Knight Media Forum 2019: Welcome remarks by Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen
Informed and engaged communities are the bedrock of a healthy democracy.
But that bedrock has begun to quake. We meet today not just to describe the problem, but to find solutions.
We’re here today because the way we inform ourselves is insufficient to meet the demands of our democratic republic. If you do not have a reliably informed citizenry, you will not have a functioning democracy. It’s that simple.
And we’re here because we think one of the three ways forward is reinvigorating local news.
The emergence and quick dominance of search and social media; the rise of talk radio and opinion broadcasts presented as news; twenty years of layoffs and shutdowns at national and local news outlets—these changes have radically altered our news landscape. Internet platforms have decimated the business model that sustained newspapers for most of the last century, while concentrating data, and therefore power, in a few, global hands.
The result is that the local news ecosystem that was so uniquely and valuably American is in disarray. Communities are left without a broadly shared, common baseline of facts about what just happened, about where we are, about who we are.
But it’s in those local communities where we have the greatest chance to rebuild the trust we’ve lost in our institutions, in our news, in our leaders, and in ourselves.
The shorter the distance between our neighbors and our news, the stronger our community. There is strength in local, and local leads to trust.
When there is distance, however, between news and reader, event and citizen, trust erodes and our social fabric frays.
Having spent most of my adult life supporting local journalism and its essential role in our democracy, I find this deeply troubling.
But I am also buoyed by a different emotion: hope.
I confess to being a prisoner of hope. I believe, no matter the obstacles, in our ability to do better.
That belief is anchored by history and knowledge of what we’ve overcome. As an example, before Gutenberg mechanized the printing press, there was order. Publications were few and often carried the Church’s imprimatur. Everyone knew what to believe. After Gutenberg, there was a flood of information, and for a hundred years, the public had trouble figuring out what was true.
Not long ago, most Americans got their news from print newspapers with trusted brands — including 98 percent of the registrants when we started this conference 12 years ago.
Internet allowed social media to break the dam, multiplied the sources and concentrated the distribution systems. While more people than ever before in history now have access to more information than ever, that sea change came with a flood of misinformation, disinformation, harassment and invective. The distribution of information has been consolidated into the hands of a few, enormous and generally unregulated companies.
I mentioned that local news was one of three avenues we need to pursue. I believe the other two are technology and legal. As a practical matter, our focus at Knight is on local news, but we should be aware of the need and possibilities of using artificial intelligence agents to solve the problems of misinformation and disinformation – the same problems that artificial intelligence agents were used to create.
And we need to reconsider whether global internet companies should continue to be governed by rules written for American print and broadcast outlets in the 20th century. We need fresh concepts of economic competition. Should we return to an earlier notion of trust busting, where the public determines a corporate behemoth is just too big? Should the laws of libel and product liability apply to digital services and products?
Congress, if I understand recent hearings, has taken note of the awesome power of the platforms and intends to act. I think the rolling thunder is just over the horizon. And it might be one of those rare moments when right and left come together.
But both technological advances and debates about law and regulation are largely outside the scope of this conference.
Our focus is on finding new ways to fulfill the underlying purpose of local news: sustaining an informed citizenry. Or, as Jack Knight put it, illuminating the minds of readers “so that the people may determine their true interests.”
For a decade, with the help of many of you in this room, we’ve explored different approaches to helping local news adapt and we’re ready to apply what we’ve learned.
Three weeks ago, the Aspen Institute’s Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy issued its report, which I would recommend as a primer on these issues and an index of possible ways forward.
Last week, Knight Foundation announced a new initiative to revitalize local news, doubling our previous plan and raising the ante to $300 million.
But I stress that it’s only the ante and that’s why I’m delighted to see you here and was so glad to read NYU professor Michael Posner’s call in Forbes for a “Marshall Plan for journalism.” That vision evokes the scale of the effort — not by government, but by we, the people.
We start with local news because some of the most remarkable journalistic feats in our nation’s history have been local.
The Watergate stories that took down a president and changed the course of history were written by two metro reporters.
The Catholic Church’s suppression of sexual abuse was uncovered by The Boston Globe’s local investigative unit.
Two weeks ago, Southern Baptist Convention’s sex scandals were uncovered by the Houston Chronicle.
And last year, when a gunman murdered five journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, their colleagues responded by putting out a paper the next day at a newspaper that was not liberal or conservative but just told the story of what had happened in their city and what might be next.
The two key parts of the Knight initiative in Trust, Journalism and Democracy that I want you to remember are: 1) it’s about local news, because that’s where we think trust can be regained, and 2) it’s structured so that anyone can participate.
No matter what you’re passionate about, or where you live, there’s something for you.
If you want to support investigative journalism, donate to ProPublica’s local investigative journalism program.
If you want to help local outlets pursue sustainable digital business models, donate to the American Journalism Project.
If you want to place reporters in a range of newspapers around the country, donate to Report for America.
If you understand the need for legal support for journalists, support the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and legal clinics at various law schools supported by the Stanton Foundation and others.
Choose one – or several – that catch your attention, and you can be part of the solution. Because the solution is local.
The fundamental goal of this $300 million push is to reinvigorate local news as the staging ground for the middle, a place where common facts are the common prize. And in doing so, to help rebuild trust in media and strengthen our democracy.
A few days ago, I read a piece about social change that quoted two great writers who were also social activists, James Baldwin and Simone de Beauvoir, each calling for engagement in society. Baldwin wrote about race, power and pride and said, “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.” And de Beauvoir noted, “It is ours to do because the present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action.”
If you leave this week’s Media Forum with one thought, let it be this, from their combined message: We have to make this world over, and it is ours to do.
Join us is renewing trust in news, and in each other.