Breakout 4, Day 1: The Information Needs of ‘A’ Community

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Day 1 Kebbel & Villoch

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

Leader: Gary Kebbel, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Scribe: Danielle Villoch, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The break out session, led by Knight Foundation Journalism Program Associate Gary Kebbel, served as an intimate setting where seminar participants could expand on the first session’s ideas. The first session clarified the information needs of a community in a democracy. A functional democracy necessitates free-flowing information in order for citizens to make informed decisions affecting their community. This, however, is just the starting point. The breakout session covered several key themes, most of them focusing on how to identify community needs and what then can be done about them.

Gary opened the conversation by giving a brief background as to why Knight Foundation chose to devote a seminar to the intersection of community foundations and communities’ information needs. As newspapers lose revenue, local needs get cut first causing a gap to develop between the information provided and people’s needs. Nonprofessional information being provided to a community also suffers because these engaged individuals, such as bloggers, lack news sources. What happens to the ecosystem? Do citizen contributions suffer? Can we look to other funding sources? If so, is there a role here for community foundations?

Although participants were asked targeted questions to start the conversation, the goal was to discuss what community foundations have started doing to address this need. In general, participants agreed that people come together over shared issues, communities depend on interaction, and citizens are being left out. Ellen Hume of M.I.T. added that a community comes together over issues and over specific needs, not civic goodness.

These are a few of the recurring themes:

  1. Newspapers are losing revenue and publishers aren’t going into the community to see what it needs. Several participants noted that instead of helping a community evolve, the local newspaper is actually a boon to development and the sharing of information. For example, one participant shared that their local newspaper only talks about people leaving the city. It fails to mention all the people coming in, thus automatically excluding them from the community. In addition, some voiced displeasure with local newspapers’ focus on investigative journalism, which raises issues but fails to keep citizens informed about daily occurrences. Eric Pearson, a former journalist, argued that citizens shouldn’t be so negative about investigative journalism. He added, “Maybe this is local newspapers’ niche and a good way of holding local governments accountable.”
  2. Information sources that have successfully carved out their market are doing well. For example, William Ginsburg of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven spoke about the success of the Spanish community newspaper. Unlike the online English version, the Spanish paper has worked because most of the people who live in New Haven are Spanish-speaking and are therefore interested in reading local news in their native language.
  3. Community foundations want to get involved, but don’t know where to start. They don’t want to be seen as competition to newspapers or that they are trying to market certain ideas because they fund alternate information sources. They don’t want to be seen as competitors in the information world. They don’t want people to question why they are getting involved in this and start assigning ulterior motives. Should reforms start with altering the way local newspapers function or has that ship sailed? David Luckes from the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation argued that in order to effectively tackle the gap, community foundations have to look at realistic tactics and possibilities for action and tackle specific issues lead. It is too much to solve a newspaper’s problem.

In discussing initial hesitations, our breakout group arrived at potential solutions. David Luckes suggested that access to high end technical assistance or something like a SWAT team to come in and outline what community issues in connection to nonprofits would be helpful. Community foundations’ resources are often too limited to be out there doing research. A reliable source of information would assist funding strategies. Others suggested that setting up a network where people can talk about issues would be beneficial.

While some participants argued that funding community information initiatives sounds attractive, many community foundations lack the financial ability. Gary then asked, “Those that can fund these initiatives, what would make it easy for you to do so?” Mariam Noland of the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan started by saying that access to really good information would make it easier because she doesn’t even know what questions to ask to address the information gap. She said, “Simply providing access to information and resources would push us to work much faster and smarter. Access, coupled with more training about possibilities, would provide community foundations with tools to take initiatives farther, think better, and make more partnerships.”

Community foundations could consider leveraging the research of the CF Leads, which has already positioned itself to take on a community leadership role. It would be an efficient strategy because one would start with a group of willing that has said they want to do something about a community’s information needs. Eric Pearson, Vice President to the Executive Office of EL Paso Community Foundation, recommended that community foundations act as aggregators by taking stories and paralleling them with links to related resources. They could get stories and surround them with links that a community could use to research that issue. Our discussion had clearly turned from voicing concerns and theory behind information needs to offering realistic, executable solutions. Following this trend, Mariam Noland suggested that Knight Foundation could start an internship program that matched journalism students with community foundations. She asked, “We have never had interns with a journalism background and couldn’t Knight Foundation bring us people with that skill set from the graduate journalism programs they support? What better way to train them to understand what is going on in a community than at a community foundation?”

With this final suggestion, Gary turned to wrapping up the session. We determined that the take away message was that we had to figure out what makes these models for improving access to information sustainable. We can spend a lot of money to get something started, but if it isn’t sustainable the solution will not last beyond initial investments. We agree on basic needs and desires, we now face the challenge of developing functional and practical ways of how to fund and sustain solutions to a community’s information needs in a democracy.