Making Sense of the Future of News

There’s been a lot of media attention recently on the future of the news industry. This month, The Economist published a special report, Bulletins from the Future, highlighting the major ways in which journalism has and will change because of digital technology and network platforms. This summer, Participant Media (Jeff Skoll’s film production company) released Page One: Inside the New York Times, a Sundance documentary that pits digital media against traditional media in a Star Wars-esque battle of editorial forces as the Times rethinks its business model. In April, The Atlantic tried to make its own sense of new media in an article on the topic. While media loves to talk about itself and its illnesses, increasingly the philanthropic community is considering information and news in a new light: as a core need and instrument for social change.

FSG has been thinking about the role of philanthropy in news, information and media for more than two years, as part of our ongoing partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – a national philanthropic leader in this area. (Their work is featured in Do More than Give as an example of catalytic philanthropy.) In 2009, FSG was asked to evaluate Knight’s Community Information Challenge, a five-year, $24M initiative that intends to increase engagement of community and place-based philanthropy in supporting local news and media. Knight wanted to catalyze experimentation – get foundations to change their behaviors and utilize digital media (the internet, social and mobile media) to create social change.  And, unlike traditional program evaluation, FSG was asked to emphasize learning – for the Foundation, for grantees, and for the field. Thus began our involvement in a developmental strategic evaluation of the KCIC. (See FSG’s report for more on our findings.)

Our work has involved a near real-time cycle of collecting and reporting data on projects, grantees and the field of community and place-based foundations. Assisted by reports, briefs, memos, slide decks, case studies, and other deliverables we’ve produced, we also talk frequently with our clients and other stakeholders to discuss the evolution of the program and help them think about how to adapt their strategies and approaches. I used to tell people that I wasn’t sure whether we were conducting an evaluation or advising a strategy – and now I am not sure that the difference matters. Our approach to evaluation feels highly appropriate to the dynamic and swiftly changing world of digital media. When the KCIC launched, no one had an iPhone. Twitter and Facebook were fledgling (as one article notes, the “Like” button didn’t exist until April 2010). But today, we need to adapt more quickly – to tablets, foursquare, and whatever the next thing is.

Halfway in, we’ve seen impressive uptake in the field. Roughly 400 community and place-based foundations have applied for matching grants, and 200 foundation CEOs and board members have attended Knight’s annual Media Learning Seminar. To date, Knight has made grants to 84 projects in communities around the United States – in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as rural Alaska, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Considering that there are fewer than 800 community foundations in the U.S., a considerable proportion of the field is becoming more aware and incorporating information and media grantmaking into their work.

  • They’re using information to further their impact on core community issues, like education, health and the environment.  Some examples include the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County’s Ready. Set. Learn. campaign to increase public funding for  early childhood education, and California Endowment’s Youth Led Media Outlets initiative.
  • They’re building the capacity of nonprofits- their grantees – and orienting them to the new digital world so they can better leverage online reach and engagement to create social change.  This may include social media training, which the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation provided to get more nonprofits to participate in their Amazing County project, or creating a central online hub for nonprofits to better coordinate their efforts to improve the environment, like the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo did.
  • They’re supporting new models of news and journalism. As traditional newspapers have struggled with the old print model, new online models have leveraged the internet, mobile and social media platforms to distribute local independent and public interest news. For example, check out the “upstarts” in Connecticut: the New Haven Independent (funded by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven) and CT Mirror (funded by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving).
  • They’re building their own capacity to better serve as information providers.  Multiple foundations have hired web and social media staff, for example, to ensure that they are reaching and engaging residents online.

In many ways, foundations are using information and media to further their roles as philanthropic leaders. In particular, they are helping to create actionable knowledge in their communities and providing an opportunity for citizens to take action – whether it’s about decommissioning the local nuclear power plant, voting on a local education funding measure or learning about the perspectives of young people growing up in the community.

Knight and FSG are interested in learning more about what other foundations – in the field, beyond KCIC grantees – are doing to support news and information in their communities. We invite you to tell us your stories and what you’ve learned.


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