Above: Allison Levine and Darel La Prade representing Local Journalism Initiative of Delaware at June’s Collaborative Journalism Summit in Washington, D.C. 

By Ken Mammarella

More than a million dollars is being dedicated to new efforts to improve journalism in Delaware and, by doing so, improve Delaware.

“When we see we a loss of local news, we see a reduced quality of life,” says Allison Taylor Levine, founder of Delaware’s Local Journalism Initiative.

“When local news declines, so does democracy,” the nonprofit explains on ljidelaware.org, noting the impact includes less efficient government, worse civic engagement and growing polarization, misinformation, bias and inequity.

Levine has been thinking about these problems for a decade, and new funding will add Delaware to the growing list of communities nationwide where “solutions journalism” will use the power of the written word — plus photography, video, audio and any other form of informative media — to research and present potential solutions for the community to consider.

“Can journalism fix everything?” she asks rhetorically. “Certainly not, but I think that local journalists can be the eyes and ears of the people.”

The push began when the Knight Foundation, through the Solutions Journalism Network, gave a $200,000, two-year grant to the initiative, which Levine, vice president for marketing and communications for the Delaware Community Foundation, had created in 2021. 

In June, the Longwood Foundation awarded an $800,000 grant to the initiative to launch Spotlight Delaware, a newsroom that will do investigative journalism on government, education and land use.

The initiative has so far raised about $1.4 million and set up four projects: internships; a study of Delaware’s news ecosystem; the Delaware Journalism Collaborative, which is focusing on polarization; and Spotlight Delaware, a newsroom that could in a few years become one of the largest in the state. 

The internships are intended to “increase coverage of underrepresented communities in Delaware and build a pipeline of aspiring journalists, particularly those who are passionate about and experienced with BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) and other underrepresented communities,” the site says. The program is a partnership with the Delaware Community Foundation and the Maryland Delaware DC Press Association, and it placed four students in 2021, two in 2022 and two this year. 

“The ecosystem is a collection of different ways that people get local news, including formal newsrooms but also parents standing on the sidelines of soccer games, church newsletters and social media,” Levine says. That ecosystem is fragmented, now that newspapers have lost their dominant circulation, and legacy media have slashed their news-gathering staff. In 2009, WHYY canceled Delaware Tonight. And in 2011, WILM eliminated all local coverage.

The Longwood Foundation recently awarded the Delaware Journalism Initiative $800,000 to launch Spotlight Delaware, an investigative newsroom.

In 2022, Levine co-presented a study assessing Delaware’s news ecosystem with Fiona Morgan, director of community listening for the American Journalism Project. It found multiple problems, starting with news deserts that cover most of the state’s geography and several demographics.

 “Little news and information is available in Kent County (especially outside Dover), New Castle County below the canal, much of eastern Sussex and all of western Sussex,” the report reads. “Local news does not fairly represent historically underrepresented communities, particularly Black communities.”

Other key concerns they found through interviews and other research: “Delawareans feel disconnected and disengaged from local news teams,” and “access to Delaware government information is very limited,” with education and land use among the issues that are poorly covered.

The Delaware Journalism Collaborative is focusing on “the toll of polarization” in politics, racial relations, the economy and culture, says Darel La Prade, the project manager. Its first package was about Return Day, a Delaware tradition about unity that became polarized in 2022.

“It was my idea to examine Return Day because of the great irony involved,” says La Prade, previously publisher for the Delmarva Group of Independent Newsmedia. “It should be the event that epitomizes the neutralization of the polarization that occurs naturally in a political campaign.”

The collaborative shared that Return Day content with partner organizations to print, post and discuss, and future projects will also be posted on a website to be created at DEjournalism.org.

Its 17 initial partners included mostly media organizations, but also the state library system and Larry Nagengast, who has nearly 50 years of experience in local journalism. (To be transparent: I wrote one of the three articles in that Return Day package. As an editor at The News Journal, I worked with Levine, Nagengast and initiative board members Matt Sullivan and Andre Smith.)

“Spotlight Delaware will start by focusing on accountability, holding the state government accountable, covering education policy and land-use decisions, and all the infrastructure related to land use,” Levine says. “We’ll do that by focusing on statewide public policy and looking at how it plays out in specific communities, including the geographic areas that don’t get as much coverage.”

It is expected to launch at the end of the year, with Levine running the operation full time, and the next three hires being an editor in chief, a membership and community development manager and a senior government reporter. By the end of the third year, she hopes to have nine people in the newsroom — which would make it one of the largest in the state — and six in business operations. 

Its content will be posted on another website, to be created at SpotlightDelaware.org, shared with other media outlets (like the collaborative does) and go wherever people are getting their news.

“We’re trying to build something that is very different from a traditional news outlet,” Levine says. “I am less excited about people visiting SpotlightDelaware.org. I will be more excited if they hear stories from Spotlight Delaware in their YouTube feeds or on Delaware Public Media or if they read it in the Cape Gazette or Hoy en Delaware. That’s what I will consider a win that they get better-quality information from the places they already want to go.”

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