Last week, the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media announced that the New Jersey Hills Media Group had committed to a partnership to convert all fourteen of the chain’s newspapers to non-profit ownership. If the transition is successful, New Jersey Hills Media Group will be the largest nonprofit weekly newspaper chain in the country.
CJR spoke to Amanda Richardson, executive director of the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media, about the process of establishing a partnership, the nonprofit business model, and hopes for the future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CJR: How did the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media get its start?
Amanda Richardson: I got involved with local politics in 2017. And I live in a pretty small town in New Jersey called Harding Township. I’m a Democrat. In 2019, I ran against a sitting township committee member named Nick Platt, a Republican who has served the town for a very long time and used to be the mayor. I actually went to high school with his daughter; I knew him. We agreed we were going to run a civil campaign; we weren’t going to go after each other. I lost—it’s a very Republican town. But we ended on good terms. A few months later, he reached out to me. He had heard that the New Jersey Hills Media Group might be going on sale. He’s a strong newspaper advocate. He had always been interested in preserving local news. He knew I had a background in nonprofits, and I’m a lawyer. I have a strong interest in community building. We started talking, and we came up with a bigger mission for this organization. We established the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media last year.
CJR: What has the process of establishing this organization entailed?
AR: We incorporated the organization in New Jersey. We’ve applied for a 501c3, which takes a very long time to come through. In the meantime, the Community Foundation of New Jersey is our fiscal sponsor, so that allows us to take donations through their 501c3. We set out with this mission of building strong communities through civic engagement and journalism. I wanted to do more than just fundraise for newspapers, so one of the first things we did was start this community engagement series, bringing together policymakers and journalists on topics of regional and state interest and present them in a way that’s accessible for people who are interested in them. Our goal is to make them available to newspapers and other media groups that might be interested in using the content, just as a way of building that civic engagement.
I have experience forming nonprofits. But I didn’t have experience converting newspapers. We started talking to the Lenfest Institute, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, asking about their process. And, of course, what’s different here is the Philadelphia Inquirer was donated. In fact, the Lenfest Institute was set up by the person who donated it. So we were trying to figure out… if you don’t have people who are able to donate a paper, but who are interested in keeping the newspapers alive and in keeping that community service going, how can you do that? So our process involves a big community fundraiser, and using that money to purchase the newspapers under the aegis of the nonprofit, and then turning them into a benefits corporation. We spent last year working through the logistics.
CJR: As it stands, establishing these fourteen papers is a goal rather than a reality, right? Where are you in the process?
AR: Right now, we’re working with a letter of intent, which means if we reach our initial fundraising goal, we will be able to actually sign the purchase agreement and take on the newspapers. And we’re hoping that’ll happen by early spring. So right now, our big focus is on doing meetings with the community, not just because it’s a way of raising the money, but because it’s a way of really engaging all of the local communities in a conversation about why local journalism is so important, and to hear from them about what benefits they see from it, and what they’d like to see happen.
There are some really great things happening in New Jersey, like the Center for Cooperative Media. We’ve gotten a lot of advice and a lot of support from a lot of organizations in New Jersey. In addition to depending on the Lenfest Institute, we’ve been looking at the NJ Spotlight non-profit model. We’re looking to be cooperative and not competitive, to fill a need not to create more competition.
CJR: What will your business model look like?
AR: Our plan initially will be to take on the newspapers and set up a separate board for the newspapers, because we do want to keep that journalistic integrity. The nonprofit will be the owner, separate from the actual leadership of the newspapers. But we’re looking for ways to expand. So what’s great about being a nonprofit is we’ll be able to go for support from foundations to do things like hiring reporters who are focused on specific topic areas, like the environment. One thing we think is so great about these papers is it is a chain. So in addition to being focused on the local issues, we can look at regional issues as well. These papers are also very established; there’s a ton of experience there among editors and reporters. And so we would love to try to establish a fellowship or other kinds of programs that would let younger people who are just breaking into the industry, or who are in journalism school, learn from these people who are working at the very local level. These are all things that you can get grants to do. That’s what’s great about the nonprofit; we can pursue grants while we’re also pursuing community fundraising. And then we also have the traditional revenues that will still be coming in.
CJR: What are some of your big hopes?
AR: We are trying to pay attention and document what the best practices are. We’d like to be able to advise other newspapers about what works and what doesn’t work. And if this is a replicable model—which we hope it will be—to help people do it.
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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:
- NONPROFIT NEWSROOMS ARE ON THE RISE: In Eden Prairie, Minnesota, after Alden Global Capital bought and then closed the local newspaper in April of 2020, a group of local volunteers worked to launch a new site in its place; last week, the Eden Prairie Local News joined the Institute for Nonprofit News. “For all its darkness, 2020 saw the greatest growth of nonprofit newsrooms we’ve ever seen,” Sue Cross, Executive Director and CEO of the INN, writes. “We’re in a new age for local newsrooms: they’re not run by faraway businesses, they’re not organized to generate wealth, they are part and parcel of their communities.”
- DAILY NEWS REPORTERS UNIONIZE: Following recent pay cuts and layoffs, staff at the New York Daily News have formed a union, the New York Times reported. This shift represents a wider movement in the industry, Marc Tracy writes, following union drives at publications like the New Yorker, Buzzfeed News, the Chicago Tribune, Slate, and the Hartford Courant. Elsewhere, Gannett employees at the Bergen Record, the Daily Record, and the NJ Herald announced their own union. (New Jersey’s governor tweeted in support of the effort).
- MCCLATCHY INCREASES SALARY MINIMUM: McClatchy has told employees that it will establish a new minimum salary of forty-two thousand dollars beginning March 1, Sacramento Bee reporter Jeong Park reported on Twitter. In high-cost markets, the minimum salary will be set at forty-five thousand dollars.
- WITH SUBTEXT, READERS HAVE A VOICE: Subtext, a subscription messaging platform that allows publications to communicate with their audiences via SMS text, fosters relationships between news outlets and readers, Hanaa’ Tameez writes for NiemanLab. Some outlets use the platform to solicit audience feedback, while others use it to answer reader questions.
- LESSONS FROM THE FAIRNESS DOCTRINE: Though the Fairness Doctrine was limited and flawed, its attempts to ensure media diversity underlined the importance of protecting the public’s access to diverse information, Victor Pickard argued for the Washington Post. “Although imposing dubious regulatory corrections onto run-amok commercial systems are of limited utility, new public interest obligations for our digital age could be part of the solution,” Pickard writes.
- STUDENT REPORTERS CHALLENGE RACISM IN LOCAL NEWS: In North Carolina, student journalists at A&T State University—the nation’s largest historically Black college or university—investigated local news coverage of the school, finding significant examples of subtle racial prejudice, particularly in crime stories, Scalawag Magazine reported. The students discussed their findings with local media outlets, some of whom have since made changes to their coverage. “Journalists have a huge responsibility to be factual, honest, and ethical, but often the media outlets for which they work operate in environments of habit, not imagination,” Alexis Wray writes. “And that habit is often racist.”
- MEETING INFORMATION NEEDS IN MULTIPLE LANGUAGES: In late December, the Center for Cooperative Media at New Jersey’s Montclair State University partnered with NorthJersey.com to translate vaccine reporting into nine languages for use at nine different ethnic media outlets. “The barriers and concerns about the covid-19 vaccine are far greater in ethnic and immigrant communities across the state,” Oni Advincula writes.
- CEO OF THE INFORMATION TALKS BUSINESS MODELS: For NiemanLab, Sarah Scire talked to Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information, about the publication’s success and her thoughts on paywalls, differentiated content, and social media policies. “I think the demand for journalism and for commentary is so great right now that there’s a huge market for content creators that are doing something original and important,” Lessin told Scire. (Elsewhere, Bloomberg Media anticipates subscription revenues surpassing $100 million in 2021, Axios reports.)
- GANNETT SELLS THREE OKLAHOMA NEWSPAPERS: Gannett sold three small local Oklahoma newspapers to a family-owned company, Kristen Hare reported for Poynter. Sara April—from merger-and-acquisition firm Dirks, Essen, and April—told Jim Iovino and his students last year that such sales at companies like Gannett represent a strategic focus toward larger papers and digital publishing. “The smaller papers don’t fit in with the strategies they’re moving forward with,” April said.
JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.