On Feb. 24, BenitoLink and the Community Foundation for San Benito County arrived in downtown Miami to hear from the John S. and James R. Knight Foundation about its plans for 2020. BenitoLink, San Benito County’s nonprofit news organization, was started after a series of in-depth listening sessions held county-wide. Then, the website was created under the guidance of the Community Foundation and three consecutive years of $50,000 Knight Foundation grants. In 2015, BenitoLink achieved 501(c)(3) status and began developing its own community support through small, medium and large donors.
Despite more than a decade of hard work, the Knight Foundation continues to battle shrinking newsrooms, distrust in news and misinformation on a national scale.
The foundation convened its 13th Media Forum on Feb. 24-26, bringing together nonprofit media outlets, community foundations and larger foundations helping to boost the news industry while it reconfigures in the digital era.
Nonprofit news providers such as CalMatters out of Sacramento and Reveal, an investigative website in the East Bay, attended. Renaissance Journalism, partially funded through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, spoke about some of its innovative regional reporting projects in break-out sessions.
Speeches and panels focused on sharing current research, building trust in news, engaging communities, and reinforcing the need for accurate news and on-the-ground reporting.
Six hundred journalists and news supporters filled the convention to hear from the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who spoke about SOLID, a new project that supports user privacy. A decentralized system, SOLID “aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy,” according to the project’s website. A few examples of the breakout session topics were: The Latest Research on Why People Give to News Organizations, Libraries and Civic Engagement, Bringing Local Reporting and Solutions to Your Community, Supporting Coverage of Key Community Issues: Education, Gun Violence and Housing as Emerging Models for Building Local Journalism: the Nuts and Bolts.
Maria Hinojosa, founder of Futuro Media Group, and PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff both participated in panels. Hinojosa discussed the Census, saying one of the big challenges is the fact that undocumented residents have been warned for several years not to answer their door for fear of ICE activity. She also pointed out that distruct in government is at an all-time-low. New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger gave the forum’s closing speech and interview. He told journalists and news funders that quality and genuine on-the-street reporting will always have value.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is aggressively tackling the damage from drastic changes in the news media landscape and attempting to use its research to find lasting solutions.
One way Knight supports journalism is by funding research on news and innovative revenue possibilities. The foundation also supports research about journalism.
According to a study presented at the forum, “Eyes Upon the Street” published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, author Julie Sandorf provided evidence from recent studies which show that a lack of local news puts “cities and towns at stake.”
In her report, published this year, Sandorf writes that a community without dependable news “…leads to an increase in municipal borrowing costs, because government expenditures go unscrutinized.”
Another study cited in Sandorf’s research indicated that a lack of local news coverage leads to the diminution of citizens’ political knowledge and participation. Sandorf said that cities with sharp declines in newsroom staffing had significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races. In her study, Sandorf also posited that the loss of local news and information has contributed to greater political polarization.
Social media as a news source
A great deal of discussion and disturbance throughout the conference centered on social media platforms. Online child pornography, violent video and white supremacist content were specifically mentioned. The question kept coming back to whether social media needs to be brought under more control and how.
Intentional disinformation was also a major topic in the conference’s break-out sessions. Many newsroom managers showed frustration with Google, Facebook and Twitter. In the small groups, journalists and techies also argued about whether restrictions or new laws are a solution. In addition, there was interest in ways to help readers recognize a dependable news source from one that isn’t.
Newspapers and newsroom staffs continue to shrink. Statistics supported the suspicion that the internet is severely impacting the number of television viewers. Online consumers are realizing they can read, watch, or listen to news when and where they want instead of waiting for the evening news. Knight President Alberto Ibargüen warned attendees that television stations are being caught off guard much like newspapers were a decade ago and that they need to wake up to this uncomfortable reality.
It was refreshing to see increased interest and seminars oriented toward smaller and rural communities. Local news providers are credited with getting reporters off their computers and more regularly back on the streets of their community. The Knight Foundation is encouraging news organizations to hire reporters and staff who better reflect their communities and make use of personal contacts to learn about what is going on in neighborhoods and small towns.
Internet privacy may be improving if Berners-Lee is on track. The inventor of the world wide web said SOLID products are being used now by developers and could be in consumers’ hands soon.
Sulzberger’s main message to the crowd was that quality is the ultimate answer to staying in business, explaining that he believes readers are willing to pay for dependable information.
Another area of hope came from the nonprofit, online news sector represented by the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). Starting in 2009 with a group of 27 nonprofit news websites, INN now represents 230 media organizations in North America, including BenitoLink.
Over the last 10 years of trying times, INN has made progress one site at a time. As the team says on its website, “Together, we’ve managed to increase the reach and impact of their [member news organizations’] work as they seek to inform communities, hold the powerful accountable and help keep our democracy free.”
INN is one of many organizations helping to rebuild news. It is partially funded by the Knight Foundation, along with the Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund and Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. INN has strict best practices and ethical guidelines and requires that member newsrooms work within the same parameters. Its members, including BenitoLink, benefit from mentoring, revenue models, legal advice, and collaboration opportunities.
Research used in recently published Julie Sandorf paper, “Eyes Upon the Street”:
- Penelope Muse Abernathy, “The Expanding News Desert,” The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at University of Northern Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Christine Schmid, “Facebook Enter the News Desert Battle, Trying to Find Enough Local News for Its Today In Feature,” NiemanLab.
- Pengjie Gao, Chang Le, and Dermot Murphy, Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance,” Journal of Financial Economics, forthcoming.
- Danny Hayes and Jennifer L. Lawless, “The Decline of Local News and its Effects: New Evidence from the Longitudinal Data,” Journal of Politics, vol. 80, no. 1, 2018.
- Meshan E. Rubado and Jay T. Jennings, “The Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” Urban Affairs Review, 2019.