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Foundations and Journalism in the Digital Age

October 10, 2007

Lucy Bernholz was the first to flag the excellent op-ed piece by Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media (a project of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at Harvard), in the September 17 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

In the piece, Gillmor notes that newspapers around the country are shedding editorial staff at a rate that "spells trouble for a well-informed citizenry," and then cuts to the chase:

...ensuring a vibrant press is a questionable role for government, when a key role of journalism is to question power and hold it to account. Nor...can it be the sole responsibility of the private sector, not when an eroding business model for community journalism leads private owners to favor the bottom line above all other values.

In Gillmor's view, that puts the ball squarely in philanthropy's court:

By helping to encourage innovation and sustainable business models -- especially creating partnerships that explain local problems and generate communitywide efforts to solve them -- foundations can apply great leverage at a critical moment.

Community foundations, which pool resources from local donors and make it possible for donors to direct funds to specific projects, are particularly suited for this role, says Gillmor. Is it a good use of their resources? That's up to individual foundations and donors to decide, but "if we are to have an informed, and engaged, society that understands its problems, we need to recognize that thorough understanding is the basis for any solution."

I think Gillmor is onto something -- although I'm not convinced community foundations, which historically have been all about addressing social and educational needs, will be eager to help re-invent community-based journalism. Time will tell.

Gillmor's piece was published the same week that community foundation leaders from around the country gathered in San Francisco for the Council on Foundation's annual community foundations conference. I can't say whether he shares my concerns, but clearly Alberto Ibarguen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has invested $300 million since 1950 to advance freedom of expression and excellence in journalism, had read Gillmor's piece. In plenary remarks to conference attendees, Ibarguen said he, too, believes that community foundations have a critical role to play with respect to information needs in the digital age. And so he made this offer:

Here's something else I think we should do: if there's sufficient interest, the Knight Foundation will organize a conference — possibly in Miami, sometime this winter — specifically for community foundations. The subject will be you and media and community. How might community foundations help ensure that their communities have the information they need? There's more to come on that subject, and if you have ideas about how we might do this and what areas to focus on, send them to me at ibarguen@knightfoundation.org.

You can read an abridged version of Ibarguen's remarks, which we've just posted to PND, here.

I'll close with this. One of the smartest people currently commenting on the changes roiling the media world is Peter Osnos, the veteran journalist, publisher, and now senior fellow at the New York City-based Century Foundation. In "Goodbye to Newspapers?," the Aug. 21 edition of "The Platform," his weekly column on all things media, he reminds us that the

transformations of the past decade [in journalism] are comparable to any number of other technological changes over the past century — the spread of telephones and photography, the evolution of film from silent to talking, the rise of radio and then television. Each of these upheavals led to new business models that reflected the way information was delivered, taking advantage of efficiency to make money and supplying content that was appealing. For a very long time, the prime end product was a printed page, and then various kinds of audio-video receivers. Today, the printed page has been decisively challenged by the screen and the range of receivers has expanded to all sorts of wireless gadgetry....

[The] trick is to know how to attract readers and viewers in all the places they now turn for information with the same kind of breadth and enterprise that characterized reporting in the past. The emerging formats obviously pose different challenges, but that is nothing new either....

Again, I think Osnos has got it right, and we'll see journalists and journalism rise to the challenge. It won't be easy, and there will be disappointments, missteps, and casualties along the way. But we'll figure it out.

In the meantime, see you in Miami?

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Jacqueline  |   October 10, 2007 at 08:41 PM

The Knight Foundation is doing something right now to help citizen media (although I think the conference idea could be beneficial too) - they're holding the Knight News Challenge, a contest that awards grants (up to $500,000 per person, and they've got $5 million reserved this year) to people with ideas and projects related to citizen journalism and digital technology that are specific to a particular geographic region - basically, community journalism.

You can find out more about the contest at http://www.newschallenge.org.

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   October 11, 2007 at 12:03 PM

Thanks for mentioning the News Challenge. It was referenced by both Alberto Ibarguen (in his plenary remarks) and Dan Gillmor (in his op-ed piece) and is definitely something those of us interested in community-based/citizen journalism should check out. But you better hurry. The October 15 deadline for Year Two funding ($5 million) is fast approaching. According to the folks at Knight, the application process takes just 20 minutes, and there's a separate category (with cash awards of up to $500,000) for younger media innovators (under the age of 25).

BTW, Jackie has a blog dedicated to the Knight Challenge and citizen journalism at
http://knightnewschallenge.wordpress.com/. I haven't spent a lot of time there, but from what I've seen it's well worth your time.

Posted by Matt  |   October 12, 2007 at 04:39 PM

Excellent post -- and as you said, Osnos has it right. While generational and cultural aspects of new media may be over-stated, the road ahead for community journalists remains a difficult one. Still, engaging journalism finds an audience. And as Alberto discusses in the piece you cited, democracy itself could be in peril without an aware, engaged public.

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