Judges have recommended at least eight innovative community news projects, for a five-year total of 48, in the New Voices program. New Voices is a Knight Foundation-sponsored incubator for such ventures. Each project will receive a $17,000 start-up grant and may qualify for an $8,000 matching grant in the second year. Run by J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, New Voices 'spotlights independent, citizens media initiatives.' And it provides technical support with online training in creating, developing and sustaining web sites grounded in journalism ethics.'
Three hundred and four projects were reviewed. Discussion focused on the fact that four years ago, these local news projects were started by civic-minded people, often with no journalism experience, who thought their communities needed more information about community life, laws and problems. These early grantees often had no idea how to publish information on the web. But they were dedicated, so they taught themselves. Often, to great success. For example, The Forum, in Deerfield, N.H., noticed that after they started publishing in 2005, and became the only public source of local news, voter turnout rose, more people were challenging incumbents in elections and there were fewer uncontested political races.
Now, however, sites like voiceofsandiego.org, MinnPost.com, St. Louis Beacon, Chi-Town Daily News and the New Haven Independent are staffed with professionally trained journalists, so the quality bar has been raised significantly. Local news sites staffed by professional journalists are showing more and more users what kind of sophistication to expect on local news sites. Judges discussed the need to better inform New Voices winners about training modules at J-Learning, Knight Citizen News Network, Knight Digital Media Center and NewsU.
The New Voices program has reached a critical mass where the concern no longer is finding good applicants ' there are plenty ' but, instead, is the sustainability of the projects, and learning what models work best. Some of the key models in the program now are projects 1) affiliated with university journalism schools, 2) from concerned citizens, 3) associated with libraries, library associations or community non-profits, 4) working with community cable access television, 5) working with local radio stations and 6) that are niche sites.
Lessons learned so far are that 1) frequent content updates are vital, 2) projects built on the backs of students don't work when the semester ends, 3) projects that outsource web development aren't sustainable because none of the principles knows how to fix things and 4) if the founder of the project for some reason has to stop working on it, that missing vision and drive often dooms the project.
Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab, will announce the new winners.
-- Gary Kebbel, Journalism Program Director