@dangillmor: Six ways foundations and groups can help keep communities informed and engaged

This post is part of a series about the 2012 Media Learning Seminar, a gathering of foundations, news organizations and tech experts on community information needs. Watch the livestream Monday and Tuesday at

Dan Gillmor has been watching closely as digital and social media upended the world’s “legacy” models for communication. The Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship director has spent much of the last decade considering how the media ecosystem has evolved, and in particular, how non-corporate interests like community groups and non-profit foundations can help keep alive some of the most important traditions of the disappearing traditional press.

“We’re in a fundamentally different situation,” he said of how communities get information today. “We create stuff, make it available and people come and get it. Consumers become creators and then become collaborators. The collaboration part is the most exciting and I think we’re going to be figuring that out for generations to come.”

Gillmor addressed the 400+ attendees of Knight’s 2012 Media Learning Seminar this morning.  His advice to foundations and community groups who want to take part in keeping their audiences informed and engaged:

1. Take inventory.

Find out what news and information is available about your community, what’s being covered and which sources your audience trusts. Just plug the name of your town or interest area into Flickr or Twitter to catch a “parallel universe” of media that exists about a community in social media.

Take this a step further by aggregating this parallel universe for your community. Don’t make your community go hunting for their information needs. In Sweden, is a portal that highlights the “parallel universe” — a way to say “We think these sources are important and you should see them.”

2. Convene a conversation about the community with the community.

One of the most important public services newspapers provide is to convene a conversation about the community. As newspapers disappear in some smaller communities, preserving the town square is vital and community organizations can step in to provide that forum for conversation in the digital age.

What if we had control of op-ed pages in newspapers? “If I ran a newspaper and had control of an op-ed page, I would invert it. I would make the print pages the ‘guide to’ and ‘best of’ the online conversation a community needs to have with itself.”

3. Collaborate with natural allies.

Some allies that Gillmor recommended approaching for partnerships include:

Libraries — Taking inventory of a community’s information needs and sources could be achieved in partnership with the local library. Gillmor is working with the Library of Congress on digital news preservation, because bloggers often get excited about blogging and then level off or fade away. How should their postings about a place or community be preserved?

Schools — Partner with universities or groups within schools that might be able to help you reach a critical mass of community members. “I’m not going to tell you how,” Gillmor said. “You can figure it out and tell me how.”

Co-ops — Gillmor says co-ops are a largely unexplored possibility to approach for help in starting a local news product. “If I were starting a local news product right now, I would certainly make it a cooperative. Help stock the shelves or do some articles,” he said.

Government — Like does with pothole problems, let’s connect the information about infrastructure problems with the people who can fix it, like the local government. “Government often is an adversary but not always, and we can work with it,” said Gillmor.

4. Watchdog. Watchdog. Watchdog.

“This is the role that I most worry about going missing when newspapers die,” said Gillmor. Being a watchdog of institutions or people in power is critical for democracies, and the most important role a watchdog plays is not necessarily to “bite anybody” with a big investigative report, though it’s sometimes necessary. Gillmor argues the best role of a watchdog is just existing in a community and making known that you’re there. “In the journalistic world, the watchdog role of the journalist is to put in the minds of people who would do bad things just the suspicion that somebody might be paying attention. That’s the crucial effect of the watchdog role,” he said.

How can we preserve the watchdog role when the institutions that provided some piece of it are disappearing? Community organizations can help by generating critical mass around a topic — leveraging an audience to get more out of issues that need attention. Use the leverage you have where it works best.

5. Fail Fast and Fail Often.

Gillmor says yes to both trying everything and doing high impact work. “Don’t worry about failing,” he said. “I own my failures and own the successes but I always learn more from the failures.” Celebrate smart failure as you experiment with ways to keep your community informed. Try some things that don’t work — it’s a Silicon Valley idea that seems to be spreading.

6. Keep Up the Fight

The struggle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood that exploded over the Stop Online Privacy Act, or SOPA, is a much larger fight that all content creators and web innovators should be paying attention to, says Gillmor.

“Powerful interests want to roll us back in terms of high level control of our technology, and they are getting closer to their goal. This is fundamentally a control thing. It ranges from companies to governments. It’s real and it’s being done by people for their perfectly understable interests but it threatens everything we’re doing.  It’s our internet, not theirs.” Gillmor encourages you to look into these issues, as you should not need permission to innovate.

Be aware of “control points,” he says. They include companies like Facebook and Apple. “What I don’t want to see is for us to go to an internet that is limited by a single company or a few companies. We’re headed into a world of private little gardens. I use them, but I’m careful.”

Elise Hu is covering the event as a freelance blogger for KnightBlog. She is the digital editor of StateImpact at NPR.