Monday, September 17, 2007 (SF Chronicle)
Foundations have role in keeping local journalism vibrant
As America wakes up to the crumbling of basic infrastructure, with
Minnesota's bridge collapse the most recent example, a more subtle but
also alarming breakdown is hitting our cities and towns. In community
after community, newspapers are shedding editorial staff at a rate that
spells trouble for a well-informed citizenry, a foundation of a free
Unlike the job of building and maintaining roads and bridges, however,
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, as we
are seeing, 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.
As the nation's community foundations gather in San Francisco for their
annual meeting this week, I'd like to suggest that they put the survival
of quality local journalism squarely on their own agendas. They, perhaps
more than any other entities, could play a vital role in ensuring that
communities emerge from an inevitably messy media transition with the kind
of local information sources we all need.
The key word here is "transition." New media experiments are already
starting to fill some of the gaps, but not nearly at a rate that's likely
to replace what we're losing. 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, in particular, are ideally suited for this role.
They pool resources from local donors. Many create what are called "donor
advised funds" through which donors exert active guidance on how the money
Why now? Because the collision of technology with media has disrupted the
journalism craft and business in every possible way. Journalists are
learning new ways of gathering information and telling stories. They are
also discovering that news should be more of a conversation than lecture,
as the people who once were an audience become producers of media, not
mere consumers. And, as noted, the business model for traditional
journalism is disintegrating, notably as advertisers discover far better
and cheaper ways to reach their own audiences online.
We have a national model for what community foundations could try. The
Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has launched a 21st
Century News Challenge ( www.newschallenge.org), aiming to spend up to $25
million over five years on what it sees as "innovative ideas using digital
experiments to transform community news." Some of the projects are
potentially pathbreaking, though we won't know for some time if they're
sustainable. (Disclosure: Several projects in which I'm involved have
received Knight funding, and the foundation is a major supporter of the UC
Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I hold a part-time staff
But $25 million is a rounding error compared to what it will take
nationwide (and, in fact, around the world) to come through this
transition with a vibrant and diverse journalistic ecosystem that includes
local news. While much of the needed investment will come from investors,
foundations have the ability to support ideas that stem from motives other
than big profits, in addition to some that do.
What kind of journalism project might a community foundation or
donor-advised fund help? The possibilities are limited only by our
imagination - and there's no doubt at all that the best ideas would come
from the applicants. But here are just a few of dozens I could name
-- Provide seed funding for a network of local blogs and other community
sites combining a variety of media, adding journalism training for the
-- Pay the salary of an investigative journalist at a local newspaper. The
kind of investigative reporting that plays such an essential role -
requiring deep pockets and sometimes even courage - is losing favor in too
many newsrooms and executive suites.
-- Help get local and regional governmental data online in ways that
anyone, not just database specialists and professional journalists, can
easily use for a variety of purposes.
-- Fund local media-literacy education for this media-saturated age. This
would lead to far better understanding of how media work both for
consumers and producers, and could have the benefit of encouraging people
to look for, and then support, quality journalism.
Anyone reading this already cares enough about journalism, issues and
public life enough to have project ideas, too. But ideas are cheap.
Getting things done is not.
In a time when we have so many other problems, is it wise to argue for
this kind of foundation spending? Foundations and their donors will need
to answer that for themselves.
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.
The emerging Digital Age will provide some of the tools communities need
to have informed, lively conversations about their futures. Excellent
journalism has to be part of that. As traditional journalism's business
model crumbles, we're already seeing major losses. Let's hope the
nonprofit sector sees the opportunity, and runs with it.
Dan Gillmor is director of the Center for Citizen Media (citmedia.org), a
project affiliated with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and
the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law
Copyright 2007 SF Chronicle