Strengthening Communities and Democracy in the Digital Age

Strengthening Communities and Democracy in the Digital Age

Media is all around us, yet communities are challenged to deliver news and information to defined geographic areas. If that sounds suspiciously like what newspapers do in a community, it's not an accident. Yet, American media are in the middle of a tsunami of change that affects us all.

Created to serve both community and journalism, the Knight Foundation is interested in both the craft of journalism and the essential information needs of our communities. And we are keenly aware that as the craft is transformed by technological and market forces, the need for reliable information in a democracy does not diminish.

Why should this matter so much? Of course, there's the matter of donor intent. No small thing. But I think the technological transformation and the affect it is having on democracy should matter to community foundations and the public at large, as well.

Let me suggest two propositions, neither of which is particularly original but they help to frame the discussion:

  1. In a democracy, if the citizens are unaware, then the democracy is imperiled.
  2. The right of a citizen to freely walk into the public square to hear and listen is endangered by the rise of digital media because the effective public square of the not-distant future will be digital and from the looks of things, that public square could have significant economic barriers to entry, leaving out substantial portions of our citizens.

Information is essential to a democracy. We live in a democracy. Our communities are structured as democracies. For leaders of foundations, it matters whether our communities are sufficiently informed to manage their affairs.

The Knight News Challenge is a modest effort that illustrates something different that we tried. It assumes that the wisdom is out there, not in our office, and seeks to find it. It also requires a certain level of comfort with chaos, since you don't know when or if those great ideas are going to come in or in what form. Moreover, the contest is worldwide, so you truly don't know where something might originate.

Cyber communities continue to form every day. They don't need our help. But physical communities, the places where we live and work, do need our help. The news and information we most care about is not fiction or entertainment or even opinion. We care about news in the public interest, the news the citizens need to run their democracies and their lives. And our democracies are organized by geography.

Much has been made about how cyberspace creatively destroys physical space, about how the Web gives people with common interests all over the world a way to work and play together. I agree that tech-savvy teenagers all of us, really have a greater capacity these days to appreciate that what happens in a far-off part of the world can affect our lives here. And that's good. But I also think we know less about what's happening locally.

What does it mean for local communities that young people consider their online community as important as their offline community? We don't know. Or at least we at Knight Foundation don't know, and that's why we decided early last year to embark on an open-ended process to answer both the question of whether and how digital media can be used to build community by the timely sharing of information in a defined geography.

Our trustees agreed to put aside $25 million for the Knight News Challenge, thinking we'd use about $5 million each year. Beginning last year, using an open contest format, we offered money for ideas that would use digital platforms to provide timely shared information to geographically defined communities. Simple as that. No other rules; anyone, anywhere could apply and 1,650 did, in the space of about three months.

Through a streamlined digital application process, we simply ask for an idea; if it's accepted, we ask for a fuller proposal that is then also reviewed. Ideas that survive to that point go to outside readers who advise us, and staff offers recommendations to the trustees. The trustees have the final vote in all of the grants.

We selected winners ranging from MIT to MTV, and several individuals in between. We gave money to MIT's famed Media Lab to test in the real world the gizmos they had been inventing for their own sake. We made a grant to Adrian Holovaty of Chicago Crime and washingtonpost.com to develop open source community mashups, allowing citizens easy access to public information. We made a grant to MTV to hire 51 Knight My Jo's mobile youth journalists each of whom, over the course of the next year, will cover the presidential campaign in his or her state, sending their reports by text and video clip to the cell phones of other kids on their network.

Once a week, MTV will air the best of last week and ask viewers to join the network of cell phone users. We do not expect that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism will come out of this. We do expect to learn a lot about what and how kids respond to critical issues, and we also expect that this kid-to-kid reporting on cell phones will touch millions of young people that the presidential campaign might otherwise have never touched.

There are many lessons here, not least in the way the contest is structured and making space for the wisdom of the crowd to form and inspire our grantmaking. Our trustees were sufficiently excited by the first year's set of ideas that, in response to the applications, they committed $12 million instead of the $5 million originally planned. Announcements for the second round have started in nine languages around the world.

In the area of information needs, we believe community foundations play a critical role. Recently, journalist Dan Gillmor wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the San Francisco Chroniclein which he suggested that community foundations could:

  • Provide seed funding for a network of local blogs
  • Pay the salary of an investigative journalist at a local newspaper
  • Help get local and regional government data online in ways that anyone can access it
  • Fund local media-literacy education

These are interesting suggestions and may appeal to some community foundations. Others may be put off by even considering them because they represent unfamiliar territory. So, here's something else I think we should do: if there's sufficient interest, the Knight Foundation will organize a conference possibly in Miami, sometime this winter specifically for community foundations. The subject will be you and media and community. How might community foundations help ensure that their communities have the information they need? There's more to come on that subject, and if you have ideas about how we might do this and what areas to focus on, send them to me at ibarguen@knightfoundation.org.

Jack and Jim Knight cared passionately about the communities in which they published newspapers, and they wanted their legacy to include giving back to the places where they made their fortune. Those communities range in size from Milledgeville, Georgia, to Miami, from San Jose to State College, Pennsylvania, and many others. And in every one, we have partnered with community foundations.

More than forty years ago, Jack Knight described the role of newspapers in a community this way: "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."

Today, those words continue to serve as a useful guide for our work to strengthen communities.

Alberto Ibargüen is president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Before joining the foundation, Ibargüen was publisher and chairman of the Miami Herald, which won three Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure, and publisher of El Nuevo Herald. A newspaper executive since 1984, first at the Hartford Courant, then at Newsday in New York, Ibargüen serves on the board of directors of PepsiCo, is chairman of the executive committee of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Trustees' Council of the National Gallery of Art, the Advisory Council of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and the Council on Foreign Relations.

This commentary was adapted from a plenary speech Alberto Ibargüen delivered at the Council on Foundations' recent community foundation conference in San Francisco.