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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

New Knight Community Information Challenge winners focus on supporting local news and opening up government data

The projects will open up government contracts, build conversations around education data, and help grow a news sharing service for rural papers in New Mexico.

knightKFSharing news stories wasn’t invented with the retweet button. Thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation, Tom McDonald will be expanding his news-sharing network across rural independent newspapers in New Mexico — in print.

It’s a small-batch wire service for mostly weekly newspapers, one that carries news on similarly sized communities from all across New Mexico. These are the papers you may find exclusively in city halls, restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores. “I’ve got newspapers that don’t have functional websites — they’re small, rural, newspapers, independently-owned,” McDonald said.

McDonald and the New Mexico Community Foundation are among 10 winners in the most recent round of the Knight Community Information Challenge. In total, $545,000 will go to projects around the U.S. that focus on supporting local journalism and improving government transparency by opening up data.

The winners include some familiar names and faces: In Boston, NPR affiliate WBUR is working with Glass Eye Media, founders of Homicide Watch, on a data-backed statewide education project. (Glass Eye CEO Laura Amico was a Nieman-Berkman Fellow here at Harvard last year.) In New Orleans, nonprofit news outlet The Lens will build a database that can track government contracts and monitor potential conflicts of interest. (Knight’s full list of Information Challenge winners is below.)

In each case, the projects are receiving matching funding from local foundations. Knight is awarding $30,000 to McDonald’s project, with $15,000 in support from the New Mexico Community Foundation. “The reason we were interested in the news aspect of this is there’s a lot of small-town independent newspapers that aren’t surviving,” said Renee Villarreal, director of programs and community outreach for the New Mexico Community Foundation. “But the ones that are have some information to share that is pertinent to other rural communities around New Mexico.”

Newspapers retain outsized importance in New Mexico because the lack of broadband Internet in parts of the state. Papers continue to connect communities through the spread of information, Villarreal said: “The other interest is that rural communities are not connected to the Internet, so they are isolated in that regard,” she said.

McDonald, a former newspaper reporter, editor, and publisher based in what he calls “the original” Las Vegas (pop. 14,408), started Gazette Media Services, a small company designed to support business side or editorial needs of community newspapers. Earlier this year, he launched the Community News Exchange, a service that collects and distributes news from newspapers around the state. So far the service has 14 members who pay a monthly membership fee. With the funding from Knight and NMCF, McDonald hopes to expand that number and make the service self-sustaining.

“They grant me access to their content; I, in turn, go through the newspapers each week, sift through for articles I think would be of broader use to the other newspapers, and every Monday morning I send out a series of stories to those newspapers,” he said.

The papers the service reaches are small in circulation, typically weekly, and often only have a tiny staff, McDonald said. The news exchange helps them fill their news pages and create a connection across communities: As different as the towns are, some issues, education, the environment, population swings, and economic development, are universal across communities, McDonald said.

“This service will reinforce the notion that, in rural New Mexico, they may feel isolated, but when it comes to the issues, they are not so isolated at all,” McDonald said.

The Alaska Community Foundation
Award: $50,000
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Participants: The Anchorage Daily News

Investigative journalists will train reporters at the Anchorage Daily News to use data to create a compelling, multimedia story. The first issue they will tackle is alcohol abuse, which many consider Alaska’s No. 1 public health problem. The reporting will be part of the Daily News’ yearlong investigation on the impact of alcoholism on the state, though the skills learned will be used on future journalism projects. The community foundation will also partner with the newspaper on a series of community conversations on the issue. The Daily News’ series is part of a statewide effort called Recover Alaska that aims to tackle alcoholism by educating the public, influencing public policy and social norms, and improving access to treatment.

Benwood Foundation
Award: $50,000
Location: Chattanooga, Tenn.
Participants: The Chattanooga Public Library

Building on successful efforts to make city data more accessible, the Chattanooga Open Government Collaborative will use challenge funding to train key groups, including journalists and city employees, in using the available information. The Chattanooga Public Library will create an online portal housing community data, and provide workshops and training on how best to use it to better the community. To start, the collaborative will focus on six community groups interested in a specific issue like public safety. At the end of one year, the collaborative hopes to have an engaged community of data consumers helping to identify needs and assist in designing and utilizing open data tools.

Blue Grass Community Foundation
Award: $25,000
Location: Lexington, Ky.
Participants: ProgressLex

To help strengthen Lexington’s leadership, the foundation and partners at ProgressLex will create a fellowship to equip local change agents with skills in engaging local government, storytelling and media production. Through weekend seminars, the diverse group of EngageLex fellows will receive a tech toolkit, learn media basics and create short films about the community that will be shared on social media and with local news outlets. By empowering EngageLex fellows with knowledge, production skills and confidence, the foundation hopes to support a culture of engaged residents who feel ownership over their government and can tell the story of their community from the inside out.

Greater New Orleans Foundation
Award: $50,000
Location: New Orleans
Participants: The Lens

To increase transparency in New Orleans, The Lens, a nonprofit, public-interest newsroom, will collect all public contracts in the city and make them fully searchable and publicly available. The Lens will then marry the contracts with an existing website that delineates the members of all 140 boards and commissions that have the ability to spend public money, making it easier to track any conflicts of interest. The contracts will be housed on DocumentCloud, a tool for journalists funded through the Knight News Challenge. A data journalist will join the newsroom and find and use the data as well.

Legacy Foundation
Award: $40,000
Location: Gary, Ind.

To empower residents to revitalize their neighborhoods, challenge funds will enable the city of Gary to engage the community around improving vacant and abandoned properties. Currently, Gary residents are looking for ways to invest their financial resources, ideas, professional expertise and sweat equity into combating blight, but aren’t sure how to engage in the process effectively or legally. Challenge funding will help the city use tools like Civic Insight’s Blight Status to track the status of properties, and create a process for approaching these lands that reflects residents’ interests.

Liberty Hill Foundation
Award: $50,000
Location: Los Angeles
Participants: The Advancement Project

To increase transparency in Los Angeles, challenge funds will help the Advancement Project create an easy-to-use online forum and information source about the Los Angeles city budget. While L.A.’s budget is publicly available, its data is embedded in hard-to-navigate documents numbering more than 600 pages. The online comparison tool will aid diverse audiences in analyzing funding changes for departments that have a significant impact on the quality of life for low-income communities, including housing, public works, transportation, parks and recreation, and services for the elderly. Message boards and social media integration will allow open discussion on the quality of city services and finances. Through the tool, the project hopes to engage more Angelenos in city government by helping them uncover and understand government data that represents their community’s needs.

New Mexico Community Foundation
Award: $30,000
Location: Santa Fe, N.M.
Participants: Gazette Media Services

To increase access to news across rural New Mexico, challenge funds will help develop a news-sharing service for small-town independent newspapers. In New Mexico, locally owned community newspapers thrive in their small-town environments as the dominant source for news and information. Nevertheless, many do not have easy access to news from other communities of similar size and circumstance, even though they face many of the same issues related to water access, ranching, economic development and more. Through the Community News Exchange, each participating newspaper will grant access to their content to an editor, who will then prepare news briefs and stand-alone stories to be shared with all the participating newspapers. All outlets will also benefit from original coverage at the 2014 New Mexico Legislature.

P.L. Dodge Foundation
Award: $100,000
Location: Miami
Participants: New Equity Partners

As a way to empower South Floridians, Florida Pro Se Mobile is a mobile app that will help low-income residents understand basic legal procedures. Designed to complement the work of legal aid organizations, the app will provide guidance on legal topics. The app will also direct users to low-cost public legal services and government service providers. Miami-based nonprofit New Equity Partners, the app’s creator, expects the tool to reduce the demand for publicly funded legal services.

The Boston Foundation
Award: $50,000
Location: Boston
Participants: WBUR, Glass Eye Media

This partnership—between the Boston Foundation, public radio station WBUR and Glass Eye Media—will launch a statewide education reporting project creating space for thoughtful conversation around improving Massachusetts schools. The project will use Glass Eye Media’s structured beat approach used in its site Homicide Watch, WBUR’s editorial resources and the Boston Foundation’s connection to the education community to build data, tools and change. The project will increase the station’s capacity to cover education, and build a replicable framework for effective coverage of education reform in other regions and states.

Yakima Valley Community Foundation
Award: $100,000 (one year)
Location: Yakima, Wash.
Participants: Northwest Public Radio, KDNA

To share stories across diverse communities, Northwest Public Radio (NWPR) will partner with public radio station KDNA, a Spanish-language radio station, to create and share reports that both stations will broadcast and disseminate across a variety of platforms. A bilingual reporter and university students will translate reports for use by both stations. A large Native American reservation is also in the area, and the radio station serving that population is being recruited to join this effort.

                                   
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