Knight Media Forum 2023 – Welcome by Knight President Alberto Ibarguen – Knight Foundation

Knight Media Forum 2023 – Welcome by Knight President Alberto Ibarguen

Welcome to the 16th annual Knight Media Forum, our first in-person gathering in three years! 

It’s my great privilege to lead Knight Foundation, dedicated to strengthening democracy by supporting informed, engaged, and inclusive communities.

In the beginning, this conference sought to engage community and regional foundations in meeting the information needs of their communities. Today, our audience is broader: it includes journalism, technology and philanthropy leaders whose ambitions are local, regional and national. 

At that first conference, in 2007, a few hundred people attended and 98% said that they got their news from a newspaper. Today, we have thousands of participants, most of them virtual, and nearly all of them consume news digitally. 

I am particularly pleased that we have over 265 foundation leaders joining us, representing 103 communities across the country and the globe. A special hello to our friends from Kyiv, London, Mumbai, Toronto and Winnipeg,

Our purpose remains the same as it was at the start: to explore ways to maintain an informed citizenry, without which democracy fails. But our focus has shifted over the years from funders to media technology, to local journalism, to the informed communities themselves. That focus is important and is reflected in the program you’ll experience over the next two days. 

As we go through these discussions, it’s important to remember that our democratic republic is organized by geography. And, until not long ago, our information systems were, too. 

But now, we inform ourselves through platforms and apps untethered from the physical communities in which we elect the people who pass the laws and regulations that will decide every kind of policy and practice. With the weakening of local news organizations, we are increasingly likely to elect people we do not know, to govern in ways we will never hear about. I think that’s a train crash begging to happen. 

Look at Long Island, which recently elected to Congress, in a geographically determined district, a man who lied about his education, his career, his religion, and even his mother having died on 9/11. A small local paper raised some questions about the candidate but it didn’t have the resources to go further and no larger outlet picked it up until the New York Times published a story *after* the election of now-Congressman George Santos. 

This is the crisis of local news today. And if you think Santos is an aberration, you’re not paying attention. 

I don’t pretend the past was ideal. Think of the errors, the hubris of power and the many communities who traditionally were not well served by media. But consider the reporting that isn’t being done and about the stories going untold, thanks to the tens of thousands of reporting jobs lost in the last two decades. And think about the hundreds of local news deserts documented by Knight-funded studies at UNC and now Northwestern. 

Journalism is an important tool in this society, but we are not trying to save journalism; we are investing in informed communities.

And after years of playing defense, to borrow one of Jim Brady’s football analogies, it feels like we’re finally playing offense. All of you gathered here today, this diverse and committed group, represent the many different ways in which we’re doing that.. 

Knight Foundation centers our work on finding new business models that can deliver reliable and consistently reliable local news and information to communities. Others here focus on information verticals, technology, engaging disengaged communities, citizen journalists, the First Amendment, improving the quality of journalism, and providing the information that communities, not newsrooms, are talking about. All of this work is valuable. 

As you’ve probably heard, there’s a new effort to create a collaboration of funders under a tent big enough to accommodate different approaches. If you’re interested, don’t miss the session on Journalism Funding Collaboration, today at 3:45.

After thousands of hours of debate and discussion, and tens of millions of dollars in investment, we’re starting to get answers.

Look at the American Journalism Project, which Knight, along with Emerson Collective and others, is proud to support. In just a few years, they’ve stood up or supported 37 news organizations around the country. 

One of AJP’s latest efforts, Signal Ohio, will offer local news, but with regional business operations. I see it as a possible first step toward a national affiliation of nonprofit news organizations that could attract support from national advertisers and national philanthropies committed to saving democracy. Signal Cleveland is already up and running very well, and Columbus, Ohio, is a future destination.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that Knight Foundation will invest $5 million toward the creation of Signal Akron in Jack Knight’s hometown. Even better: local individuals and philanthropic organizations, together with AJP, will nearly match our $5 million, for a total investment of $9.5 million, to start. 

If you look around the country, you’ll see dozens of new organizations joining local digital pioneers like the Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, Mississippi Today and the New Haven Independent. ProPublica has established itself as a leader in investigative journalism nationally. After one year, Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times is showing promise as a potentially replicable model for sustainable local news. At the reception last night, I was reminded that the startup NJ Spotlight was taken over by local public broadcasting and is still a digital presence informing people in New Jersey. 

Newer players are everywhere, from Fort Worth to Baltimore, St Paul and New Orleans to Santa Cruz. Just a few days ago, an Indiana Local News Initiative was announced. Houston, with support from Arnold Ventures and the Houston Endowment, will also soon launch. 

And don’t overlook for-profit investments in local news. Axios, now part of Cox Communications, has ambitious plans for a national network of local newsrooms. The Daily Memphian, launched in 2018, is another digitally native local and for-profit publication. Hearst and Lee Enterprises continue to serve many dozens of  U.S. cities and towns. Many other communities are served by for-profit local news organizations, like the Black community newspapers that will be featured this morning. 

In most communities, the largest news organizations are still for-profit, often owned by venture funds. What relationship, if any, should philanthropy have with them and the communities they serve? Or with for-profit television? 

Considering the origin of the Knight Media Forum, let’s also recognize that many community foundations have funded in this area. Among them: the Blue Grass Community Foundation and the Wichita Foundation, which will both share lessons learned on the mainstage and in breakouts.

It is heartening to see the number of foundations, large and small, now actively engaged in, or considering engaging in this field — I’m thinking about a range of foundations like Jonathan Logan and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism. Joyce. Peterson. Democracy Fund. And, of course, iconic names like MacArthur, Ford, and Carnegie.

I’d also like to celebrate The Texas Tribune. In just ten years, it’s gone from experiment to a juggernaut covering Texas politics. It’s in the black. It saw a successful leadership transition. And Evan Smith, its founding editor, is today at Emerson Collective. We at Knight take special pride in all this success, as one of the Trib’s founding supporters, along with the Houston Endowment.

Yesterday we at Knight concluded two other conferences focused on different aspects of these issues, public libraries and journalism education. Both of these fields, directly and indirectly causing people to be better informed, have much to celebrate and we take great pride in the Knight Chairs and the Carnegie Knight Deans, though perhaps nobody has a better story than Berkeley journalism Dean Geeta Anand, who has managed to channel $25million in journalism fellowships in California!

The health of our democracy demands that we build on these successes, and continue to experiment.

That message is getting through. There is a growing consensus across the philanthropic landscape that high quality news, particularly local news, is foundational to our democracy. This has long been the case in public broadcasting and is borne out by Gallup polling.

As we continue this work, we need to ask ourselves:

  • Are we telling stories in ways that are natural to the medium we’re using, or are we still just putting the newspaper or television news on the web? 
  • Are we making sufficient investment in user experience? 
  • Are we sufficiently diverse to offer a news product that is genuinely inclusive? 
  • Do we actually engage all of our community and reflect its interests? 
  • Is the business model financially strong enough to secure genuine independence?

We need to reach the person who cares about their community, who wants to know their neighbors and the culture of the place. They want to know about their kids’ schools and understand local government — but they also lead lives and have fun and want that reflected, too. To do that, we need diverse and inclusive newsrooms, staffed by journalists who not only listen for stories, but for what actually matters to the communities they serve. 

That suggests a shift in mindset from providing news to a mindset of engagement

I’m excited to begin this chapter of our conversation. I’m excited by new players and by the opportunity to have differing views in the room, all focused on perfecting our society through better informed communities. 

Now let’s get to it.

– Alberto Ibargüen