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Feb. 15, 2013, 11 a.m.

Beyond Lehrer: Some optimism in Miami around foundations helping fill community info needs

At Knight’s Media Learning Seminar, community foundations talked about rebuilding the information ecosystems hurt by traditional media’s decline.

Editor’s note: If you heard about this week’s Knight Media Learning Seminar in Miami, it was almost certainly because Knight paid journo-fabulist Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to be its closing speaker. (Knight realized after the blowback that that had been a pretty bad idea.)

But there’s also something to be learned from the conversations that took place before Jonahgate. Jonathan Groves, an assistant professor at Drury University, is working with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to develop community-news initiatives in Missouri; here are his takeaways. Disclosure: Knight is a financial supporter of Nieman Lab.

The #infoneeds epiphany came on the second day.

About 400 people gathered this week in Miami at the Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar, its annual gathering of community foundations to talk about community information needs. They, along with representatives from nonprofits, libraries, and other community groups, wanted to discuss the information gaps left by a dwindling press corps.

Among those sharing stories were John Mooney, a longtime journalist and founding editor of NJ Spotlight, and his foundation partner, Hans Dekker, president of the Community Foundation of New Jersey.

Mooney spoke passionately about his desire to commit journalism, covering his state capital and holding government accountable at his nonprofit news site. Dekker, whose foundation manages the finances for Mooney’s project, provided a candid counterpoint: Foundations want to see results. They want to affect the public discourse. They want sustainable civic engagement. Dekker:

The journalists don’t know the business model. We don’t know the business model. We don’t come out of journalism. I think all of these projects are feeling their way on the model. And so there’s not a pattern to follow that’s easy. So we have a lot of conversations at the board level about who our audience is. Who are we writing for? How can we monetize it? How can we make this more sustainable?

And sometimes, I think, the journalists hear that as: We’re in their business too much. And they’re journalists, and no one should tell them what to write. And there’s a lot of push and pull on those issues.

It’s no longer just up to journalists to satisfy these community information needs, especially in this disrupted media landscape. Engaging a corps of committed citizens through the support of institutions like community foundations is critical to success. (Knight believes that enough to commit another $9.5 million to it this week.)

The stories shared in Miami showed the interest in new forms of information sharing, ones that blend amateur and professional content — models that could become sustainable with a mix of events, memberships, foundation support, and advertising. “We need more informed and engaged communities,” said Noah Erenberg, of the Community News Commons public-media project in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “It creates more caring and giving communities.”

Journalists are not an island

So often at journalism and future-of-media conferences, we see impressive investigations, brilliant data journalism, dazzling interactive graphics and platforms. We hear stories of national news organizations pushing pageviews into the millions through SEO and audience analysis. We marvel at creative coders developing new forms of storytelling and transforming the traditions of journalistic presentation.

But for many communities outside large urban areas, the voice of Cali Brooks, executive director of the Adirondack Community Trust, better reflects the community-information reality:

It’s a media desert where we live. Information is limited. It’s often inaccurate and often biased. I want you to picture being in your car and push “scan” on your radio as you drive from town to town. In our area, it just goes around and around. That’s what it’s like where I live. Our neighbors need a connection. They needed to hear from the outside world, and they needed to hear from one another and be able to talk in a safe and trusted place.

Her foundation joined with North Country Public Radio in Canton, N.Y., which at the time had a limited audience and sparse resources. Their project invested in reporting, doubling the news staff from four to eight and adding 11 journalist apprentices who worked with the organization during the first year to provide greater coverage of the region. (As with many of these partnerships, Knight provided external support.)

The result, according to Brooks: Online users of North Country Public Radio increased 74 percent. Its Facebook page, with more than 2,900 fans, has become a forum for community conversation. And its reports — including a recent series on the prison economy — have been making their way to national outlets.

Other foundations have linked with public broadcasters as well. The Greater New Orleans Foundation invested in its local NPR affiliate to help the station expand its programming to include news coverage. The foundation has also worked with The Lens, the local nonprofit news site, on coverage of the city’s expanding base of charter schools after The Times-Picayune cut back its publication days.

“It’s really had an impact on our poorest citizens that would go to coffee shops, convenience stores, perhaps barber shops, and read the paper that was passed around,” the foundation’s Josephine Wolfe Everly said of the T-P’s changes. “You know, half of New Orleanians make less than $35,000 a year. So things like a newspaper subscription and certainly Internet access are really luxuries.”

The Greater New Orleans Foundation’s efforts aren’t just content-related. It has been talking with the Ford Foundation about a municipal broadband network, and it is collaborating with The Times-Picayune on a digital-access initiative.

The Central Carolina Community Foundation also discovered access to be an issue in its region. Its solution: Invite millennials to train older community members how to use technology and the Internet to access information. What the foundation discovered is that older citizens also mentored the younger generation — on how to evaluate information and bring context through history. “We do have the ability to bring people together and leverage their strengths,” said JoAnn Turnquist, the foundation’s leader.

The power of narrative

Throughout the conference, it became clear that the adage “content is king” was being revised to “narrative is king.”

Winnipeg’s Erenberg — who calls himself the “convener” of Community News Commons — told of a story contributor who was riding public transit in September when the driver suddenly stopped the bus. The passengers watched in amazement as he stepped off the bus, removed his shoes and handed them to a shoeless man on the street. The story, shared online at Erenberg’s site, went viral and became a major draw. More than 150,000 visitors checked out the post, and major new outlets soon connected with the driver for interviews. “The power of the story is something we need to appreciate,” Erenberg said.

The best stories don’t always originate with professional journalists, and foundations are developing platforms to make community storytelling easier. The Denver Foundation and the Piton Foundation teamed up to create Floodlight and Colorado Data Engine, two open-source platforms that allow community members to craft their own stories.

One Floodlight story tracked the success of the Whittier neighborhood in Colorado, which transformed an overgrown park area that had been used by gangs to hide guns into a community garden. The foundations encourage such storytelling through local community events called “story raisings,” where people learn to tell stories effectively and share their storytelling successes with others, said Rebecca Arno, vice president of communications for The Denver Foundation. “It was so exciting to see all of the technical stuff that we’d done really come to life in the work of real people,” she said.

Again and again, that theme emerged: It was not just technology connecting people; it was people connecting people.

Emmett Carson, of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, told of working with KQED in northern California to develop forums asking people what kind of community they desired. About 7,000 participated online, but another 800 — a quarter of whom said they had never participated in an open meeting/dialogue before — came out in person to attend live forums.

Nonprofit news startups, too, depend on community events to engage the public. The Texas Tribune regularly incorporates public discussions and festivals into its news activities; in fact, 19 percent of its revenue comes from events, editor Emily Ramshaw said.

Said NJ Spotlight’s Mooney: “Social engagement is also going out to folks and inviting people into conversations and asking them to invite their friends.”

From startup to sustainability

Unfortunately, the antijournalist Jonah Lehrer and his $20,000 speaking fee dominated conversation about #infoneeds; to focus on him is to miss the point of the gathering. Miami was a place of inspiration and encouragement, of possibility and promise.

At the conference’s outset, Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president and CEO, reminded everyone of the lean-startup imperative: Solve problems that people actually have — to create something real.

To that end, IDEO’s Fred Dust encouraged information designers to study their communities from the viewpoint of community members, in context. Don’t ask what they want; they’ll only tell you what they think they want. Instead, build empathy. Watch people, and discern what they need and want. Only then will solutions emerge that will engage communities.

Over the course of the two-day conference, we heard about successes and failures, startups and hiccups. As is the case with most innovations, the lessons from successful ventures are not perfectly portable to other communities. Or as The Texas Tribune’s Ramshaw put it, what works in Texas might not work elsewhere.

But the conversation in Miami points to a blended future that requires us to think more broadly than traditional notions of journalism to meet community information needs. People from across the spectrum, beyond journalists and mass-communication scholars, are grappling with this dearth of accurate, reliable information plaguing so many of our towns and cities. If we all work together, regardless of our professional backgrounds, perhaps we can plug this drain on democracy.

Photo of the author at the conference by Knight Foundation used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 15, 2013, 11 a.m.
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