Photo by Tim Karr for Free Press

The Transformative Power of Letting Go

Molly de Aguiar
11 min readMay 23, 2023

Trusting local people, championing their dreams, and giving them the resources to build a different future.

By Molly de Aguiar + Josh Stearns

This is the story of a $2 million grant that has had a sprawling impact on local journalism and journalism funding around the world for 10 years now. It’s also a story about all the things that wouldn’t exist without a leap of faith at a pivotal moment, and how funders too often miss profound opportunities for growth and change when we refuse to trust and get out of the way.

The story begins in 2011 when the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey launched a new “Informed and Engaged Communities” program, with a focus on making New Jersey a model for local news innovation in a state that (in)famously gets most of its local news from New York and Philadelphia media. Dodge’s CEO at the time, Chris Daggett, had spent years in public service and believed in the role of media and storytelling in creating a healthy democracy. The program was led by one of us (Molly) and the other (Josh) joined the team later. The original budget was tiny — about $250,000 a year — which didn’t match the boldness of the vision or the urgency of the need.

“What’s Your Take on New Jersey Media?” Photo courtesy Free Press

We knew we would need strong partners to transform journalism in the state. We initially found that partner in the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. After a pilot grant to Dodge, Knight invested $2 million over two years and encouraged us to experiment like crazy, take big risks, and spend the money on whatever seemed to be working locally. They trusted local leaders and communities to chart the path forward through groundbreaking community engagement projects, creative revenue experiments, and shifting the relationship between newsrooms, nonprofits, and communities across the state.

That level of trust in local wisdom and solutions is far too rare. How many funders can truthfully say they create these kinds of opportunities regularly, or even at all?

We recently stepped back to trace the biggest ripple effects from our work together starting a decade ago. We wanted to make visible what is possible when a funder trusts its partners, and gives them the freedom to dream and, importantly, the resources to act. This story is not linear, but we’ve organized it semi-chronologically. None of what follows is about us, or meant to claim credit. Every one of the changes we describe below was made possible by networks of people working tirelessly towards a shared vision for a connected and collaborative media landscape across the state, centering the community’s news and information needs.

Photo courtesy Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University
  • The Local News Ecosystem Model — At the heart of this effort was an idea that if we wanted to ensure the New Jersey public had access to the news and information they needed, we had to move resources toward a range of ideas, small and large, that would make New Jersey news more community-driven, collaborative, and open to addressing the harm it inflicts, particularly on Black people and communities of color. There was no silver bullet, no single answer. The work of reinventing, healing and repairing local media required deep investments to build up new civic infrastructures within newsrooms and communities, and the relationships to weave them together. We started calling this an “ecosystem model” for local news. Near the end of the $2 million grant, Democracy Fund, a nationally-focused private foundation, adopted core aspects of this approach and began to replicate the New Jersey work in North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, and Chicago. Together with local funders in those regions, this work has brought tens of millions of dollars into local news. Other partners, like the Solutions Journalism Network (Mountain West), Local Media Association (Oklahoma), American Journalism Project (Ohio), Google and Microsoft (nationally) have all built on aspects of this ecosystem approach.
  • The Center for Cooperative Media is both the heart of local journalism in New Jersey, and a leading national research center and proponent of collaborative journalism. They serve as a critical backbone for the reinvention of journalism in New Jersey, providing resources, research, training and organizing for newsrooms of all sizes, and they have inspired similar efforts in other states. Creating a hub for action and reinvention at the state level was a totally new model and it took time to get it right. The $2 million grant helped us give CCM the running room to experiment, imagine, and invest in deep listening to guide its development. Ten years later, it’s thriving, and CCM and its staff are beloved for the support and resources they provide to journalists in NJ and across the country. Their influence extends far beyond the state, helping shift the culture of journalism away from competition towards collaboration as a fundamental path towards serving communities, holding leaders accountable, and covering the biggest stories of our time. See for example, projects like US Democracy Day, their pathbreaking research, and their Spanish language story exchange.
  • News Voices is an initiative led by Free Press, which was piloted in New Jersey by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. It has since spread to Charlotte, Philadelphia, and beyond. The organizers who lead the News Voices program act as bridge builders between local newsrooms and community members, bringing them together in dialogue and collaborative projects designed to build enduring partnerships between them. News Voices has created a body of evidence that local communities will engage, support, and participate in local journalism that is responsive to their issues, relevant to people’s lives, and rooted in respect and trust. Several community-led media projects that are actively filling news and information gaps sprung out of News Voices organizing; here is just one compelling example from Atlantic City, NJ. The News Voices team also helped launch Media 2070, a coalition of media makers and organizers building a future in which media systems are no longer harmful to Black people, and Black, Indigenous and other systematically oppressed people are fully free to tell and share their own stories and determine their own futures. Media 2070 has and continues to be a source of deep inspiration for us.
  • ​​New Jersey Civic Information Consortium (NJCIC) — When New Jersey sold its public television licenses for $332 million, Free Press and a broad coalition of thousands of New Jersey residents (a coalition that the News Voices project built) argued that the public deserved to benefit from the sale of the public airwaves. After a years-long campaign to pressure the state to invest these public dollars into civic information and local news, a bipartisan group of lawmakers created the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium. NJCIC is a nonprofit that uses public and private dollars to make grants to local news and information projects — the first of its kind in the nation. By the end of 2023, the Consortium will have given out close to $7 million in its first three years — with state allocations growing from $500,000 initially to $4 million in the most recent budget. Now NJCIC is the largest journalism and civic information funder in New Jersey and a national model. As one of the most significant pieces of media policy passed within the last decade, it has paved the way for a different national conversation about public funding for local journalism and sparked similar efforts in a number of other states.
  • NewsMatch — NewsMatch is the largest grassroots giving campaign for local news. Each year funders provide matching dollars to incentivize members of the public to support their local nonprofit newsrooms during the year-end holidays. Since 2017, NewsMatch has helped more than 300 newsrooms raise a quarter billion dollars in contributions from their local community, creating a profound shift in giving to journalism around the country. NewsMatch was launched by the Knight Foundation in 2016, and expanded with support from Democracy Fund and other foundations in the years since. In expanding the campaign, Democracy Fund was inspired in part by a project at Dodge called the “Jersey Give Back Guide,” which created a simple one stop website for the public to donate to NJ nonprofits and have their gifts matched.
New Voices community events in Asbury Park, Morristown, and Atlantic City, NJ. Photos by Vanessa Maria Graber and Tim Karr for Free Press

Without the constraints of narrow metrics and arduous reporting requirements, we made our learning public by writing about all of these projects — their ups and downs — in public on the Local News Lab, as well as a weekly newsletter called The Local Fix. After nearly a decade the Local News Lab has been archived, but you can still find a comprehensive set of resources and guides for newsrooms, profiles of some of the trail blazers leading the reinvention of local news, and a comprehensive report on everything we tried over the course of two years. The Local Fix newsletter continues to thrive with more than 3,000 subscribers.

Beyond the projects listed above, there are a number of other projects, relationships, and organizations that can be traced back to the grant. These are the long term ripples that we never could have predicted:

  • Dodge supported a series of investigative reporting + community engagement projects led by Reveal (formerly the Center for Investigative Reporting), including using live theater as a way to tell investigative journalism stories. These projects helped CIR build out a model for collaborative work with local newsrooms across the country.
  • Cole Goins, who led the CIR work in NJ has gone on to work with the New School Journalism + Design program (another Dodge grantee) and Resolve Philly to create a free, six-week certificate program at the Community College of Philadelphia called “Community Journalism as a Civic Power.” This work is spreading to other community colleges now, including in New Jersey.
  • A grant to the Listening Post Collective helped build out their model from one New Orleans project into a replicable approach to building and expanding civic media and community journalism, with more than 20 projects now across the country. This early investment in the seed of an idea has turned into a bold strategic plan and a playbook for others to build on.
  • Local newsrooms across NJ for years used a legal guide that Rutgers Law School created as part of the $2 million grant. That work helped inspire Democracy Fund to create the Legal Clinic Fund with the Klarman Foundation and other partners, which has mobilized more than $5 million to fund free legal support for local news through 12 university legal clinics across the country.
  • Many experiments we tried failed. For example, we tried to create a local ad network with a shared ad sales person — it didn’t work. But today some of those partners have built better solutions. The Center for Cooperative Media is getting traction with a joint NJ Ad Lab and the Center for Community Media at The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York made transformative change through their Ad Boost initiative which drove millions of dollars in New York City advertising to community media outlets led by and serving people of color.
  • We helped fuel a national community engagement discussion through multiple demonstration projects with partners at Hearken and GroundSource. Based on these early investments a group of funders created the Community Listening and Engagement Fund which helped spread these and other engagement approaches to hundreds of newsrooms. Today community engagement in newsrooms has moved from the margins to a central part of how journalism is done in many places (but there is more to do to move from engagement to equity).
  • Another important project to come out of the New Jersey work was the New Measures Research Project, which created a methodology of assessing “the nature of journalistic content; the needs, interests, and preferences of local news audiences; and the health and rigor of the local news infrastructures in communities.” This research helped show vast information inequalities that mirrored economic and racial inequality across New Jersey and has been built on across the country.

Funders often insist that prospective grantees convince us that they will produce a specific set of deliverables with our funding. When we do this, we miss out on something profound: the magic of what can happen when we have faith in the dreams, visions, and expertise of these organizations. Those in the field working on models like Trust Based Philanthropy know these lessons well and have created vital resources to help other funders move in this direction.

In collaboration with George Street Playhouse, Reveal (formerly The Center for Investigative Reporting) co-produced two sold-out performances of “Terra Incognita” based on reporting that exposed an epidemic of leaking underground home heating oil storage tanks across New Jersey. Photo by Cole Goins for Reveal

The $2 million grant transformed us, too.

While the ecosystem model described above is rooted in equity, and evidence suggests that intentional, community-centered news ecosystems around the country are producing more equitable outcomes, we failed to truly prioritize funds for Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led organizations. We have grown as people and as funders, and today, we are both focused on centering racial equity in our work and making sustained investments in media and movements for justice. We are grateful to allies, peers and field leaders who gave us feedback and provided accountability along the way.

Moreover, we witnessed how our partners delivered impact beyond their — and our — wildest dreams when they had the agency to experiment, as well as the permission to set aside promises about deliverables and outcomes. These are lessons we carry with us and try to live into every day.

Perhaps most important of all, we carry the work forward by removing barriers that require organizations to justify their ideas and repeatedly prove their worth, and we push ourselves to move substantial and flexible resources to create conditions for justice and change.

We challenge our funding colleagues to reflect on what a single $2 million grant continues to make possible a decade later, and to ask yourselves: what do communities lose when we refuse to use our power to help them grow theirs? Trust your partners, give them what they need to win, and you too will experience transformation.


Molly is now the President of the Independence Public Media Foundation supporting community-owned media and internet in the Philadelphia region. Josh is the Senior Director of Democracy Fund’s Public Square Program where he has helped invest and raise millions for local journalism across the country, building on the lessons from the Knight grant. At both Independence Public Media Foundation and Democracy Fund we are working to invest in narrative power building and civic information with BIPOC communities.

If you are a funder interested in supporting media making and narrative change work, but need some advice and support, or if you would like to collaborate or share ideas, please get in touch with us.