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Amanda Richardson talks the path to nonprofit news in New Jersey
By Lauren Harris

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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  • 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.  
     
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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

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Reach today's newsletter editor, Lauren Harris, at leh2178@columbia.edu.
 
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