Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Breakout 2, Day 1: The Information Needs of 'A' Community

Feb. 20, 2008, 1:10 p.m., Posted by Robertson Adams

Day 1 Friedland & Williamson

2/20/2008

The Information Needs of A Community
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Majorca Room

Leader: Lewis A. Friedland, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Scribe: Heidi Williamson, Berks County Community Foundation

The Role of the Daily Newspaper

Communities across the country are seeing their daily newspapers continue to decline. The papers are no longer family owned, and are run by general managers who don’t have the community connections and relationships that publishers did in the past. Most of the communities have cut back on local stories and have fewer reporters. One exception to this trend is in Dallas, where the local paper is cutting back on national and international news in favor of local stories.

Changing Readership

In general, readers are not as blindly trusting of the newspaper and what is reported there as they were in previous generations. As newspapers become better able to track what people are reading, their priorities have shifted to more popular areas such as sports, which show higher readership that traditional news areas such as politics. Yet the media is changing rapidly, so while newspaper readership may be dwindling, people are still getting news and are perhaps even more engaged than before, as the current election cycle is proving.

Weeklies are gaining in popularity, and newspapers are still an important source of information, although much of it is now accessed online. There is a need to determine how much activity there is among those we assume have no access.

Reporters

There is concern that reporters are younger and not as familiar with the history of local issues. There is a feeling that the reporters, whose average tenure is two years, don’t know the questions to ask to get to the heart of an issue.

The participants also see evidence of a general disrespect for journalists, particularly as news reporters often become the news themselves. This lack of respect is concerning because as readers’ confidence in local reporters wanes, and the number of local stories shrinks, we lose the watchdog factor that is so important in a democracy.

The “Daily Me”

Niche, fragmented news sources are replacing traditional media. Weeklies, local business journals, ethnic and foreign language papers are growing in popularity, but these niches don’t provide as broad a lens. For example, weeklies often cover suburbs, rather than urban areas, which can lead to a bias for more conservative reporting.

This leads to each of getting our “Daily Me,” mentally filtering all of the available sources and seeking out only what we need when we need it (i.e. traffic, weather). The explosion of information is an explosion of complexity, leading us each to look for individual, rather than community, information. This fragmentation leads to a loss of a common “page” that we’re all on, and ultimately a lack of information sharing/thoughtfulness about bigger issues.

In the past, newspapers served the editing function, telling us what was important to pay attention to, but we don’t acknowledge the paper that way anymore – or use it that way.

What do communities need?

Reinventing the past is not the answer. Treating the age of newspaper prominence as a golden age is not necessarily accurate because not everyone was truly represented and readership totals varied.

Yet there continues to be a need for public knowledge. There is the potential that ethnic and other niche publications may be a place where broader news can thrive. There is also a need for accountability, and investigative news is important to communities and democracy. There is also a need to present the news in multiple formats (video, blog, etc.)

Potential Community Foundation Approaches

Two approaches were posited for Community Foundation to consider:

  1. Portal/front page solution – a major convener serving as an entry point to the news – local newspaper is a likely place for the portal to emerge but how does it work financially?
  2. Emergence-based solution – trust that patterns will form as we each assemble our “Daily Me.”

Models and Examples

  • Voice of San Diego: Online news journal formed by former journalists, public television
  • Gotham Gazette – funded by Citizens Union of New York – fill a gap in the information ecology about local issues that news media isn’t reporting on
  • Duluth Community Foundation – successful catalyst by partnering with colleges, chamber, tech school, etc. – grantees encouraged to involve youth leadership and youth civic engagement, people are responding and getting involved
  • Coral Gables Community Foundation – incubator for historical museum, now trying to create something similar to the Beacon Hill
  • Pittsburgh – students act as IT consultants to local nonprofits, have young people create an online museum
  • Boston Foundation made a grant to the regional cable news network to get the foundation’s agenda out on issues such as brain drain, etc., and has also turned its indicators project into a resource for news agencies
  • Dallas and others are using a new Blackbaud tool to package information about the entire nonprofit community in a geographic region
  • The Great Lake News Service was established by Michigan Land Use organization and its reports are not objective but funded with an agenda
  • In Philadelphia, former Inquirer reporters were hired to write about certain civic issues for a community web site, but they ended up having a bias because of the web site’s stance.
  • Online community newspaper in New Haven (New Haven Independent)– the New Haven Foundation can make a grant to that newspaper to do in-depth coverage on a topic
  • St. Petersburg Times is a nonprofit – functions like any other robust daily
  • Long Beach: Member of paper’s editorial staff on the board of the community foundation
  • Also in Long Beach the community foundation worked with underserved communities and found a need for a newspaper of the community’s own – a weekly specifically for that area. Now the community foundation is working with local organizations to make this happen, and also asking business community to provide advertising to support the weekly paper.
  • Triangle area: www.philanthropyjournal.org replaced philanthropy beat in local paper after newspaper was sold
  • · The Philadelphia Inquirer: Great Expectations civic journalism was spun off to University of Pennsylvania

What else can community foundations do?

Community foundations can encourage the flourishing of niches by providing grants for the training and tools that people need to start doing more information sharing via technology such as video, podcasting, and other forms of citizen journalism. Foundations can also ease into the news ecology by focusing on community wide issues, encouraging the use of new media to aid the discussion of big issues, reach out to new audiences, and by leveraging the networks and relationships we already have. In this way, community foundations become the local “Google” of civic activity.

Community foundation can also:

  • Partner with local colleges, which can be beneficial and low cost
  • Provide grants to train citizen journalists
  • Conduct news needs assessments in their communities (technological or not)
  • Fold communication elements into existing programs that the community foundation is running/funding
  • Serve as a catalyst by aggregating stories that are out there
  • Create information that doesn’t currently exist by funding original research
  • Can ask people to pay for in-depth research/work that they’d like to have done (i.e. a study on health-care access that results in an article or other expanded coverage – gets the conversation started) – this is a way to leverage the resources we already produce
  • Commission journalist reporting – pay for good solid journalism that can stimulate public dialogue then build additional web info around it
  • Figure out what is needed and then take that info to the existing media for discussion. If they refuse, the community foundation can then take other action
  • Provide systematic issue briefings on topics for reporters – indicators web sites are a form of online issue briefings

What can Knight do?

  • Knight and other foundations, including community foundations, can sponsor fellows in community journalism or fund an editor to sift through all of the information that is out there
  • Create a clearinghouse of the information and models that are working in communities across the country, and a place to show/discuss outcomes, metrics, results of this work
  • Create a road map for conducting a Media Ecology Inventory in a community

Conclusion

Community foundations are not responsible for generating the news, but can serve as a facilitator to encourage others to strengthen the community information infrastructure. Partnerships with other nonprofits are key, particularly working together to share the information and knowledge that is already being generated. We can then use that knowledge to stimulate community dialogue.

In order to get started, many community foundations will need support, including a way to map and measure the information needs and gaps in their communities.