:

The Gazette is part of the Newspapers of New England chain, anchored by the Concord Monitor of New Hampshire, and is regarded as one of the better ownership groups. If anyone knows what happened, please feel free to send me an email or post something in the comments. But it looks like COVID-based advertising collapse has claimed another newspaper job.

The arrest of CNN journalists was shocking, but less unusual than you might think

The arrest and brief detention of a CNN crew on live television in Minneapolis early this morning was a stunning blow to the First Amendment. They were literally handcuffed and led away for doing their jobs in reporting on protests over the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

As the video reveals, the journalists were respectful, and correspondent Omar Jimenez clearly identified himself as a reporter. He told the state police officers several times that he and his crew would move wherever they were told.

That said, what happened to Jimenez and his colleagues was more common than you might realize — and more common than it should be. Last year, we bestowed a New England Muzzle Award upon Police Chief Armando Perez of Bridgeport, Connecticut for arresting and detaining Tara O’Neill, a reporter for Hearst Connecticut Media, during a Black Lives Matter protest.

“This is a public sidewalk and I’m the press,” O’Neill later recalled telling the officer who arrested her, according to media reports. “He said, ‘OK,’ and cuffed me.”

As with this morning’s Minneapolis arrests, the misconduct by police enabled them to operate without being watched by O’Neill and her pesky smartphone. Nevertheless, she was able to film her own arrest:


In a better-known case, Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, Missouri, during the demonstrations in 2014 over the killing of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by a white police officer.

Before that, Josh Stearns, now director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, put together a massive compilation of social-media posts documenting the arrest of journalists at Occupy protests around the country. (Here is a very small slice of what was going on from the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Storify, a tool for aggregating social media, recognized Stearns’ efforts with a “Storify of the Year” award.

Unfortunately, Storify later shut down, taking much of Stearns’ work with it.

Update. Stearns has posted a Twitter thread offering more background.


Update II. Noting that Jimenez is Black and Latino. A white CNN reporter standing nearby was not arrested.


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Thinking outside the (newspaper) box: Lessons from N.J.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Local news is the lifeblood of communities. But with traditional models of paying for local coverage no longer working, residents of too many cities, towns, and neighborhoods find themselves with little of the information they need to be informed, involved citizens.

Last week, the Local News Lab, launched by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation with funding from the Knight Foundation, issued a progress report on its first 18 months of working with community journalism projects in New Jersey. (Nieman Lab’s Joseph Lichterman laid out some of the findings here, focusing on the lessons for philanthropists; you can download a PDF of the full report here. And, full disclosure, Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab.)

The report is chock full of interesting ideas about collaboration, community engagement, and the role of philanthropy. Some of those ideas are so old that they’re new again. To wit: A $5,000 experimentation grant that was used in part to purchase newspaper boxes, thus saving New Brunswick Today some $300 a month.

Over the weekend, I interviewed the report’s authors, Molly de Aguiar, Dodge’s director of informed communities, and Josh Stearns, Dodge’s director of journalism and sustainability, over email. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

DAN KENNEDY: What is the most important takeaway for someone who reads your report and is thinking about starting a community news project?

JOSH STEARNS: For someone just starting out with a local news project, the most important takeaway from our report — and our work in general — is that we are stronger working together than we are working alone. And, frankly, this is the same advice I’d give to new startups and legacy newsrooms alike.

This idea plays out over and over again in our report. So many people starting up new newsrooms feel isolated (this is true of entrepreneurs in a lot of sectors), but by developing smart partnerships, by inviting people in, and by finding networks to plug into, journalists can develop new layers of support and strength. Jim Brady of Billy Penn describes this as huddling together for warmth. But this is true outside journalism too. Researchers point to community ties and neighborhood networks as the heart of resiliency in the face of crisis.

Professional networks like NJ News Commons and the Institute for Nonprofit News are critical for sharing lessons, testing ideas, and leveraging economies of scale while retaining the unique character of each individual community site. Partnerships like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s local/national work give local journalists access to expanded capacity, unique tools, and resources to tell stories in new ways. Finally, you need to build community around your work from the very start. Invest in your community and they will invest in you.

KENNEDY: In your section on $5,000 experimentation grants, we learn that in addition to using the money to build apps and engage with social media, one of the grantees used part of it to buy newspaper boxes. It made me wonder if we all tend to have too much of a knee-jerk orientation toward technology and innovation in reimagining local journalism.

STEARNS: You are right that we tend to have a vision of innovation that is biased towards technology solutions and platform approaches. Too often, innovation means pursuing a moonshot. But the way we approached innovation was focused on strategic changes rooted in community needs. Sometimes those changes were big and tech driven — new apps, creative social media experiments — but sometimes they were small and decidedly analog, like the newspaper boxes you mentioned.

For the experimentation grants, we worked closely with journalists to assess their newsrooms’ capacity and identify community needs. We defined innovation as something the newsroom could undertake that would change the way they serve community and help them approach revenue in a new way. Innovation doesn’t have to be about trying something never done before; it can simply be about applying an old idea in a new way or in a new context. What might be a failed strategy for some could be a game-changer for others.

When the goal is to shift culture in small newsrooms that are already stretched thin, sometimes you have to tackle a lot of small changes that together can add up to a newsroom that looks fundamentally different from where you began. Focusing on incremental innovation allows you to prototype ideas, fail safely, learn, and try again.

KENNEDY: You discuss ways in which crowdfunding and what we used to call public (or civic) journalism — in its simplest form, just a matter of listening to the community — can be effective ways of building an audience for local news. Could you discuss the challenge facing journalists who are dealing with fractured communities that, increasingly, have not cared all that much about local affairs?

: Communities that appear not to care much about local affairs probably actually care a great deal about local affairs but don’t feel empowered to participate in local decision-making in meaningful ways. We know from Pew’s Local News in a Digital Age report that residents in Macon, Denver, and Sioux City have a high interest in local news — and high dissatisfaction with local news coverage. People don’t see their lived experiences or their concerns reflected in their local news sources. The challenge for journalists, therefore, is building relationships with community members from all backgrounds and earning their trust, which is both time- and labor-intensive. There are no shortcuts.

We saw this play out very successfully with our partners at The Lo-Down, whose crowdfunding campaign raised more than $27,000 and was, in many ways, the culmination of years of important neighborhood coverage that gave a voice to community members concerned about gentrification and the loss of locally-owned small businesses. We wrote a blog post about it here.

KENNEDY: I detect a tension in one part of your report. On the one hand, you say philanthropic support should be used to pay for infrastructure and experimentation, not operating costs. On the other hand, you call for local donors and foundations to support journalism in their communities. Where exactly would you draw the line on grant money and local journalism? At a time when advertising is on the wane, doesn’t it make sense for philanthropies to step up and provide some direct funding on an ongoing basis?

DE AGUIAR: Actually, the report notes that “philanthropy’s most valuable role is to nurture networks, and provide a blend of operating support with experimental dollars.” We do provide operating support to nonprofit and public media in New Jersey, and have a long history of that. However, the work we describe in the report is primarily focused on the for-profit local newsrooms we are currently working with. And in their case, we are providing experimental dollars, not operating support, in order to help their businesses become stronger. We do not want to set a precedent of providing ongoing operating support to for-profit newsrooms.

We think the two most important messages to local donors and foundations in this section of the report are:

  • Many “mom and pop” for-profit local newsrooms are mission-driven community anchors that could benefit significantly from some short-term experimental dollars to strengthen their businesses and better serve their communities.
  • While funding a specific beat is a common strategy, there are many overlooked opportunities for supporting local journalism that foundations might consider — for example, funding infrastructure (legal support, web development, ad sales, etc.) that can substantially strengthen the entire field. There is no one right way — just many underappreciated options.

KENNEDY: What are the next steps for the Local News Lab?

DE AGUIAR AND STEARNS: We’ve got some exciting experiments and projects ahead regarding new revenue streams and community engagement.

With respect to the community-engagement bucket, we launched a number of projects last year that we introduced in our report — Hearken, The Listening Post, News Voices: New Jersey, Neighborhoods to Newsrooms, among others — and this year is really about giving those projects the space and time to blossom and document what we are learning. We are going to be looking at a few very different ways to bring communities into the reporting process and foster their investment in local news, including creative uses of art, theater, community organizing, and citizen journalism.

On the business side, we are looking at how newsrooms can create collaborations like PRX’s Radiotopia in the podcast space, to combine audience and reach bigger advertisers. We are also exploring how small local newsrooms can build profitable events strategies on a shoestring budget. But to some extent one of our next steps it to simply keep doing what we are doing — mentoring and coaching newsrooms to help develop more revenue streams, deepening their engagement with community, and further strengthening collaboration across the New Jersey ecosystem. We’ve made some amazing progress, but there is still a lot left to learn.

And we are going to be focused on further documenting and sharing all our work, not only in reports but also in concrete guides, sample materials and trainings.

Thinking about the future of local journalism

Recently I had a chance to interview three smart people about the future of local journalism:

  • Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, who is studying six digital startups in New Jersey and New York. (You can see my full interview with Stearns by clicking here.)
  • Meg Heckman, a University of New Hampshire journalism professor whose master’s thesis at Northeastern University was on the role of women at digital startups — and why women are more likely to be involved in hyperlocal sites than in larger national projects.
  • Tim Coco, the president and general manager of WHAV Radio in Haverhill, a mostly online community station (it also has a weak AM signal) for which Coco is seeking a low-power FM license.

I don’t get to make videos that often, but I wanted to scrape some of the rust off my skills for the benefit of my graduate students, who are currently making their own videos. My philosophy is that every journalist needs to know how to make a decent video with the tools at hand — in my case, an iPhone 5S, a portable tripod that I bought five years ago for less than $20, and iMovie ’11, also known as iMovie 9. (The newer iMovie 10 strikes me as slow and kludgy, but maybe I just need a faster computer.)

The one luxury I indulged in was a Røde lapel mic (known in the trade as a lav mic), which I bought for well under $100 just before I started this project. It made a huge difference — the audio is of far better quality, with much less interference from outside noise, than in previous videos I’ve made.

What I should have done, but didn’t, was use a better app than Apple’s built-in Camera so that I could lock in brightness and contrast. That way I could have avoided the sudden shifts from dark to light and back that mar my interview with Stearns.

Still, it’s useful to know that you can shoot a decent video without spending many hundreds of dollars on a professional camera and Final Cut Pro. I think there’s a tendency at journalism schools to believe that we’re selling our students short if they don’t get to use the latest and greatest technology. And yes, they should have a chance to use the good stuff. But they also need to know that many news organizations, especially smaller ones, expect their journalists to make do with what’s available.

Josh Stearns on local journalism and sustainability

Last week I had a chance to sit down with Josh Stearns to talk about his new job as director of the Journalism and Sustainability Project at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Dodge has received a two-year, $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation to study new ways of paying for local journalism, with an emphasis on civic engagement.

After a long stint as policy director of Free Press, whose headquarters was just a bike ride away, Stearns is now commuting from Western Massachusetts to New Jersey, where the hyperlocal sites he is working with are located. We talked on July 15 at his home in Easthampton.

Net neutrality and the future of journalism

This article was originally published by the media-reform organization Free Press and is posted here by permission. Josh Stearns is the journalism and public media campaign director for Free Press. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcstearns.

Josh portraitBy Josh Stearns

Tuesday’s court decision, which struck down the FCC’s open Internet order and threatened the future of net neutrality, has huge implications for the future of journalism and press freedom.

According to the Pew Research Center, half of all Americans now cite the Internet as their “main source for national and international news.” For young people the number is 71 percent. While we are nowhere near stopping the presses or tearing down the broadcast towers, the Internet is increasing how we distribute and consume the news today.

The future of journalism is bound up in the future of the Internet.

That is why net neutrality is so important and why the court decision this week should worry digital journalists and publishers. For newsrooms the decision means that a company like AT&T or Verizon could decide where their users can go for news and what stories get buried or blocked online. Verizon could strike a deal with CNN and hamper their users’ ability to access alternative news sources. Comcast could slow access to Al Jazeera, because it wants to promote its NBC news offerings.*

That’s why, in 2010, U.S. Sen. Al Franken argued that “net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time.”

No journalist or publisher should be held hostage by the commercial or political whims of an Internet service provider. In the end, however, the biggest media companies aren’t likely worried about this court decision. As Stacey Higginbotham wrote:

In many ways this will be a win for the large content companies such as Disney or Viacom. Yes, they might have to pay for prioritization on the broadband networks, but they have deep pockets and such a move would help them ensure their content continues to reach consumer eyeballs as the television industry fragments online. It’s possible we could see the emergence of a pay TV bundle of content that is either exempt from caps or just delivered with pristine quality while YouTube videos sputter.

But it is not just sputtering YouTube videos we need to worry about. It is people’s ability to access the independent journalism and diverse voices, which have thrived on the Web.

In 2009 a coalition of nearly 50 online journalism innovators sent a letter to the FCC, calling on the commissioners to protect the open Internet. “Net Neutrality ensures that innovative local news websites and national nonprofit reporting projects can be accessed just as easily as legacy media sites,” they wrote. “Net Neutrality encourages journalists to pioneer new tools and modes of reporting and lowers the bar for citizens to participate.”

Net neutrality is about creating a level playing field for all voices.

In an ironic twist, when it argued against net neutrality at the federal appeals court, Verizon claimed it actually had a First Amendment right to block and censor Internet users. And while the court largely ignored Verizon’s First Amendment claims, its ultimate decision essentially gave Verizon the green light begin “editing” the Internet.

As more and more news and information moves online, we need to ensure that the flow of online information is free and unencumbered. Traditional battles over press freedom are critical, as the recent Committee to Protect Journalists report so clearly showed, but today we also have to understand that keeping the Internet free goes hand in hand with keeping the press free.

The court decision this week is bad news for the Internet and for independent media, but it is not the last word in this debate.

The Federal Communications Commission can reclassify broadband as what it is: the fundamental communications infrastructure of our time. That simple action would re-establish its legal authority and ensure that its can protect consumers and journalists from online discrimination. Protecting freedom of the press can’t stop online.

* Because of the conditions placed on their deal to buy NBC in 2011, Comcast has to abide by net neutrality principles until 2018 regardless of this court case.

An innuendo-laden attack on Greenwald

Edward Jay Epstein has written an innuendo-laden column for The Wall Street Journal in which he strongly insinuates that filmmaker Laura Poitras and/or journalist/blogger/lawyer Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian criminally assisted Edward Snowden in leaking National Security Agency documents.

Epstein’s toxic brew of archly worded questions leads to the inescapable conclusion that he believes the two journalists ought to be investigated and possibly charged under the World War I-era Espionage Act.

Josh Stearns, who serves with Greenwald on the Freedom of the Press Foundation board, has some thoughts about journalism and the Espionage Act. He writes:

The First Amendment and press freedom questions that haunt the Espionage Act are particularly important right now. Changes in media and technology have put the tools of journalism and media making in the hands of more and more people, challenging old assumptions about who is a journalist and how journalism is done. Increasingly, independent journalists, nonprofit news outlets and citizens are playing critical roles in newsgathering and reporting on the most important issues of our time.

I don’t think Stearns gives sufficient weight to the idea that merely publishing leaked documents is, in fact, a violation of the law, and that investigative journalism depends on the hopeful notion that the government won’t use its authority. Otherwise, though, it’s a useful guide to the issues at stake.

More: Greenwald responds to the Epstein column in this Storify involving (mainly) Jeff Jarvis and Michael Wolff.

Breaking news, social media and verification

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of

Last Saturday I had the privilege of moderating a panel on “Covering Chaos,” a look at how nontraditional journalism and social media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath.

Panelists were three people who covered the events as they were unfolding, Andrew Ba Tran of and Northeastern University students Taylor Dobbs and Brian D’Amico; producer Catherine Cloutier; and Josh Stearns of Free Press, an expert on social media and verification.

It was a terrific event. Everyone, including me, learned a lot about best practices in reporting from the scene, in aggregation and curation, and in verifying the accuracy of on-the-ground reports in real time.

Cambridge Community Television, which organized the event, has posted a Storify by Cambridge media activist Saul Tannenbaum on our panel and the three that preceded it, which dealt with alternative online media in Cambridge, legal issues and new forms of digital storytelling.

In addition, Stearns, the hardest-working man in media reform, has published his keynote address as well as a blog post on misinformation and verification following the marathon bombings.

Photo (cc) by Christian Herold and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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