Alberto Ibargüen stood before 750 community-foundation leaders three years ago and asked them why they were not making grants to improve news and information-gathering in their own cities.
Mr. Ibargüen is president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which by then had recognized that traditional newspapers were weakening and had shifted its journalism grant making to support ideas that use new technology to gather and present news.
Off the cuff, Mr. Ibargüen invited all 750 people at that Council on Foundations meeting to come to Knight’s headquarters in Miami to discuss the role of community foundations in improving news coverage. Two hundred people accepted Mr. Ibargüen’s impromptu invitation and showed up in Miami, and out of that gathering, the Knight Community Information Challenge was born.
The challenge, a five-year, $24-million effort to involve foundations in local journalism efforts, is now in its third year. The money provided by Knight flows through the local foundations to projects that support information needs in their communities, and each grant must be matched by the local foundation.
Last week, Mr. Ibargüen returned to the annual meeting of community-foundation leaders to announce the winners of this year’s Community Information Challenge. The winners include an online news site in New Orleans that is tracking the use of hurricane-recovery funds, an effort to start a student-news network in Hawaii, and a project in New York City that will mentor immigrant and “ethnic media” journalists.
Mr. Ibargüen, a former publisher of The Miami Herald who joined the Knight Foundation in 2005, spoke with The Chronicle about the program.
Why did you start the Community Information Challenge?
We have an information paradox. We have more information than we’ve ever had in the history of mankind, but we have less information being produced about our communities. Radio has dropped out, TV has gone much more visual, and newspapers are reducing the amount of coverage they’re offering. As I said in a U.S. Senate hearing [on the future of journalism, in May 2009], it’s easier for a high-school kid to find out what’s happening in Darfur than it is to find out what’s happening at her local Board of Education.
You’re about halfway through the five-year challenge. How is it going?
One thing makes me really quite optimistic about this: We keep having more and more community foundations applying to the contest and putting up their own money to participate in this. [The contest received 199 applications for this year’s contest, up from 174 in 2008, the first year.]
We host a media-learning seminar for community-foundation leaders in Miami every year. The first one was mainly led by us and our invited speakers. The second one was a combination of us talking and discussion among attendees. By the third year, it was mainly discussion—community-foundation leaders saying, 'Here’s what we’re doing.’ I can’t tell you how exciting it was to basically provide the platform and then listen to people talk about their successes and their failures.
Are you worried that the foundation-subsidized experiments may provide additional competition to newspapers and possibly hasten their demise?
Yogi Berra once said, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.” If anybody thinks this is even a pebble compared to what Google and Yahoo and others have done to allow readers to find information elsewhere, they haven’t been paying attention to what’s really going on. These are very, very local efforts to figure out what is next. These are not, by and large, even conceived as efforts to replace newspapers. Most of the projects are very highly targeted in ways that newspapers are not.
You’ve supported a lot of experiments. How will these new sites and projects be sustained?
Any one of these projects could end up being the home run, but the reality is that most of them will not become self-sustaining. And that’s probably an issue for us with the last round of grant making, or maybe for our next initiative.
Why should community foundations be supporting these efforts when there are so many other pressing needs right now, including basic needs like food and shelter?
Honestly, my view is that there is no more basic need. You can tell me that the lake is polluted in town, but how do you know? You probably know because a reporter wrote a story, an editor edited a story, and the story is reliable and explains why the pollution is there. Information is a core need. Most of the time, you don’t know that there’s been a problem at the school or a scandal at city hall until it has been reported.
What should community foundations do if they buy your argument that they should be investing in newsgathering?
The first thing they should do is look around at what the information environment looks like in their communities. Where are people getting information? What are the areas that are light, and what are areas that are fully satisfied?
We have our Web site—Informationneeds.org—and the annual media-learning seminar every February here in Miami. Those are all things that are available to people that are interested. And they ought to call people who have been doing it. Call up the people in San Diego or Philadelphia or New Jersey who have received grants from us and see what worked for them and what didn’t.
Do you believe that quality journalism can survive only with philanthropic support?
Philanthropic support is needed during this period until we figure out what is going to inform 60 percent of the adults in a community on a daily basis like a newspaper used to. What will replace that? Is it a new version of the same news organization? Is it something that will come up out of these contests? Or is it something that none of us can predict?