By Ellen Martin
July, 2008: The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey announced it would force the early retirement of 25 percent of its staff - many of them experienced reporters - to avoid selling the paper.
“They got rid of the education, environment and healthcare beats – issues that we cared about because they’re important to the health of our communities,” said Hans Dekker, CEO of the Community Foundation of New Jersey.
The same story played out across the United States as the recession settled in and old business models faltered. But in Morristown, the Community Foundation of New Jersey decided to tackle the issue head on.
That fall, the foundation funded NJ Spotlight, a nonprofit news start up focusing on state policy issues. The foundation ultimately established a partnership with the group, becoming the site’s most significant investor and planning a founding role in the development of the enterprise. The community foundation also secured funding for the site through the Knight Community Information Challenge, in addition to attracting other significant funders.
We profiled the Community Foundation of New Jersey’s story in our new report, “Opportunities for Leadership: Meeting Community Information Needs,” as a great example of how a foundation went from arms-length to hands on grant making. The New Jersey funder saw meeting information needs as a way to practice catalytic philanthropy, taking a leap into leadership to help bring about transformation. So did the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which are also profiled in the series.
The news site has had several significant wins. The day it launched, it broke a major news story about a local utility. NJ Spotlight’s work is also featured in media outlets around the state and has become the “go to” resource for policymakers and common residents alike.
Chris Daggett, CEO of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, another supporter of NJ Spotlight, says that foundations have an important role to play at this moment of transition in the journalism industry.
“Foundations are able to take risks that others in our society often can’t financially afford. Given the state of media in New Jersey, it’s important to do.”
If you or your community foundation is interested in funding news and information projects, come to our session at the Council on Foundations’ fall conference, on Journalism and Media Grant Making, at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday Sept. 21. Community and place-based foundations can also apply for a matching grant with the Knight Community Information Challenge. Applications will be accepted again in January at informationneeds.org.
This week, read the series, “Opportunities for Foundation Leadership: Meeting Community Information Needs,” at www.informationneeds.org.
Ellen Martin is senior consultant at FSG who authored the report.