Knight Media Forum: How to Strengthen Local News, Serve Communities and Support Democracy

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13th Forum brought mix of provocative speakers, breakout discussions and showed progress on Knight’s initiative to boost local news

As trust in our institutions fades, local news suffers from layoffs and closures, and communities continue to suffer in America, the Knight Media Forum brought the brightest minds in media together to discuss ways to turn the tide. For the 13th annual Forum, the largest group of practitioners and funders ever (more than 600 people) convened in Miami from Feb. 24-26.

“We need a broad and deep coalition of Americans who give a damn about our democracy,” said Knight Foundation Alberto Ibargüen. “Let’s think about what we can do to convince our friends and colleagues that this is not a spectator sport, that if you’re an American who cares, you belong in this game as a player. Let’s make sustainability the through-line of the Knight Media Forum.”

Coming on the heels of last year’s announcement from Knight that it would invest $300 million to reinvigorate local news over the next five years, this year’s Forum was an update and continuation of those efforts, with the American Journalism Project having announced its first set of grantees, Report for America saying it would place 250 reporters in newsrooms this year, and ProPublica adding to its growing Local Reporting Network in investigative journalism.

But Knight Foundation sees that as just a starting point, and invited hundreds of community and family foundations to the Forum who were either funding local news efforts or considering it. As Ibargüen pointed out later, there were 20 or more foundations from Georgia alone attending as they considered making local news a major subject of philanthropy. 

And the challenges for local news and communities are significant. As newspapers shutter or become “ghost newspapers” run by hedge funds, more publishers are considering the nonprofit model, as well as emerging models such as cooperatives. And while many larger cities have benefited from the economic and technology boom in jobs and growth, many distressed towns and rural areas have been left behind. The media has had a long problem with diversity, equity and inclusion, not reflecting or engaging with communities of color—as panelists made clear, this is still a pressing concern.

More broadly, the struggles of local news equate to a struggle for communities who are not civically engaged, threatening our democracy. The platforms where we get our news and information, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, are controlled by private companies with little oversight from governments, especially here in the States. That has led to the continued spread of misinformation and manipulation of people as they begin to vote in primaries and the general election for 2020 in the United States. 

The Forum included many discussions on these three main themes – local news, community and democracy – with a focus on innovative solutions, increased diversity and inclusion, strengthening free speech and free press, and giving everyone control of their online data.

Making Local Journalism Sustainable
One of the brightest spots of the Forum was the announcement that Ron and Charlene Esserman, business leaders in Miami, were giving $2.5 million to support investigative and accountability reporting in South Florida. The family has been civically active in Miami and developed successful auto dealerships. The entire family, including children and grandchildren, decided to make this gift to support a year-long investigative reporting fellowship at the Miami Herald, as well as a new Esserman-Knight Journalism Prize, with a $10,000 top prize for the best accountability reporting in South Florida.

“Free press is important to democracy,” said Charlene Esserman at the announcement at the Olympia Theater to kick off the Forum. “This will honor brave journalists who demand accountability from the powerful and galvanize people who demand change. It ensures a free press will survive and thrive.”

Those thoughts were echoed again at the panel discussion between Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, and Mindy Marques, president and publisher and executive editor of the Miami Herald. Both discussed the important work they have been doing in investigative journalism, but the chasm was clear between the strong business model of the national-focused Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos) and the metro-focused Miami Herald (owned by McClatchy, which recently filed for bankruptcy). 

But the Esserman gift would certainly be a shot in the arm for the Herald as they consider new sources of revenue. 

“Nothing gets a newsroom more passionate than giving them great work to do,” said Marques. “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel doing journalism in South Florida. Nothing makes me crazier than when I hear a reporter tell a source that we can’t do a story because we don’t have anyone to cover it. I want to make sure we move mountains to do important stories.”

To continue to do those important stories requires a shift to emerging business models for local news, and the Anchorage Daily News and Salt Lake Tribune are taking different approaches for metro dailies. The Daily News went through various iterations before being bought by two businessmen in Alaska, and is now part of a private company. As David Hulen, editor of the Daily News, explained, the publication has taken an open-minded approach to serving its state-wide audience, shifting to direct reader revenue with subscriptions, and working with Knight Foundation, Poynter Institute, American Press Institute and Lenfest Institute.

“All those organizations are working to support news organizations as they change their business models and nurture their community,” Hulen said. “For this to work, it has to be local, local, local – ultimately serving the community.” The Daily News has taken advantage of the many efforts to strengthen community journalism—it has worked with Facebook on digital subscriptions, had a training from the Solutions Journalism Network, been a part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network and acquired a new reporter from Report for America who will cover health care issues.

Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune was bought by investment banker Paul Huntsman, and struggled for the first few years before becoming the first metro newspaper to become a nonprofit. 

“We want to continue to sell advertising, sell subscriptions, and allow philanthropists, both national and local, to support this model,” said Fraser Nelson, vice president of business innovation at the Tribune. “The only thing we don’t do is endorse candidates for office, which is good because Paul’s brother is running for governor…Becoming a nonprofit allows us to have deeper engagement and community engagement, and deep community journalism.”

One of the shining lights in finding a sustainable business model has been the New York Times, which has had growing digital subscriptions, with a major boost from the election of Donald Trump as president. When the Times was going through turmoil, publisher A.G. Sulzberger said, they kept the focus on deeply reported news, including investing in foreign bureaus in Iraq and Afghanistan when other news organizations were pulling back.

When the infamous “Innovation Report” that Sulzberger helped author was leaked to BuzzFeed and published, he learned that it’s important for newsrooms to be honest about problems to their employees. “If you show what’s wrong, you can rally people to help fix it,” he said. “I believe that if you want to change a news organization, you first have to forcefully argue what you’re not going to change. You create guardrails around your mission, and change becomes a less terrifying thing.”

Serving Diverse Communities
A long running issue in legacy media is that newsrooms are not diverse nor do they reflect the diverse communities they serve. That has led to discriminatory and overly negative coverage of underserved communities – if they are covered at all. But many local news initiatives are aiming to change the ratio, while amplifying the work of innovators of color.

To help attendees better understand all communities in the U.S. and their challenges with a changing workforce due to technology and automation, André Dua presented research from McKinsey Global Institute on “The Future of Work in America.” It showed that 60% of jobs created over the next 10 years will be in just 25 cities, while 2,000 counties in more rural areas with smaller towns will have only 1% job growth. The study shows a divergent story for success in America. 

But panelists pointed out some success stories in more distressed parts of the country. Karen Freeman-Wilson, former mayor of Gary, Indiana, noted that the city used a tool made for Detroit called the Local Data Survey to help determine how many vacant buildings they had, and then used state money to work in foreclosure mediation to demolish and reconstruct them. “It shows how legacy cities can solve problems,” she said, and also mentioned a culinary incubator founded with support from Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies to “spawn new entrepreneurs and businesses, especially as manufacturing is challenged.”

Once you understand your communities, it’s time to make sure newsrooms reflect the diversity of their audiences and also serve them with smart, accurate coverage. That doesn’t happen overnight, according to Martin Reynolds, co-director at the Maynard Institute

“It takes time to build relationships in communities you haven’t served,” Reynolds said. “You can’t just go in with flowers to a community and expect them to subscribe… It’s a good idea to collaborate with libraries and community foundations, and a community cannot be prosperous if local journalism isn’t supported. The opportunity is great, you just have to go grab it.”

On the same panel, Maria Hinojosa, president and founder of Futuro Media Group, talked about how she built her business, producing podcasts and video series, including “Latino USA” for NPR. She talked about the work her team had done covering the largest ICE raid in Mississippi last summer, in which 680 people working in food-processing plants were arrested. And she also talked about the difficulties of getting people in Latino communities to participate in the upcoming 2020 census.

“By doing deep reporting, we are able to push people to say ‘we need to be counted and seen,’” said Hinojosa. But she mentioned a problem of trust. While the Democratic Debate was happening in South Carolina, her staff received messages from people all over the country hearing that ICE officials were everywhere ahead of votes. “How do you tell them to answer a census or open a door for a census taker, when they are being told not to open a door for anyone?” she asked. 

Meanwhile, rural communities have had to adapt to both shifting fortunes from a loss of manufacturing jobs, and the shift of information from print to digital. Many rural weekly newspapers are surviving, but the stories being told about rural communities are not always accurate, which leads to a distrust of national media who often parachute in to tell stories. Report for America has made an effort to bolster reporting in rural communities, and even has a new initiative to cover more Native American communities and issues.

News that works might take new forms. In the breakout session about meeting the information needs of rural communities, Korenna Wilson of LOR Foundation mentioned a Facebook page and website called County 10 that covers Fremont County, Wyoming, attracting 18,000 readers a day with a stream of community news items without bylines. 

The session also included Terrance Williams, president and COO of the Keene Sentinel, a newspaper that’s been around since 1799 and serves southwestern New Hampshire with its staff of 15 people. The Sentinel participated in the Table Stakes program, and Williams expects digital subscribers to surpass print subscribers in the next three to four years. They also produce a series of events celebrating achievement in the community, including the Radically Rural summit.

Rethinking Platforms to Serve Democracy
The reason it’s so important to find a path to sustainability for local news and to serve and reflect diverse audiences is to make sure people are informed when performing their civic duties in a democracy. Without a concrete, fact-based information source in a town, citizens are left in the wilderness when it comes to voting in elections and holding public officials accountable.

That problem is even worse when you look at what’s been happening on popular social platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, where misinformation and lies spread faster than the fact-checks. Russian interference in the 2016 election helped manipulate and divide the American public, and Russians are currently doing the same for the 2020 primaries and fall election. But even that fact is in dispute as President Trump dismisses reports of Russian interference despite the evidence from his own intelligence agencies.

Jorge Ramos, anchor and journalist at Univision, has been a high profile critic of Trump ever since Ramos was removed from a Trump press conference in Iowa back in 2015. Ramos had an entertaining interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher at the Forum, discussing his relationship with Trump and why journalists need to hold the powerful to account.

“As a journalist we have two responsibilies,” Ramos said. “Tell the truth no matter what it is…and question those who are in power. If we don’t ask the tough questions than nobody will. We have to take stands on racism, violations of human rights, and dictatorship. If we don’t take a stand, who will do it? Our relationship with power has to be confrontational sometimes. People say I am against Trump, but I also confronted President Obama and asked why he deported 3 million people, and he didn’t like it.”

The challenge is even more difficult when it comes to policing hate speech online. Many white supremecists and others have taken advantage of lax or non-existent moderation on social media to spread hateful messages, attack people and “dox” them (share personal information line), and jump from one anonymous persona to another if they get banned. Many Forum speakers struggled with the balance between censoring and removing bad actors and allowing free speech online. Who has the authority to make those decisions and should the government step in with regulation?

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, mentioned Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018, and his idea about taxing surveillance advertising on the social platforms.

“I want to put a significant tax on Facebook, Google and others and use that money to create the PBS of social media,” Zuckerman said. “What are the tools we collectively need to build an internet that’s actually good for us as communities? What if we were building tools alongside the communities we work with and observe? These things are technically possible but are not profitable. We need to let go of the notion that some genius in Silicon Valley will come up with something new and clever that will solve our civic problems while making someone another trillion dollars.”

The question of regulating social platforms came up again in another discussion between Teddy Goff, former digital director for President Obama’s 2012 campaign and Ory Rinat, deputy assistant to President Trump and chief digital officer of the White House. Rinat said that “I don’t know what the solution is and there’s a risk of getting it wrong.” He mentioned a video that Senator Mitch McConnell had posted on Twitter of people threatening him outside his house. Twitter pulled it down because it showed where he lived, but eventually they put it back up. “These companies will say they don’t always get it right,” Rinat said.

But Goff pushed back, saying that even if the companies do get it wrong, there’s value to some kind of consortium between the tech companies, government and third parties working together to sort through free speech issues.

“Anyone who is worried about changes wants to keep the status quo,” Goff said. “If you look at the top posts on Facebook they are from conservative sites. I was in the Philippines and Facebook provides internet service where you can just get Facebook and all you can find is misinformation. Yes, it’s difficult to regulate social platforms, but it can’t be the status quo.” 

The panel discussion was controversial among some attendees who didn’t think a Trump advisor should be invited to the Knight Media Forum because of Trump’s history of attacking the media and spreading misinformation. But Knight consultant Robin Reiter-Faragalli noted that Rinat was invited to provide a viewpoint from the White House and that “I welcome the fact that he was willing to come into what some might consider hostile territory.” 

When it comes to solutions for privacy concerns people have when using social media, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, shared his thoughts about how his platform Solid would give people more power over the photos and documents that they share with others through apps. He noted that journalists could create a Solid server on their own computer and help keep government officials and police from tracking down communications with important sources.

“Open data is important and government data should be public,” Berners-Lee said. “But there’s also data about my personal life that I want to keep to myself. Most of my work is something in the middle, doing something and wanting to share it with the family and on Instagram. The message with Solid is we want to have a world where I can control my data and who I want to share it with. You should be in complete control of all the data in your life.” 

Food for Thought and Action
This year’s Knight Media Forum was the largest in its history and also gave attendees a feast of food for thought – and ideas for action to bring back to their organizations and communities. As more community foundations consider supporting local news, helping make them sustainable, this will lead to more informed communities who can participate in democracy. Stopping the flow of misinformation and regulating or taxing social media platforms – or creating something entirely new and more healthy for local populations – are crucial interventions in this election year.

Learn more about the Knight Media Forum by watching videos of plenary sessions, breakouts and video interviews by Hari Sreenivasan, anchor and senior correspondent at PBS NewsHour. You can also read scribe notes from the breakout sessions.

Mark Glaser is a consultant and advisor with a focus on supporting local and independent news in America. He was the founder and executive editor of MediaShift.org.