The face of traditional news media — particularly the newspaper industry — is changing rapidly, with Denver's Rocky Mountain News folding this month and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about to become an online-only publication. Indeed, newspapers across the United States cut nearly 22,000 jobs last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while television and radio broadcasters eliminated some 5,000 positions.
With the traditional news-media business model seemingly headed for oblivion, Knight has become deeply involved in exploring how journalism will be produced and delivered in the future. Projects funded by the foundation include Spot.us, a participatory investigative journalism project; EveryBlock.com, which provides restaurant inspections, building-permit applications, police crime logs, and other data specific to individual neighborhoods and communities; and Printcasting, which enables citizen journalists to create their own newspaper or magazine — and to sell advertising to support it.
While some of these initiatives have started to attract attention, many in the industry wonder why the foundation doesn't invest directly in traditional news production. Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said it's hard to criticize Knight because it invests millions of dollars in journalism programs each year — Poynter itself has received $5.4 million from the foundation since 2003 — but he wonders whether more of the foundation's experimentation could be focused on supporting solid journalism within more traditional structures. For instance, said Edmonds, Knight could fund reporters to cover the news in communities which have suffered the loss of one or more of their daily newspapers.
Anything is possible, said Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibarg�en, who emphasized that Knight has invested more than $400 million in journalism programs since 1950. Nevertheless, said Ibargüen, there are more vexing challenges confronting traditional journalism models, such as making money from content that is costly to produce but that most media are willing to give away online. Ibarg�en also is concerned about making investments to train journalists for jobs that may not exist in a few years.
"When things settle down, we'll go back to funding best practices, when we figure out what they are," Ibargüen said. "We're at a point now, a period of transition, where we need a lot of experimentation. We're trying to fund experiments that will lead us to answers about the future of media."