Igniting innovation: How RJI empowers independent news publishers to experiment with new ideas

RJI supports small newsrooms and community-centered journalists as they work to serve their communities.

June 18, 2024 by Hayley Milloy

Summit partners and sponsors options (7)

The Reynolds Journalism Institute is a Bronze Sponsor of the 2024 Independent News Sustainability Summit. LION is profiling all Summit sponsors with a Q&A to help members learn more about their work. Learn more about how to become a Summit sponsor.

Hayley Milloy, LION Publishers: What is your 30-second elevator pitch (or 75-word pitch) to a LION member on what RJI does?

Kat Duncan, Reynolds Journalism Institute: RJI empowers journalists with knowledge, tools and funding to strengthen journalism through practical innovation. We tackle timely challenges, needs and gaps to help build safer, stronger, more equitable, diverse and inclusive journalism, news spaces and relationships with the communities we serve. We serve small newsrooms and community-centered journalists. It is incredibly rewarding because, in my experience, they are the most forward-thinking and excited to experiment to find new ways to better serve our communities.

Hayley: And what do you do at RJI? Why did you join the team?

Kat: I am the director of innovation; I lead our innovation team, which builds and manages all our innovative projects, tools, programs and initiatives. I joined RJI after years of working in newsrooms across the country as a visual journalist, editor and manager. I always loved managing teams in newsrooms but often felt like I wasn’t provided with the resources to support my teams the way they needed and deserved.

RJI offered me the opportunity to help journalists every day. I get to build tools, programs, training and opportunities that help them be safer and more supported and give them the cutting-edge skills they want — and I get to do it in a way that makes it accessible and affordable for them. It is truly an honor to do this work, and I am so thrilled every day I get to do it.

Hayley: What’s a recent success story you’d like to share about how RJI has helped a LION member collaborate with another outlet or institution, experiment with a new idea, or develop skills to improve their news business’s sustainability?

Kat: Last year, I launched our Community-Centered Symposium. I consistently hear from the newsrooms and journalists we work with that training and conferences are too expensive, and they have no support or resources from their newsrooms to access them. I also hear over and over that many small newsrooms and community-centered journalists often feel like they’re working on an island, without a like-minded network to share ideas or help them when they need it. 

So I built the symposium, which helps community-centered journalists not only access an innovation-driven journalism workshop at very little cost to them (we provide hotel rooms, two meals a day and some flight scholarships) but is also built to make the collaborative experience as helpful to their day-to-day challenges and needs as possible. 

Last year, we had our first cohort of 28 journalists who spent a weekend at RJI working and learning with each other and then went on to pursue new-to-them projects in their newsrooms. I have loved working with these journalists over the past eight months to support, build out and launch their ideas in their communities. I can’t wait for next year’s group to get started. If you’re interested in joining us in October, applications are open through June 28!

Hayley: What’s one actionable, practical, low-lift tip you want to share with LION members?

Kat: That innovation does not mean expensive, shiny or high-lift. You can do so many practical, useful and impactful things for your newsrooms and communities that won’t cost you extra money from your budget — the most important step is to free up some space and time to try something new. Start small, listen to your communities and don’t be scared to try something just for a few weeks or months and see what happens.

Hayley: What’s one question you think the independent news industry — our members, academic institutions like you, support organizations like us, and funders — should be asking about the future of doing this work?

Kat: I think everything we do should be centered around “How does this help the communities we serve?” I often see our industry get caught up in shiny trends or fall back on just continuing old-school traditions — rather than asking ourselves if what we’re doing truly serves those we’re here for. Are we listening to our communities or just assuming we know what they need? If we’re truly here for them, they will see that through our actions and choices, which is what will build trust and investment in our newsrooms and our future.

Hayley: Are there any upcoming or future initiatives that RJI is working on that you want to preview for us?

Kat: We always have a few exciting things on the horizon! We’re currently building a toolkit with The Appeal to share how to implement their worker-led processes, structure and policies. We hope this will help newsrooms embrace equitable power sharing, thriving wages and care-centered policies for their journalists. We’re also building a resource with the KC Defender to show newsrooms how to replicate their community-centered initiatives and social strategy. We announced our 2024 fellows, who will all be working to build useful and much-needed resources for journalists starting in July.

Hayley: What’s the best way for LION members and others to try or learn more about RJI’s offerings?

Kat: I send out a newsletter once a month with all our innovation team projects, programs, workshops and opportunities. Just once a month, I promise. You can also follow me on LinkedIn or my team on Instagram. And, of course, my virtual door is always open; feel free to book time on my calendar to talk to me.

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