Media Policy: think globally, act locally

Journalism does not need to be saved so much as it needs to be created. What did the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities mean when it said that? It’s all about building new and better news systems, which I talked about in Chicago on Monday at the Council on Foundations media policy panel. I joined former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas and MacArthur Foundation vice president Elspeth Revere.

Media policy in the United States is a top-down affair. The Knight Commission was the first major effort to look at news and information at the community level. There, newspapers (which provide most local news) have been cut to the bone. In most cities and towns, digital startups have not yet replaced – never mind improved on – what’s  been lost. The Knight-funded video above tells the story. It was a hit at the session, attended by about 200 funders.

Some foundations say “we don’t make media grants.” But media and democracy are two sides of the same coin. The right to know is just as important as the right to vote. It’s impossible for people to cast their votes to solve problems they do not know exist. That said, we tend to get the media we want, not the media we need.  Even at their peak in the last half of the 20th century, newspapers didn’t cover the whole community. Editors who ran newsrooms grabbed as much cash as they could from their monopoly owners and increased investigative reporting and coverage of education, health, the environment and other complex beats. But we still didn’t come close. More than 50,000 “units” of government exist in this large country, from sewer boards to the presidency. Generously, we covered perhaps a fourth of them.

Media policy is important because it sets the larger rules under which media ecosystems develop. But it’s also important to note that there is no such thing as “the media ecosystem,” just as there is no such thing as “the media.” Each community has its own microclimate where news and information either flourishes or doesn’t. That’s why the Knight Foundation created the Knight Community Information Challenge to match journalism and media grants being made by the nation’s 700 community foundations.  Each community foundation had a different idea of the community discussion it wanted to lead. That was fine with us, because each in its own way was helping create journalism, news and information.

Even so, the Knight Commission found there were some universal requirements for information health. The report helped us open new areas of Knight Foundation funding. All people need to have access to cyberspace, the commission said. So we helped communities get broadband money. All people need to have digital media literacy, the report said. We began working with libraries in Knight Communities to provide digital access and training. (A big grant went to Queens University in Charlotte to create the Knight School of Communication, devoted to raising the digital media literacy rate of the entire city.)

The commission said innovation was a must. Through the Knight News Challenge, we already were creating new tools and techniques. But we added an initiative to start dozens of new local news nonprofits. And finally, the commission said that communities must be able to engage with news and information to govern themselves and prosper. Knight started a “tech for engagement” initiative and open government data contests. All of these things help create journalism.

I told Copps I’d rather debate a marlin about the ocean than argue media policy with an FCC commissioner, past or present. My contribution was a famous Thomas Jefferson quote to make a point about “net neutrality.” Jefferson would have wanted a free and open Internet today the same way he wanted widespread newspapers in his day. So today he would say: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without the Internet, or Internet without the government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”  Added Copps:  “… But it should mean that every person should receive the Internet and be capable of using it.” (That was the second part of the Jefferson quote, modernized.)

Net neutrality, telephone and cable company mergers and spectrum actions are big issues. Thinking about them globally is a good thing, but acting on media locally is even better. Everything foundations want to do requires healthy flows of news and information. I urged foundation leaders to: 

  1. Build your own communications capacity. 
  2. Build communications into every grant.
  3. Make journalism and media grants on the topics you care most about.  
  4. Create a more fertile news ecosystem by supporting broadband access and adoption, digital media literacy in libraries and schools and the new tools, techniques and news organizations that make informed and engaged communities possible.

We’re involved in these issues at this foundation because our founders – the Knight family – saw newspapers as the best way to inform and engage communities. That was before digital age media economics ripped away 40 percent of the nation’s newspaper advertising and sent newsroom employment levels back to the 1970s, destroying most of the gains in specialty and investigative reporting. The Knight newspaper company is gone, but the mission remains. Said Jack Knight: “We seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.” It’s a quote we repeat often – and plan to keep repeating until we discover what new or transformed things in the 21st century will do for communities what printed daily newspapers did in the last century – and do it even better.

By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation

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