Eric Newton, Vice President of Journalism Program, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Eric Newton, Vice President of Journalism Program, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Ever since Stewart Brand signaled the arrival of the digital age twenty-five years ago with the expression "information wants to be free," newspapers have struggled to adjust to shifting demographics, evolving reader expectations, and a slew of competitive threats fostered by faster, cheaper computers, the arrival of the Internet, and a new generation of alternative media platforms. Newspapers' precarious situation has only grown worse over the last eighteen months, as the global financial crisis morphed into the worst recession since World War II and advertising revenues for traditional media collapsed. For the newspaper industry, the economic downturn has been a disaster, with paper after paper forced to cut staff, coverage, and, in a few cases, even closing.

Recently, PND spoke with Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national funder that seeks opportunities to transform journalism and the twenty-six communities in which it works, about the tumultuous present and uncertain future of newspapers in the United States.

Philanthropy News Digest: As almost everyone knows, the newspaper industry is in turmoil. In the past five or six months alone, the Rocky Mountain News and Tucson Citizen have gone out of business, the Christian Science Monitor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer have pulled the plug on their print editions and become online-only publications, and dozens of other newspapers, including the New York Times, have announced layoffs, furloughs, and/or reduced publication schedules. What the heck is going on?

Eric Newton: The digital revolution has turned the news industry upside down and inside out. Communication is changing faster and more profoundly today than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, maybe since Gutenberg invented movable type. We no longer know, if we ever really did, exactly who qualifies as a journalist, what a news story is, which medium is best for which kind of news and information, or how to manage new interactive relationships with the people formerly known as our audience. But there is still one thing we do know: Independent journalism matters. To improve their communities, citizens must have a way to find out what needs improving. Good journalism is as fundamental to democracy as sunlight is to life; it's as important to a community as roads or jobs.

Great journalism can come from many kinds of institutions. Businesses. Nonprofits. Schools. That's why there are scores of experiments going on. The structure isn't as important as the values of the people within those structures. Of news people, we should ask: Are you engaged in a fair, accurate, contextual search for truth? Will you do what Jack Knight said journalists should do: "Bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests"? We should ask ourselves: Do we want to live in a fact-based society. Is one of our true interests having access to verified, engaging news and information? The quality of a society's journalism has as much to do with the quality of the society as it does the quality of the journalists. Especially today, when news consumers are producing their own news in record amounts.

PND: There has been a lot of discussion about the economic viability of newspapers and the suggestion that they might be able to survive as nonprofit organizations. Wouldn't a not-for-profit newspaper find it difficult to report objectively on corporations, institutions, and individuals that provided it with funding?

EN: The best news organizations allow the people who create news and information to make their own open, honest, ethical decisions about what to cover. That can happen whether or not a news organization is commercial or non-commercial. The New York Times does it. CNN does it. PBS and NPR do it. Pro Publica does it. The Center for Public Integrity does it. College and high school journalists do it. Money to support the work of the media always comes from somewhere — companies, foundations, governments, or the people themselves. By design, systems that produce independent journalism must separate the flow of money from the flow of news. The more honest, ethical, and independent a news organization is — that is, the more it explains how and why it does what it does — the less bias it will suffer and the more credibility it will enjoy.

PND: Do you think there are enough philanthropic dollars out there to convert major newspapers to a nonprofit model?

EN: Sure, if you include individual philanthropy. Florida's largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school — because the owner decided it should be that way. A tougher question is whether the average foundation understands the news ecosystem well enough to recognize this once-in-a-generation opportunity. It may not. As the Web site Paper Cuts explains, the heartbeat of America's news system, the daily newspaper, has suffered more than twenty thousand job cuts in the past fifteen months. The digital revolution, combined with the economic downturn, has caused a massive drop in the value of newspaper stocks. Is philanthropy willing to place a high priority on this issue during what appears to be a difficult transition period? Whether or not our leaders realize it, they have a vital stake in the flow of independent news and information.

PND: The Knight Foundation has been providing seed money to a variety of media innovators, but so much about the future of news creation and delivery is uncertain. How much time are you willing to give these innovators and their projects before you cut their funding?

EN: They may not need much time. Things in the digital age are happening so quickly that your own question may be out of date by the time this appears. Tim Berners-Lee, whose computer code gave rise to the World Wide Web, says we have only scratched the surface of understanding the technological and social potential of his invention. The Knight Foundation gave him a grant to develop new semantic web code that will, in a sense, help Web users be their own fact-checkers. Will it work? If it does, it will be obvious almost immediately. The same is true of many of the open-source software packages we are funding. The truly successful innovations will be self-evident and self-scaling. But let me pose another question: If some of the projects we are funding through the Knight News Challenge get traction, do you think other foundations will join in expanding the size and scope of our efforts so that, together, we can fund ten thousand innovations rather than the hundred we have done on our own? We are open to discussing that possibility.

PND: Are there any bright spots for the industry out there?

EN: This chaotic period is one of the greatest times ever for news pioneers and enterprising journalists. You can see them beating the odds in amazing ways almost every day. While there may be fewer of them, they are learning how to do more by using the power of these marvelous digital tools to provide citizens with the news and information they need to make their communities and their lives better. Investigative reporting that used to take months and even years can now be done in weeks using powerful online databases and other computer-assisted techniques. Print journalists are doing video; radio reporters are taking pictures; and citizens themselves are becoming their own news producers. It is a new world, the Wild West, the space race, terra incognitaall wrapped up into one. Sure, it's not always easy, and, frankly, it's often not very pretty. But here's a page from journalism history taken from the Newseum: it never was. Journalism has always been more of an inspirational calling than a stable, slow-growth career. The temporary stability of the past generation came from the pre-Web period of one daily paper per American town. As broadband spreads across the nation, that time recedes into memory.

Foundations can try to understand. The thousands of traditional media journalists losing their jobs hold a wealth of human capital in community and topic knowledge. Many of these socially responsible folks are employable by journalism schools and not-for-profit organizations, including foundations. At the same time, the digital revolution that displaced them is creating new opportunities for news kinds of nonfiction storytelling. We need to take advantage of that and experiment. If you think we can be a helping hand, through innovations from the Knight News Challenge, or the community-based experiments fostered by the Knight Community Information Challenge, or policy examinations like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, look up those things at www.mediainnovation.org and join in.

— Matt Sinclair