Q&A: Ayinde Merrill on how collaboration and listening can build strong civic media

Will Fischer
Center for Cooperative Media
7 min readJun 5, 2024


Ayinde Merrill is the program officer at the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, an independent nonprofit organization that funds news and information across the state.

The Civic Information Consortium was created in 2018 after the state passed the Civic Info Bill, an innovative solution to the local news crisis that combines policy, philanthropy, civic engagement, and collaborative journalism.

We caught up with Merrill to hear about his work for the Consortium and how the funding has impacted the information ecosystems in New Jersey.

WF: How did you get involved in journalism?

AM: I don’t come from a journalism background. My background is in community organizing. I’m from Camden, New Jersey, I’ve been here my whole life and my family has been here for six generations. We’ve all been very civically engaged and I’ve taken up that torch, as well. I founded a nonprofit organization back in 2014 called Watu Moja — it’s Swahili for “One People.” It’s about connecting Black and Afro-Latino youth to the global African diaspora in a way of mutual regard and collaboration. As organizers, we know how important it is to have people trust the news sources in their community. I’ve always had a contentious history with journalists. I’ve been misquoted and misrepresented. In my opinion, I’ve been used to get a sound clip or quote. I have to shout out Nancy Solomon and Becca Haydu, who are two journalists that took the time to get to know us. It wasn’t exploitative. They saw the work we were doing was great for the community and thought it should be on the front page somewhere. Those two journalists taught me how journalism could be done well — as a service.

WF: What made you want to work at the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium?

AM: If you would’ve told me years ago that I’d be working for an organization that funds news and information, I would’ve said you lost your mind. A friend sent me the application out of nowhere, and I applied anyway. I got the interview and spoke with Chris Daggett, and he said, we’re trying to empower communities to tell their own stories and amplify their voices. We’re looking to service communities of color and historically marginalized communities. I was really hesitant at first, since it’s a new world for me in so many ways. But once I got into it, I saw the parallels with community organizing. When you’re organizing and preparing for an action, you have to figure out what the issue is, why the issue exists, and who supports different sides. For civic media, it’s about who is creating news, what they are creating, who is funding them, and how it’s impacting the community.

WF: How does your background as a community organizer help you think about funding journalism across New Jersey?

AM: I have a deep knowledge of how marginalized communities operate, what their needs are, and how they think. I’ve organized in Camden and Philadelphia, as well. If you’re really dedicated to finding and uplifting communities of color, there’s an extra level of research necessary. For example, the consortium funds NJ Spotlight, who is an amazing grantee. We gave NJ Spotlight $100K to partially fund the salaries for two reporters, and Report for America funds the other part of those salaries. But if you’re trying to fund a civic news organization in Camden, Newark, or Patterson, it takes more resources, because what we’re giving to NJ Spotlight is supplementary to all the other funding that it has.

Salem is a small town that doesn’t have any news whatsoever, so that takes more time and resources. When you’re asking a publication there to take charge and start producing news, they will need more training. The $100K isn’t going to go as far in that one instance for content produced as it would for NJ Spotlight, since it’s already set up and the funding is supplementary. That doesn’t mean you move away from those organizations, you just have to be very in tune to what they need, whether it’s legal advice, training, or anything else.

It’s also our responsibility as a dynamic funder to think about who in our network we can direct them towards for more help. We work really closely with the Center for Cooperative Media — I don’t think we could do this work without Stefanie Murray — because I can call her up and say we have this group in Salem, they need to figure out the new freelance law in NJ, let’s have a webinar for that. You have to give these organizations time, and you have to be okay with how they want it to look. The newsroom in Camden or Salem is going to look a lot different than your local TAPinto franchise. It will look different when it’s community-led and community-driven.

WF: What are some of the biggest challenges your grantees face?

AM: The biggest challenge is access to transformative funding. A lot of our smaller newsrooms are one or two person operations. Sometimes they work a day job and do news on the side. So we try to figure out how to supplement what they’re already doing and increase their capacity. The difference between giving them $50K and $100K is really huge. In 2023, our average grantee was operating at $45K. But we didn’t think that was enough to produce news consistently. They have to be able to do what they do full-time and provide themselves with a salary that makes it viable. If we can’t commit to that, then we really can’t say that we’re focusing on historically marginalized communities. So for example, we said let’s give $100K to The Trenton Journal, run by Kenny Miles, so he can increase his technology and bring on a few more freelancers and pay himself more so he doesn’t have to work other jobs as much.

In addition, who else can we connect our grantees to for more funding, either in NJ or nationally? That’s what we’re working hard on right now — going out and fundraising with other funders to pool or align funds so we can increase the amount we’re able to offer our grantees. That’s why we were announced as a Press Forward chapter. Each grantee has different experience and skills. A lot of these small organizations come out of spirited people who are into organizing or saw injustice, and stepped up to create a news platform. What they struggle with is time and capacity — when you’re a one person operation, you’re not just a lead editor, but you’re also a marketing and financial person. How can we create more collaboration between grantees to alleviate some of those stresses?

WF: How has the Consortium made an impact in NJ? What examples of success have you seen?

AM: Blairstown is a rural area in NJ and the only newspaper there closed down more than two decades ago. Volunteers started a new publication called the Ridge View Echo, and for the first year, they didn’t publish a single story. They really wanted to make sure they got the foundation right. They printed flyers, went to community events, got to know everyone, and enlisted more volunteers. In their second year, they started publishing and had enough people to cover every city council and school board meeting in Blairstown. Their site was seeing about 10K site visits a month. They are the primary source of news in Blairstown and surrounding communities. They’ve seen this exponential growth in what they’re doing, even though they started from nothing and really built it out.

Another example is Slice of Culture, which is connected to Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City. Their whole angle is getting young people excited about news and what’s going on in the community. This is what’s happening in city council that you should be aware of, this is my grandma’s beef stew recipe — the posts are right next to each other and combine cultural voices with civic engagement. They have so many people that want to volunteer and help out, and they really want to pay everybody with more funding.

WF: What is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned in your work?

AM: In both organizing and journalism, you need to be a really good listener. I’ve seen so many organizations, locally and internationally, who have an idea or a prefabricated plan that they bring to a community. They ask for questions and input from the community once the plan is already done, and that’s very counterintuitive and not as effective to truly meet the needs of a community. From my perspective, the most important thing is to ask questions up front and have the people you’re trying to service create the idea and plan. Then, from your position and resources, you can help figure out how to make their idea a reality for them. Give your opinions and be honest, and don’t stray away from conflict and constructive criticism — all those things are necessary to make a truly representative project come to life. But it all comes from listening first and asking the right questions.

Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at willfisch15@gmail.com.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism and support an informed society in New Jersey and beyond. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, the Independence Public Media Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.



Will Fischer
Center for Cooperative Media

I write about collaborative journalism and local media ecosystems. Follow me on Twitter @willfisch15 or email me at willfisch15@gmail.com.