Speech: “A Foundation for the Future of Journalism and Communities” – Knight Foundation

Speech: “A Foundation for the Future of Journalism and Communities”

By Alberto Ibargüen

Thank you, Brandy, and thank you for inviting me to deliver the 2006 Harry M. and Edel Ayers Lecture that honors the memory of your parents, both publishers of The Anniston Star and stalwarts of distinguished journalism.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a piece about Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point and Blink. The article began with a quote that I want to take as my text for today. In it, Gladwell said, “People are experience-rich and theory-poor. People who are busy doing things … don’t have opportunities to … collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them.”

People who are busy doing things don’t have opportunities to collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them. So Gladwell does that for us in his books on a macro level … and on a micro level, day-to-day, the best of our newspapers and broadcast programs or Internet news sites, do just that, too: they organize experiences and make sense of them so we can go about our lives.

I was standing in the parking lot of the Biloxi Sun Herald on Labor Day last year, a week to the day after Hurricane Katrina. Those were heady days for the newspaper in a region with no power … which meant no television or Internet … and you would have had to be crazy to use scarce gasoline or waste batteries listening to the radio. So news and connectivity came by way of 19th Century technology on what we now call an “information platform” and used to just call a newspaper.

The Sun Herald didn’t miss a day of publication. They printed in Columbus, Ga., for a week before getting their own presses in working order, but during all that time, they were the glue for that community. That bright and sunny Labor Day morning I saw executive editor Stan Tyner walking through a parking lot already full of RVs with many sheaves of paper in his hands and he said something like, “I’ve got 40 or 50 stories here and I could do any one of them. My job is to figure out which ones to do so that our paper tomorrow gives a complete report that make sense out of all of them.” I was stunned by the simplicity and clarity of the mission. His job, the newspaper’s job, was to “make sense out of all of this.”

The Sun Herald provided those South Mississippi communities around Biloxi and Gulfport with information they needed about what had happened, about what to do and about what was going to happen. And more: the Sun Herald provided hope. It was a thrill to see folks from all over come to the paper to get a free copy and find out what was going on in ­their community, a community defined by the events reported in the paper, a community whose future rested on a base that was being built right before my eyes and held together by a bond called information.

I remembered all of that on Sunday when I read Malcolm Gladwell saying that people who are busy doing things don’t have opportunities to collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them. But organizing and making sense of information is exactly what great news organizations do. And it matters because, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we depend on them to do that to make sense of how we lead our lives. That’s just one reason why it is such an honor to lead the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the country’s — and probably the world’s — leading supporter of journalism programs that help journalism in America figure out how to train news people to help readers, viewers, listeners and browsers to make sense of things.

I am early in my tenure as president of Knight Foundation. I succeeded Hodding Carter III, scion of another great Southern newspaper family and a former Ayers lecturer. It is a singular honor to follow in the footsteps of the journalism greats who have been Ayers lecturers, including Harrison Salisbury, Gene Roberts and my good friend Judy Woodruff.

Now, some of you may be thinking, ‘We know those bylines – but who’s Alberto Ibargüen?’ Brandy told you something about me in his introduction, but let me tell you some things you may not know about how I came to be here today to talk about community journalism, about a sense of place and about the role of information as an essential bond in the building of community.

I had a life and a career as a lawyer before joining the Hartford Courant more than 20 years ago. When Times Mirror bought the Hartford Courant, they formed a local foundation and, after a while, I was named to the board. There, I met David Laventhol, publisher of Newsday who was then hatching a wonderful idea called New York Newsday. As part of his Times Mirror duties, he oversaw The Courant. I didn’t like what they were doing to my paper … I thought they were trying to make it too regional, too much like a minor-league L. A. Times or a lite Boston Globe and too little like Hartford, Conn. I told Dave so and I told him so repeatedly until one day he caused me to join the staff of the paper, making me both shut my mouth and start to do something about my complaints.

Another fact: I am a prisoner of hope. That’s a phrase I love and first heard used by Cornell West of Princeton University. An optimist is one who weighs the odds and thinks we’ll come out all right. A prisoner of hope is one who knows the odds are stacked against you and still believes we’ll persevere. That’s a good trait for someone who was a kid who spoke no English when he moved to Philadelphia in grammar school … I know how daunting it is to be the only one in the room not to understand what is being said. But I also know the power of language to open doors.

Being a prisoner of hope is a good thing, too, for a man whose touchstone moment as a business executive would come when I stood in the newsroom at Newsday, giving the news in the Long Island newsroom that our parent company had decided to kill New York Newsday.

That experience made me a much tougher and better executive. It helped give me the strength to make tough day-to-day and long-range business decisions and the courage to split the newspapers in Miami. We split the papers and made The Miami Herald’s Spanish language insert an entirely independent and different community newspaper that, within three years of its reinvention, had won the Ortega y Gasset prize, a kind of Spanish Pulitzer Prize judged by the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language and editors of Spain’s great newspaper, El Pais in Madrid.

I knew the importance and reach of Knight Foundation long before I became its president — especially from its sponsorship of the Inter American Press Association and its campaign to stop the killing of journalists across Latin America — a campaign that I was privileged to lead. Freedom of the press is not something I take for granted – not in Latin America, and not in the United States. It requires courage and constancy – even in this great country of ours.

I share with you those bits of emotional knowledge so you know why I feel so passionately about community, about community journalism and about the role of Knight Foundation in both.

Knight Foundation is in the business of seeding and inspiring great journalism, and of building strong communities in the 26 cities and towns where Jack and Jim Knight ran newspapers. We make grants totaling about $100 million each year, seeking transformational change in communities and in journalism, with roughly $25 million of that going into journalism, free speech/free press programs and initiatives.

My friend and predecessor, Hodding Carter, is fond of saying that “This is an explosively creative time to be in journalism… if you are not in search of the past.”

If the reach of newspapers in our markets is, indeed, shrinking, that only creates opportunity for those who can figure out how to do the community journalism of the 21st Century.

The core mission of informing our communities is still there for the doing. It is still needed to create a sense of place and an understanding of who we are and where we live … to make sense of things.

As we think about how to do that at Knight Foundation, we’re instructed by Vartan Gregorian’s take on philanthropy. Vartan Gregorian is a brilliant man. He is the former president of the New York Public Library and of Brown University, and is now president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the country’s leading foundations. The other day at a meeting of the Carnegie-Knight initiative in teaching investigative journalism, he remarked with profound simplicity that “Everyone has needs; but it’s ideas that we need to fund.”

I agree.

To find a need and fund a possible solution is good, charitable work. But for those of us who are neither God, who has the power to fix human ills, or government, which has the resources to alleviate them, need should be no more than a threshold or an indicator.

Effective philanthropy is more than charity. It is the support of ideas that will reduce need or eliminate need or create the opportunity to avoid it.

Nothing big happens without a big idea; nothing new without a new idea, nothing real without first the discovery of reality. The idea comes first.

Ideas fail if they come without passion. Someone must believe – really believe. Someone must have the courage and the tenacity to see it all the way through.

And every execution of a great idea must come with know-how or the capacity to learn it.

In every project that we fund — in every initiative that we launch or sustain — we are looking for big ideas and to be open to new ways to accomplish our twin missions of promoting strong communities and strong journalism. We do not chase fads, but neither are we beholden to old ways of doing business.

There are five elements found in virtually every successful grant we’ve ever made at Knight Foundation:

  • Discovery
  • Vision
  • Courage
  • Know-how
    and …
  • Tenacity

Let me quickly run down how we’re thinking about these as we consider the future of our journalism program.

Discovery. Our reality is that the media world is changing faster than we can adapt newsrooms. Just as the medium became the message in a generation past, the platform deeply affects the nature and impact of the message today. And, in the words of John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times and now Knight Senior Fellow at Harvard, “All across America, there are offices that resemble newsrooms and in those offices are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism.” This is a threat to our credibility, and an opportunity if we can somehow turn those people who resemble journalists into the real thing.

Vision. Knight Foundation has been the leading supporter of the best training of the best journalists at the best places for traditional journalism jobs. We will become the leading supporter of training programs that will train journalists for the future, both in content and in form. We’ve already engaged in fruitful discussions about this future with the Berkeley, University of Southern California and University of Maryland schools of journalism. We plan to see the day – and very soon – when the best new journalism courses include, in the same classroom, editors and reporters from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, radio and Google, Yahoo and AOL, for starters.

Since the medium matters, we intend to act something like a venture capitalist and will seek to fund ideas that will do what Knight newspapers were intended to do: to connect community, to make sense of things in our physical geography. We want to fund ideas that will share information and make what happens in my part of town something that happened in your town because we learned it from the same source. Whereas the beauty of newspapers was precisely its mile-wide, inch-deep capacity to bond and broadcasts capacity to blanket, the Internet’s great talent is the capacity to drill a mile deep an inch wide at a time. We’d like to fund ideas that will turn it on its head and help create not virtual community, but geographic community, where, after all, we all still live.

Courage: It always takes some courage to leave the tried and true; it will take more to fund projects that require leaps of faith into an unknowable world of consumer and reader reaction, of citizen interaction.

Know-how: We are blessed with talented staff; we will seek the most insightful partners and we will cast the widest net possible.

Tenacity: The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but nothing supports us in this more than the very history of Knight Foundation’s support of journalism in a changing world. Jack Knight’s exhortation, spoken in Akron, Ohio, some 40 years ago, still rings true for us today. Describing the role of newspapers, he said then and we hold now that “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.”

We hope to live up to that passion!

We are wedded to excellence in journalism, though not to newspapers, however important a role they play and will continue to play. The world is agnostic as to platform and we need to reflect that, while transferring the values inherent in verification journalism.

As noted, we’ll seek to fund programs that will recruit journalists from online operations as much as from traditional newsrooms. And we need to connect with young journalists who don’t even talk about something as old fashioned as “emails” but “text message” on cell phones instead. How do we reach them and, once we get there, how do we engage in a discussion about journalistic principles?

I spent a lot of years in Jack Knight’s old office on the fifth floor of the Miami Herald Building overlooking Biscayne Bay and thought a lot about how they organized their newspapers. It resonates with me as I think about community newspapers.

Knight newspapers had no publishers. Each general manager reported directly to Jim Knight, who ran the business and assured quality and transparency in the company’s business practices.

Every editor reported directly to Jack Knight and his approach was the opposite of central control. Jack not only encouraged but required his editors to put out distinctly different newspapers – newspapers that bore the imprint and reflection of the community they covered. Their first paper, the Akron Beacon Journal was not the same as their flagship, The Miami Herald because Akron is not Miami … and neither was meant to be like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Macon Telegraph or the Tallahassee Democrat. Jack wanted each of those papers to give its hometown a sense of itself, a sense of its borders and of its possibilities. He wanted them to reflect the language and even the sense of humor of that community, so that the people who read it shared a common language and a common experience, all of which helped to give that community a better sense of self.

We are just beginning to understand the power of the Internet to create a sense of community and shared interests. What we know is that people remain hungry for information and to make sense of the information they have – and that’s true of people in Calhoun County in northeast Alabama and in Miami and people in Guangdong province in southeast China – we all want help to make sense of our experience.

We view the best of community journalism – as practiced and exemplified here in Anniston by The Star – as a way to further both of Knight Foundation’s abiding interests in improving journalism and bolstering communities.

Under the stewardship of the Ayers family, The Star has stood in the front ranks of America’s most admired newspapers. In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review three years ago, Liz Cox captured the essence of how The Star gained its reputation, from its stance as a crusader for civil rights in the 1960s to its coverage of what to do with stocks of chemical weapons stored at the Anniston Army Depot. She described the guiding precepts at the paper: “think reader” and “think big,” make even stories from afar have local import.

There is some irony in a former newspaper executive at Times Mirror, which was swallowed up by Tribune Company, and a former publisher at Knight Ridder, which is currently for sale under pressure from shareholders who’ve shown no interest in news or in community … some irony in such a person standing here before you touting the value of an Anniston Star model of family ownership. Yet, but for that structure, I don’t know whether what we’re trying to do together would be possible.

The Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism will preserve the newspaper as a community institution, owned and published locally, while serving as a laboratory to educate a new generation of editors and reporters. Knight Foundation and Consolidated Publishing in September 2004 announced grants of $1.5 million and $750,000 to get this visionary initiative started with the help and expertise of faculty from the University of Alabama’s College of Communication and Information Sciences. It will start this fall, with six graduate students receiving full scholarships to earn master’s degrees in community journalism while they work and study at the Star, taught by University of Alabama faculty and adjuncts from the Star’s own staff of experienced editors and reporters. Chris Waddle, the former executive editor of the Star, returned to Anniston from a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard just in time to run the show as director of the Knight Community Journalism Fellows and head of the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism.

So, if we’re so interested in new media, why is Knight Foundation doing this? Because we are as interested in new ways of teaching and in new ways of disseminating the information our communities need.

My colleague Eric Newton and I were in Chicago last Saturday talking about these issues with some 200 journalism school deans because we want their input. He and I and Bud Meyer and Denise Tom from Knight Foundation are all here in Anniston this week because we need your ideas. We seek to find ways to unite our passion for journalism and community. And we seek to be responsive and nimble, as befits the newspaper origins of our founders.

I started this talk with references to the Biloxi Sun Herald and I’d like to close with a story about what we’ve done and how we’ve done it in Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to illustrate how we intend to work in all of our programs. When we saw New Orleans flooding, we realized that most of the national attention was going to focus on them. But our Knight community on the Gulf Coast is Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport. We know the people there. We’ve worked with them for years. We will continue to work with them for years. It is our community.

So that Tuesday after the Sunday/Monday storm, we sent a million dollars, earmarked for South Mississippi, half to the Salvation Army and half to the Red Cross. Good neighbors help each other in a crisis and that’s what we did.

But we wanted to do more. We wanted to find a way of helping our friends there lift their sights from the immediacy of the devastation and begin to build for the future.

In the newspaper business, when things happen, you go see them … you talk to the people and you then write your story … or think about things and figure out what your editorial ought to say. So with Mike Maidenberg, Knight Foundation’s vice president and also a former publisher, we got on a plane a few days later, landed in Mobile and drove to Biloxi.

It is not an exaggeration to say that what we saw was beyond imagining … at least beyond my power to describe. Sun Herald publisher Ricky Mathews had some sort of civil defense pass, so we got into parts of Biloxi that were still off limits. We saw slabs of concrete where block after block of houses had stood and where the so-called barges that bore the three- and four-storied casinos had been largely washed ashore, wrecking everything in their path and were themselves in shambles.

But it wasn’t until we saw Gulfport that I had a true measure of the devastation. The publisher couldn’t get us into Gulfport because it was off limits … and, as anyone who hangs around newspapers knows, if you want to get into someplace where others don’t want you, go to the circulation guy. So we went to Ricky Cunningham, the Sun Herald’s circulation manager. If anybody could get into Gulfport, it would be the guy who knows how to work single copy deliveries.

I was right. He got us in and at twilight we witnessed the utter devastation in Gulfport that only grew worse as you neared the beach: street-long sewer pipes upended, leafless oaks ribboned with debris, casino barges smashed and dumped hundreds of yards inland. Most of all what I remember was the suffocating stench all around us – rotting food, rotting animals, even rotting newsprint.

Standing there, you knew that the casinos would be back because the drove the economy … but, this time they’d be rebuilt on land, since FEMA wouldn’t allow barges again, no banks would lend on them and no insurer would take on the liability. That was – and is – a beautiful shoreline, and it was clear to me that if we didn’t act fast, key decisions about the rebuilding of those towns would be done in the corporate boardrooms of casino operators. Someone had to act fast in order to preserve a hometown voice in the rebuilding and re-imagining of the area.

Ricky Mathews and others already had discussed this with Gov. Haley Barbour. Mike and I talked with Ricky about how Knight Foundation might support a strategic planning process. I told him we’d be interested, and I mentioned that we’d supported projects in Miami, Macon, Duluth and San Jose that used the architect and urban planner Andres Duany from Miami.

A couple of days later I was in New York in a cab on the way to the airport when I got a call from Governor Barbour. He said he was thinking of having Jim Barksdale, the philanthropist and former head of Netscape and chairman of Federal Express, chair a recovery commission. Now I knew Jim Barksdale from the board of PBS, which I used to chair. I knew he was both brilliant – and a big thinker. Governor Barbour also told me he was thinking of bringing in Andres Duany and I said, “Governor, you get Barksdale and you get Duany and we’ll pay for it.”

I have to tell you that I swallowed hard when I heard myself say that, but that’s what I said and that’s what we did. We put up another million dollars and Jim Barksdale put up a million and within three weeks we had 200 architects, engineers, lawyers, regional planners, health experts, FEMA, bankers and the rest … all working feverishly for seven days on charrettes to design – to re-imagine – 11 different communities in South Mississippi.

After the plans were drafted, they were vetted by countless community meetings in every Gulf town affected. And by December, Jim handed Haley Barbour a printed blueprint for the reconstruction of the Mississippi Gulf coast … not just with plans, but with designs and maps and actual proposed ordinances and suggested language for enabling legislation.

You can read its reports and recommendations on the web. They are detailed and ambitious – and every step of the way they are concerned with how to rebuild the lives and the dreams of ordinary people along the Gulf Coast.

I don’t want to exaggerate the small part Knight Foundation has played in this. But it illustrates our expertise, which is figuring out who can get the job done and then helping make it possible. This was, Discovery, Vision, Courage, Know-How and Tenacity rolled up into just a few weeks … and a very big bet on leadership – not just Haley Barbour’s leadership or Jim Barksdale’s leadership, but the local leadership with whom we have always worked in Biloxi.

So, too, in journalism.

Journalism is changing, and we intend to do our part to change it for the better. And now the Anniston Star, with Knight Foundation’s strong and enthusiastic backing, is writing a new chapter in its distinguished history, taking on the challenge of educating a new generation of reporters and editors in what it means to be a great community newspaper.

The Star and the University of Alabama must capitalize on the extraordinary history of this newspaper and its ability to “think big” by becoming an effective hub of teaching and training. Find ways to network with other campuses and other newsrooms committed to community journalism. And remember the importance of finding and cultivating talent that reflects the diversity of the communities these reporters will be covering.

These are challenging times, but so it was for Col. Harry Ayers when he purchased the Hot Blast and the Evening Star in 1911 and when he went off to fight in World War I. They were challenging times for Jim and Jack Knight when they moved their operation from Akron to Miami and during World War II and when television first assaulted their hold on news. Or when Eugene Meyer held on for years to a money-losing proposition called The Washington Post because he wanted a voice and he believed in the mission of his newspaper.

Good journalism and good journalists do not shrink from a challenge. Knight Foundation proudly stands ready to help those who are willing to cover their communities in ways that help people hear one another, discover shared interests and connect those civic dots … to make sense of things.

And by this work in community and journalism, we remain true to our founder, seeking “… to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.”

Thank you.