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 society.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 is used.
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 position.)
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 offhand:
- Provide seed funding for a network of local blogs and other community sites combining a variety of media, adding journalism training for the people involved.
- 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 School.
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This article appeared on page B - 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.