Knight Media Forum Welcome Speech 2018

Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen delivered the following opening remarks at the Knight Media Forum on February 20, 2018. The remarks have been lightly edited for publication.

Good morning, everybody. Thank you for being here and welcome to the first Knight Media Forum – the 11th Media Learning Seminar.

I hope you all enjoyed the movie “The Post” last night. I’m not Tom Hanks, and I’m not Meryl Streep, but we’ll have to make do. I really enjoyed the panel with the amazing Dana Priest from the Washington Post and University of Maryland, Jameel Jaffer, who I think is the next Floyd Abrams, and Floyd Abrams himself, who was actually one of the New York Times’ lawyers represented in the film. I asked Floyd afterwards which of the lawyers had played him and he said, “the handsome one.” And then thanks to Jennifer Preston for moderating last night – and Jennifer, thank you and thanks to Robin Reiter – the two key people – for putting all of this together.

I’m Alberto Ibargüen, and for the past dozen years, I’ve had the privilege of leading the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where our mission is to improve how democracy functions by supporting informed and engaged communities.

The Knight Media Forum is key to that mission. It’s an opportunity for leaders across media and philanthropy to consider the role of news and information in shaping and strengthening communities. This is the theme you’ll hear from everybody at Knight. It’s news for what purpose? For informing and engaging citizens so they are in a better community in a democracy.

These issues were very much on my mind 11 years ago in San Francisco, where I had been asked to speak to the community foundations conference convened by the Council on Foundations. The day before the conference, the San Francisco Chronicle run an op-ed by Dan Gillmor in which he argued that if the foundations at the conference really wanted to impact their communities, they should focus on the survival of local journalism.

The argument was, and is, very simple: For a democratic republic to thrive, it needs the consent of the people. To come to agreement, there has to be common ground so there can be consensus. And to reach that common ground, you need trust.

In our history, we’ve had many periods of division, starting with the very beginning, when we were hardly united in the decision to rebel against Britain.

Time and again, we’ve tested each other, distrusted each other, and then come together. But during this last decade, we have seen trust decline not only precipitously but in tandem with a dramatic drop in the production and dissemination of local news – that basic, commonplace and common-sense information that informs the middle. These are related events.

When we don’t have a neutral middle, the void is filled with opinion. Opinion, however well-intentioned, is not fact and is not whole. One day’s news does not make a full story, but a year’s worth of reliable, verified news creates a community bound together with trust and information.

The middle is the glue that makes that compromise stick. Once that’s gone, everyone is left running toward their own set of facts. That’s not a particularly significant problem for an authoritarian regime, but it is an existential threat for a democratic republic like ours.

That day 11 years ago in San Francisco, I literally scrapped my planned speech and instead channeled Dan Gillmor’s call to action. By supporting local news, Dan argued in his op-ed, community foundations could “play a vital role in ensuring that communities emerge from an inevitably messy media transition with the kind of local information sources we all need.” To predict that the transition from traditional print and broadcast to internet would be “messy” was hopeful, since it implied we’d get through it – and phenomenally understated.

For us at Knight, it was just the beginning. With many of you, we devised the Knight Community Challenge, and within six years, we had received applications from 450 of the country’s roughly 700 community foundations. We awarded 120 grants through that process. 

And we started the annual Media Learning Seminar. I am pleased to say today, the Knight Media Forum has grown to attract the largest, most diverse crowd we’ve ever had. Looking around the room, I see leaders in radio and television, reporters from large and small newspapers, community leaders and digital innovators. The role of news and information in communities has become a critical theme in the work of place-based foundations around the country, and I’m especially pleased to see so many representatives, staff and board members here today from those foundations.

I shouldn’t do this, I know that – it’s dangerous in a crowd like this – but since so many of you have participated in this seminar and this movement, but I really do want to call out four foundations in particular for their commitment and partnership in the work: The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, whose president, Emmett Carson, has taken up this cause in the Valley; our own hometown Miami Foundation and Javier Soto, the president, is here; Philadelphia’s Wyncote Foundation, whose chair, David Haas, has long been a leader in funding nonprofit news and information; and the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan, whose president, Mariam Noland, used to be a Knight Foundation trustee, and was one of the people who moved the adoption of this new practice and policy at Knight Foundation, and has worked to ensure that Detroit never should become a news desert. Special thanks to them for their partnership.

Obviously, times have changed since that first Media Learning Seminar. Information produced or presented by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple comprises most of what we know, or think we know, as fact. Who saw that coming? Maybe one or two of you, but I didn’t. I don’t need to explain the evolution of news media to this group, but as a reminder of how fast things have changed, think about the fact that, at the first conference 11 years ago, nobody had a smart phone … because they didn’t exist. And imagine that, when we first met, we polled the audience and:

  • 98% said they got their daily news from a newspaper.
  • Twitter was about a year old. At the second year’s seminar, Dianne Lynch, who was then Dean of Ithaca’s Communications School, explained to the audience what their kids were doing on something called “Facebook.”
  • And I don’t think we had even heard of Amy Webb, who would soon thereafter start annually amazing us with her insight on how the media world is trending.

The dawn of the internet age has presented tremendous opportunity to inform and engage the world. I am a prisoner of hope and I am a techno-optimist, but I have to admit that, so far, it has been a tough new century for trust and authenticity.

Building trust remains the fundamental challenge facing American communities. And it is arguably harder now than ever for the average citizen to separate truth from falsehood. As a result, interactions between people with different viewpoints quickly devolve into personal attacks on motives, often devoid of rational, level-headed, fact-based discussion.

It wasn’t always so. From the beginning of the republic to the latter half of the 20th century, media was local and frankly largely verifiable. The information produced overlapped with the geographic areas on top of which we built the structures of government, whether cities, counties or congressional districts. The Founders formalized the role of the press as the staging ground for the middle, a written and spoken battlefield where the wars of words are waged until common ground was reached. And that worked until national broadcasting and later internet broke the geographic tie between media outlets and the communities they served.

Eleven years ago, we could already see that that direct relationship was buckling, and common ground was beginning to recede. As local and regional news has weakened, trust has declined. Based on a Knight Foundation/Gallup poll of 20,000 respondents, which those of you who do polling know is quite a sample:

  • 45% of Americans see a great deal of bias in media coverage. In 1989, that number was 25%. So that number has gone from 25% who saw a great deal of bias to 45%.
  • 66% say media does not do a good job of separating fact from opinion.
  • Less than half of Americans can say that they can name an objective news source. That’s a crisis of trust.

And yet 84% see media as key to our democracy. That gives me some hope. At least there’s a will to discuss how to get there.

This is a place where foundations of all sizes can make a difference. Over the next two days, you’ll hear from foundations and media organizations that are partnering to develop novel ways to report stories and engage audiences, in service of building trust. And you’ll hear from two of the people most experienced, in my view, at delivering neutral information: Tim O’Reilly, who understood the power of internet almost before everyone and who believes passionately in the possibilities of technology, and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia – one of the few places on internet that truly does live up to the ideal of what democratized access to information can be, but believes just as passionately in the engagement of humans as the decision-makers.

Many believe trust is built on performance and that accuracy in news reporting will be enough to restore trust. Perhaps. But let’s not fail to look outside of traditional news media as we examine this.

Consider, for example, why are libraries continuing to be trusted? Or why has our military gone up 30 points on a trust scale from 57% in the mid-1970s to 87% today. What are they doing?

I think our military has actually done something the media hasn’t: They have been clear about their mission and they have been focused. The mission is to protect, and they have done a brilliant job of remaining apolitical.

Thinking about those lessons – and more broadly, how the media can help strengthen and build trust in communities – is exactly why we’re here.

It’s why we at Knight funded the Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia University, the digital transformation of local news organizations, dozens of digital news startups, scholars offering a wide range of views, and scores of experiments. Our latest grant in this area is to Media Impact Funders, which supports and subsidizes the engagement of community and place-based foundations in their work. Actually, I’m not sure we’ve announced that so Vince, just don’t cash the check yet. But we really can recommend their workshops, webinars and regional gatherings. If I wasn’t supposed to say that until later, I’m sorry.

And, of course, it’s in this spirit that we asked the Aspen Institute to constitute the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy. That’s a mouthful, but so is this issue. It’s ably led by co-chairs Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, and Jamie Woodson, a former Tennessee state senator, who now heads the state’s Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tony will actually share some of the Commission’s early findings and how they relate to today’s conference. We hope that, like the previous Knight Commission at Aspen on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, the Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy will not only probe those issues, but point us in productive directions based on its recommendations.

They actually met here yesterday, and I was really thrilled to hear the range of issues they considered, in the meeting and in hallways – some very practical, some philosophical, including, and this is just from my notes:

  • What can be done to make digital platform companies act more like traditional publishers assuming responsibility for the content? The corollary to that in the debate was also raised: Given their power, do we really want platform companies, with their concentration of power, to act as our editors, as our sensors, maybe making them more powerful than any ministry of information ever imagined?
  • What can be learned from the Chinese system of dealing with information in the digital age? That was a question I didn’t see coming.
  • Are algorithms neutral checks on the power of platforms, or are they expressions of the choices and news judgment of the programmers who wrote the code?
  • If producers of news no longer control its distribution, how can they control their destiny? How can they guarantee their content?
  • Is the commercial future of news viable? Should news organizations move away from advertising models to purely subscription models that can leverage the personalization power of digital technology?
  • What’s the future of public and not-for-profit media?
  • And of course, what’s the role of philanthropy? How can we effectively support sustainable local news operations? How do we provoke thought and ensure the whole community’s interest?

These and more points were raised and there will be more of them as you begin your own discussions. We launched this event 11 years ago because, at that time, the consensus among community foundations was that building an informed community was something separate from the work of community foundations. We sought to change that; and your presence here today is evidence of a profound shift.

I’m excited, and I’m honored to have you all in this room, bringing diverse perspectives to strengthen our understanding of how to ensure our democracy thrives. In communities large and small across the nation, our task is nothing less than to restore trust. It starts here. And it starts with you. Welcome.