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5 Questions for...Jennifer Preston, Vice President for Journalism, Knight Foundation

January 04, 2017

"Quality journalism matters," writes Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at the John S, and James L. Knight Foundation. "It is a buttress against the torrent of fake news we've seen explode in the past year, and it can help rebuild the diminishing trust many people have in society's core institutions."

In keeping with the foundation's efforts over the last ten years to support quality journalism and the work of nonprofit news organizations, Preston and her colleagues launched the Knight News Match just before the holidays. In a recent email conversation, she spoke about the problem of fake news, the role of social media in the recent presidential election, and the matching campaign, which is open through January 19.

Philanthropy News Digest: There's been a lot of talk about fake news and its role, real or imagined, in determining the outcome of the presidential election. What is fake news, and why is it suddenly a problem?

Headshot_Jennifer_PrestonJennifer Preston: Fake news is not a new problem. Supermarket tabloids have been generating false stories and doctored photos for decades. As journalists, we spend our days reporting, verifying, checking, sifting through misinformation to uncover accurate information and verify facts before publishing. Social media — and the Internet — has accelerated the pace for spreading both journalism and false information. What is happening, of course, is the impact of social media on how we consume information. False information is flowing unfettered through social media channels and people are sharing it without knowing that what they are sharing is inaccurate. I see the concerns over fake news to be a symptom of the overall lack of trust in media and information. At Knight, we are supporting projects to help journalists and news organizations build trust with their audience by engaging more directly with community residents. As an example, we fund a Solutions Journalism project in Seattle and another in Philadelphia. We are funding the University of Oregon's Center for Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement to create case studies and best practices for journalism engagement. And we're also supporting the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's work in New Jersey, which has been focused in helping local online news organizations engage more closely with the communities they cover.

PND: Are you at all concerned that efforts to identify and minimize the influence of fake news could backfire by reinforcing people's existing filters and certainty in what they believe to be "real" news?

JP: It took a while, but we are seeing engineers and technologists becoming highly engaged in addressing the spread of false information, and it will be interesting to see their solutions. It is key, however, that First Amendment concerns are addressed. It was interesting to see how Facebook decided to partner with Politifact and ABC News. One of the best ways to fight misinformation is to support quality journalism, and that's why we launched the Knight News Match campaign.

PND: Tell us about it.

JP: We're funding fifty-seven news organizations — and the Institute for Nonprofit News — that are part of Knight's network and/or are a grantee or have been a grantee in the last three years. That includes more than thirty, mostly small local online news sites across the country, as well as national nonprofit organizations such as ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and the Center for Public Integrity. Through January 19, we are committing to match donations to any of the fifty-seven organizations, up to a total of $1.5 million, with individual organizations eligible to receive up to $25,000 in matching funds. We're doing this because we believe the work these organizations do is important, and that the institution of journalism, and society itself, will be better off if the public supports them.

PND: I noticed that all the organizations eligible for a match are nonprofit. Is the nonprofit model the future of high-quality journalism?

JP: It is most definitely a model. Jeff Jarvis has described the local ecosystem approach, and that is a model that is working in some areas. Not one dominant source of info, but multiple sources. Also, we need to continue to support efforts to help make journalism sustainable as a business. Certainly, nonprofit news organizations have been filling critical gaps in local and investigative reporting as traditional journalism organizations are cutting back on coverage and staff. There are multiple ways to help communities become informed. NPR member stations around the country operate terrific newsrooms in cities big and small. There are multiple solutions for the future of high-quality journalism, and we are supporting people and projects looking to advance the future of journalism in the digital age. We fund a mobile lab at the Guardian US to explore ways that journalists can use mobile more effectively to deliver news and information. We have a partnership with Google to help journalists experiment with virtual reality. And we're funding local television news innovation with the National Association of Broadcasters. All that said, we're also funding efforts to help traditional newsrooms accelerate their digital and cultural transformation in major cities around the country, as we are doing with the Knight-Temple project, working closely with the Institute for Journalism in New Media in Philadelphia. And, of course, we're seeing strong success and results with reaching audiences and telling stories in new ways through the great digital efforts at many traditional news organizations, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS News, and CNN.com.

PND: Before you joined Knight, you spent nineteen years at The New York Times, including a stint as its first social media editor. What are your thoughts about the role social media played in this year's presidential election?

JP: Social media and digital marketing have been playing a major role in politics since Howard Dean's campaign, so it's not a surprise that candidates and campaigns are using social media to engage successfully with voters. I believe that social media platforms offer journalists — and the public — a tremendous opportunity to learn and share news and information around the world. At the same time, they also can fuel the proliferation of false information and be used as platforms for propaganda. That's why we need to support journalism committed to reporting in the public interest. News consumers need to have sources they trust and rely on, and that is the opportunity for journalists at this moment: fight fake news with smart stories in the public interest.

Mitch Nauffts

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