Can community news non-profits persuade hometown civic foundations to help bankroll their operations? The answer looks like a resounding yes.
In the first year of the Knight Foundation’s $24 million, five-year program, 100 of the nation’s community foundations sought some of the action, pledging their own philanthropy in applications for matching Knight grants. That amounts to nearly 15 percent of the nation’s civic foundations – and many of them submitted more than one grant proposal.
Knight officials were taken aback by the turnout. “The biggest surprise for me was how many responded in the first year,” said Trabian Shorters, Knight’s vice president of communities. “It’s not unusual with these grant initiatives that people wait and see. So that was a big and pleasant surprise.” Shorters said the response indicated there’s some “pent-up demand on this front.”
For local media outlets, the projects funded by Knight often read like pointed shots across the bow. In many cases, the initiatives are work newspapers in particular are trying to do, or have traditionally done. The involvement of civic foundations ups the ante, with leading local figures agreeing with Knight that something must be done to augment the mainstream media’s reporting. Shorters said no slap was intended at local media, but he said even mainstream journalists acknowledge that staff cutbacks have created gaps in community news and information.
Knight reviewed a total of 170 applications and funded 21 of them to the tune of $5 million. Shorters said the local foundations would put up an amount “north” of that total. (UPDATE: Knight reports the total expenditures will be $17 million, meaning the community foundations will put up $12 million.) Knight’s 2009 contributions range from $500,000 to the San Diego Foundation to $41,250 headed to the Manatee Community Foundation in Florida. Grant terms, not specified for each recipient, range from one to three years.
The wholesale pairing up of civic foundations with news and information non-profits marks a new frontier in the development of non-profit community news sites. And it busts through whatever barrier there might have been to hometown foundations identifying local news needs as a core mission. “They’re seeing the gaps in community information,” said Shorters, who predicted that many foundations who’s applications were rejected would go ahead and fund local projects on their own.
Some of the foundations are partnering with community news sites that have won national attention for their pioneering work. The San Diego project will be a partnership with the Voice of San Diego, with its news staff of about a dozen and recent record of strong muckraking journalism on civic matters. The project, which also involves local public libraries and Media Arts Center San Diego, is designed to create “community-based digital storytelling” aimed especially at the Native American population and other “underserved” groups.
A $100,000 grant to the Minneapolis Foundation will create new reporting beats at MinnPost, Joel Kramer’s robust news start-up. The idea is to get donors to bankroll reporting beats with money matched by both the Minneapolis Foundation and Knight.
The second-largest grant, $488,500 to the San Antonio Area Foundation to create Web videos focusing on community interests, was an example of money aimed directly at the local newspaper’s mission, and it did not sit well with Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News. The first sentence of the award summary says: “Although ranked in the top 50 media markets in the country, San Antonio lacks in-depth news coverage about diverse communities and issues.”
Asked about his reaction, Rivard said the assertion “does not tell our story.” He said in an e-mail that the Express-News does a good job of covering “all our communities. A day doesn’t go by without a story or multiple stories in our pages about our minority communities.
“How many newspapers field a team of high profile local columnists like ours: Cary Clack (lead features columnist; African-American); Ken Rodriguez, Carlos Guerra and Jaime Castillo (our three metro columnists; Latinos); David Flores (Sports columnist; Latino). We continually finish in the Top Five of the ASNE metro markets for newsroom diversity, and our newspaper pages and Web site reflect that diversity and the diversity of our city.
“We have our critics, of course, and we are self-critical, never satisfied with where we stand. But there is much to be proud of here.”
The president and CEO of the San Antonio Area Foundation, Reggie Williams, said the group meant no slight to the Express-News or any other local media. “We believe our newspaper and broadcast media are as strong as any in the Nation,” he said in a statement, in which he took responsibility for imprecise wording. (Full statement posted as a comment below.)
(I also queried Orlando Sentinel editor Charlotte Hall, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I’ll update.)
Shorters emphasized that none of the projects was intended as a commentary on the performance of local media. Knight’s intent is to foster community information needs, he said, and local citizens sometimes have views on that subject that differ from the local media’s. “It’s important to understand that our interest is not saving the newspapers and radios per se,” he said.
I asked Shorters whether for-profit media might be eligible for the Knight civic grants. He didn’t answer directly, noting that it’s “more complicated” to give grants to profit-seeking concerns. But he added, “We’re more concerned with meeting the information needs than which organizations to support.”
What’s next for the program? First, a new seminar for civic foundations, set for Feb. 16-17 in Miami. After that, Shorters hopes for even more applications for next year’s funding round.
While he and other reviewers said they were impressed with the savvy shown by applicants in the first round, Shorters said Knight will be looking for a “broader range of strategies” in Round No. 2.