Tales from the trail: Local foundations focus on news and information

Communities / Article

KCIC Deep Dive presentations: Design thinking and learning together. From left; Susan Patterson, Co-Director, KCIC, Knight Foundation, moderator, Dan X. O’Neil, Chicago Community Trust/Smart Chicago Collaborative, Kelly Ryan, CEO, Incourage Community Foundation, Chris Daggett, President & CEO,  Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Emmett D. Carson, Ph.D., CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation during the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar 2015. Photo by Patrick Farrell. 

It’s been a few years since community and place-based foundations began working more furiously on fostering more informed and engaged communities through a wide range of news and information projects.

Tuesday morning at Knight’s Media Learning Seminar, the assembled foundation, media and technology leaders heard updates from some of the most successful projects and programs funded in part through the Knight Community Information Challenge. All address the information needs of communities in light of the rapid decline in local journalism of recent years. But the approaches taken offer plenty of variety.

They ranged from directly funding local journalism to supporting the growth of local-journalism entities, while others centered on citizen engagement and evangelizing information sharing by residents themselves.

Here’s a bit about their efforts.

The straight line to journalism

Seen through the lens of addressing shrinking newsrooms and news sources, the most obvious and direct approach can be seen in VTDigger.org, a Vermont statewide online news site founded on a shoestring in 2009, which earned a 2011 KCIC grant and operates as a program of the Vermont Journalism Trust. At the Miami event, Vermont Community Foundation president Stuart Comstock-Gay sang the praises of VTDigger, citing the non-profit news operation’s growth into an essential Vermont institution.

Founded and headed by veteran Vermont newspaper editor Anne Galloway, VTDigger’s reporters and freelancers crank out watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy. Remarkably, VTDigger is now the dominant news force covering the state legislature; six of its reporters covered the statehouse through the 2015 session.

Comstock-Gay said that happened in a mere five years because the state’s philanthropic community, including his and other foundations, stepped up. This was a welcome development since Vermont was “not known as a terribly philanthropic state,” he said. Today, VTDigger gets about 25% of its budget from foundations, vs. 50% from sponsorships and underwriting, and 25% from memberships.

Helping fledgling local-news outlets

The Dodge Foundation’s news and information strategy is a step away from directly funding news operations, and towards fostering a stronger, more sustainable ecosystem of local news organizations. For the last five years, the foundation has been supporting local-news operations in New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York City — with the biggest focus on Jersey’s weakened news ecosystem.

“Absent good journalism, we’re all suffering,” is how Dodge President and CEO Chris Daggett  described the current situation. In addition to a longer-running partnership with a New Jersey university journalism program to work on growing the news ecosystem, Dodge’s more-recent program works with six small local-news operations to support them in finding sustainable business models and providing assistance with technology, legal help, community-engagement best practices and micro-grants to pay for experiments. That doesn’t touch local residents directly in the way that VTDigger does; the Dodge program is about addressing the needs of its local-news partners to help ensure their long-term viability..

“This is not just about journalism, but about (addressing the) information needs of communities,” Daggett said. “We think of journalism as a service.” The newest Dodge program is one of four funded by Knight Foundation last year, forming a small, learning cohort of Knight Community Information Challenge grantees expanding their work beyond the initial grants.

Focusing on citizen engagement

For Incourage Community Foundation in central Wisconsin, another member of the learning cohort, its investments in news and information began with an inclination to build an online news site to fill the local-news gap. But that turned out to be a “shiny object,” not appropriate to pursue because the foundation didn’t have the right strategy lined up, said Kelly Ryan, Incourage’s CEO. Instead, that initial thought “started a seven-year journey of incremental learning,” she told the Media Learning Seminar audience.

Incourage’s approach to addressing its community’s news and information needs is now all about citizen engagement and encouraging residents to become active in community decision making, something all but absent in this rural city.  Via its Tribune Building project, which invited area residents to meet and decide what the purchased former newspaper building would house, resident engagement has shot up and a growing number of residents are joining in to make community-wide decisions. Ryan pointed out, typically, the people with information are the ones with  the power. Because Incourage wants residents to take more control, it’s important that they develop an appetite for community information and information-sharing habits on their own.

Informed, engaged citizens: Required for change

Engaged citizens are important, as well, to the news and information strategy of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, another member of the learning cohort. CEO Emmett Carson said he long ago “embraced and owned” the importance of informed communities. Today, “I desperately need engaged communities” to tackle the critical problems impacting communities throughout Silicon Valley: in housing, education, immigration, etc. The only way to have an impact is by having an engaged and informed citizenry.

The foundation is now involved in multiple experiments that aim to expand the news and information mission beyond just the initial focus on informing area residents about the national  Common Core educational standards. That includes trying out new storytelling techniques, and recruiting and encouraging immigrants to tell their stories of living in Silicon Valley. Since the foundation joined the cohort and began collaborating with other members, the news and information team members also are becoming stronger evangelists for informed communities throughout the rest of the organization, as well as externally.

Core lessons

Some important lessons have come out of the cohort already. (The group’s collaboration extends through early 2016, so it’s not complete.) One is to be wary of obsessing over online platforms when attempting to get communities to engage digitally. Daniel X. O’Neil of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, the fourth member of the cohort, pointed out that what’s important is getting community members to express their ideas and share their stories openly. The platform used shouldn’t get in the way. Incourage’s Ryan cited the example of trying to use a nifty, feature-rich proprietary public communication platform, but it wasn’t “owned” by the community, which preferred (and ended up using) a Facebook group.

Also, talk to other foundations and work with your peers, urged Dodge’s Daggett; foundations don’t collaborate nearly enough with each other. Dodge routinely tries to figure out how to work with organizations other than just grantees, about partnerships, sharing information and lessons, and more, said Daggett.

Steve Outing is a writer and digital media consultant.