By Jane McDonnell, Executive Director

Never underestimate the power of connections. In 2008, the Online News Association launched ONA Local, groups of like-minded journalists in cities large and small who organized themselves — meeting up in bars, swapping war stories, sharing the excitement and fears they felt about the potential of this digital journalism thing.

Seven years later, there are 50 unique groups around the world representing 10,000 participants, ranging from the largest (2,000-plus in Washington, D.C., and New York) to the smallest (29 and growing in Detroit) to the newest (ONA Singapore). Events range from simple get-togethers to sophisticated monthly meet-ups with high-end speakers and trainers. They all share ideas for innovative ways to cover news, spark collaborations, use the latest tools, and job openings.

In the beginning, we helped by finding group leaders, offering resources, trainers and organizing principles and — very important — watching, listening and learning. What we learned is that each group had its own ecosystem and unique culture, translating into different needs, reflecting the communities they lived and worked in. Combining forces gave them not only support but a resolve to innovate.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to lose community, city and state news outlets. Over time, it’s become clear the phenomena and promise of the local connection deserves a bigger investment on our part than we can provide.

The $828,000 in support provided today by Knight Foundation, our longtime partner, will give us that firepower. We’ll hire a community engagement expert to analyze, seed and train these vital domestic communities of journalists, launching new groups where they’re needed and strengthening current ones. We also see targeted partnership opportunities for the many startups bravely stepping into news deserts to cover their communities in new ways that take full advantage of technology, data and social and viral media.

We want local journalism to be strong, fearless and sustainable. We know local journalists passionately want that, too. We’re confident over the next two years, given the right resources, they’ll be the ones to move the field closer to that goal.

Jane McDonnell is Executive Director of ONA, where she oversees and manages the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists, working closely with the Board of Directors. Her purview includes membership, partnerships, global community outreach, budgeting and revenue generation, fundraising and development, the Online Journalism Awards, and providing vision for ONA’s state-of-the-art annual conference.

Follow Jane on Twitter @JaneONA.