Foundations take on projects to improve local news and information

Terry Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust and Neha Singh Gohil of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation take part in a design thinking session for their projects.

Increasingly, community foundations are playing a role in meeting the information needs of their cities. Over the next year, KnightBlog will follow four of these projects funded by the Knight Community Information Challenge, and share their progress and insights. Related Links

Foundations take on projects to improve local news and information” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 10/30/14

How Smart Chicago gets everyday people to guide future of civic tech” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 12/10/14

A foundation eager to act learns to listen first” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 12/17/14

In Wisconsin, a vacant newspaper building takes new life” by Steve Outing on Knight blog, 01/21/15

Community foundations aren’t likely to save faltering local news institutions or bring failed media outlets back from the dead. But six years into the Knight Community Information Challenge, they now are playing a significant role in ensuring residents have the information and news they need to shape their cities.

Knight launched the Community Information Challenge in 2008 as a way to encourage community and place-based foundations to get involved in stemming what was becoming a news-and-information crisis across the U.S.: the alarming decline in local journalism as a result of the news industry’s rocky transition to the digital age and the loss of many working journalists in local media. Through 2013, the challenge backed more than 100 community-information projects, which were matched with funding from community foundations.

The program isn’t over, though. For 2014-15, the challenge is doubling down on projects by four community and place-based foundations with a successful track record in this area, helping them go further and then sharing the lessons with other community foundations and stakeholders in the local-news and -information space.

These four represent a diverse set of approaches to expanding community information and increasing community engagement. None of them seek to return to old models of top-down local news and information distribution. All of them are facing a range of challenges to their local news and information eco-system.


  1. Building a Sustainable Journalism Ecosystem: Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Morristown, NJ (Initial focus on New Jersey news and information)
  2. Smart Chicago Collaborative: Chicago Community Trust, Chicago, IL (Building and demonstrating digital information tools to empower and inform citizens)
  3. Community Action Information Action Agenda: Incourage Community Foundation, Wisconsin Rapids, WI (Planning and actions to change the local information culture in their city)
  4. Spreading the Word: Silicon Valley Common Core Initiative: Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Mountain View, CA (Developing new approaches to providing information in Silicon Valley’s communities)

In New Jersey, the dominant newspaper (Newark Star-Ledger) laid off about two-thirds of its staff in the last five years, and state funding for public media was diverted to nearby states, leaving news from New York City and Philadelphia media to dominate the public conversation. The upside has been a rise in small, independent news enterprises focused on New Jersey, and a fresh slate for creating a new state news ecosystem.

But fledgling local news enterprises tend to run lean and focus on the editorial mission, often at the expense of work on financial sustainability. Typically, the problem is having to “feed the news beast and not having time to address business challenges,” says Josh Stearns, director for journalism and sustainability at the Dodge Foundation. Dodge’s media focus, then, is on supporting news outlets – non- and for-profit, information organizations, and individuals – with mentoring and grants to allow experimentation with new revenue strategies, as well as base-level support to all partner news organizations such as training, marketing and technology assistance, and content sharing. (Dodge is working with six for-profit pilot sites: Brick City Live, Morristown Green, New Brunswick Today, and Jersey Shore Hurricane News in New Jersey, and The Lo-Down and Sheepshead Bites in New York.)

Chicago, meanwhile, has plenty of news media that are city-focused, but they are also feeling the pinch of shrinking revenues. The Chicago Community Trust, then, takes a different approach to local information by keying in on what’s deficient: boosting citizen engagement and building technology for Chicago-area residents to use in gathering and analyzing information and public data themselves. It’s information self-empowerment driven by technology. This approach channels what journalism professor and media provocateur Jeff Jarvis advocates when he writes: “The internet has proven to be good at helping communities inform themselves.”

A core component of the Trust’s information strategy is the Smart Chicago Collaborative, headed by technologist and Everyblock co-founder Daniel X. O’Neil. Smart Chicago works to lessen the “digital divide” by helping more Chicagoans gain access to the Internet, then takes the next step by creating data-oriented Web applications designed for use by the public. Getting people to use the applications is accomplished in various ways, including “Civic User Testing” groups, a set of Chicago residents who get paid (modest amounts) to test civic apps. (And watch for an “Unsummit” in 2015 that will bring out the community around neighborhoods data collected and analyzed by Chicagoans using these apps.)

Moving from a metropolitan to a “micropolitan area” in central Wisconsin, the Incourage Community Foundation finds itself at the center of reimaginging the community information culture for the town of Wisconsin Rapids (pop. 18,000) and the surrounding south Wood County area (pop. 54,000). Formerly the home of a Fortune 500 paper company, Wisconsin Rapids lost its identity as a “company town” a decade and half ago, along with many jobs. Its Gannett-owned newspaper, the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune (now named Daily Tribune Media), sold its building on the banks of the Wisconsin River to Incourage in 2012, and now operates out of a smaller space in Wisconsin Rapids, relying more on the Gannett Wisconsin Media regional operation and generating less local reporting than in the past.

While Incourage leader Kelly Ryan says that the Tribune Building Project “is not about the building” but what will go on inside it, the location of Wisconsin Rapids’ new community asset in a former newspaper and radio-station building does seem appropriate. The community foundation is designing a grant program “to sustain on-going information collection and platforms and develop the county’s news and information ecosystem.” The foundation is also trying to change the information culture in the city, so that more residents have the information they need to participate in shaping the city’s future.

Then there’s Silicon Valley, California, where, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, based in Mountain View (not far from famous corporate neighbor Google), covers a sprawling area of 34 municipalities and 64 school districts, with no single center or hub. That makes community news and information a challenge. Technology innovations emerging from Silicon Valley get no shortage of attention and coverage, but that’s not as true for news and information about all the local communities on topics such as economic security, education, immigrant integration, and regional planning.

As the foundation’s director of initiatives and special projects, Mauricio Palma, explains, one approach is to tell untold “Silicon Valley stories” of the people, using 21st-century digital tools. That effort will include interns for research, writing, and production, and partnerships with area ethnic media. (Silicon Valley’s population is nearly one-half minorities, and one-third of the workforce is foreign-born.) As an initial step in increasing the community foundation’s dive into local information, the focus is on helping community members and parents understand Common Core State Standards for schools, which the foundation has decided to support. Palma says that the information strategy for Common Core (which is not without controversy) will serve as the model for subsequent information initiatives on other important community issues.

I’ll be blogging about these projects, and what they are learning over the next year. You can watch for stories here on KnightBlog and following #infoneeds on Twitter.

Steve Outing is a writer and digital media consultant.