This BenitoLink staff report is provided for our readers to keep you informed about the latest issues in journalism on a national level and in relation to our own nonprofit journalism.
BenitoLink and the Community Foundation for San Benito County made the long trip on Feb. 25 to Miami for the annual Knight Foundation Media Forum. The trip was not about palm trees and tiki-bobs, instead it was a jarring look at the state of news media today.
Guests at the free event learned that studies show the public’s trust, especially in national media, has dropped. Over two days, Knight-funded researchers tried to explain why newspapers are struggling and national television news audience numbers are falling. Presenters demonstrated how technology is allowing exaggerated, unsubstantiated and even factually deceiving information to proliferate. Social media experts explained that youth and young adults are relying on YouTube videos and social media apps as their primary news sources. With this sobering news came the Knight Foundation’s $300 million, five-year commitment to fight the trend. The American Journalism Project also committed $42 million.
At the conference, Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen told the crowd gathered in a large ballroom that trust in news media is at an all-time low. But despite this, “there is strength in local, and local leads to trust,” he said.
The Knight website explains, “[Ibargüen] is the former publisher of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. During his tenure, The Miami Herald won three Pulitzer Prizes and El Nuevo Herald won Spain’s Ortega y Gasset Prize for excellence in journalism.”
Ibargüen expressed concern about where the public will get information with continued layoffs in news media. According to “The Expanding News Desert,” a study presented at the forum, one in five newspapers has closed in the last 10 years. Study author Penelope Muse Abernathy wrote that, “Many of our 7,100 surviving newspapers are mere shells, ‘ghosts’ of their former selves.” As newspapers struggle, more and more regions have no substantial local news coverage.
In a heroic effort to fight these odds, the Knight Foundation invests in journalism, the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight previously published newspapers. The bulk of news operations represented at the forum were the “Knight cities” of Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Detroit, Michigan; Macon, Georgia; San Jose, California; and St. Paul, Minnesota.
While San Benito County borders Santa Clara County but has no Knight cities, resident and journalist Julie Morris applied for a Knight grant in 2012. Spearheading the project, she received funding and began to design and build BenitoLink, San Benito County’s community-supported, nonprofit news organization. BenitoLink got off the ground thanks to the Knight Foundation startup funds and support from the Community Foundation for San Benito County.
Since the founding of BenitoLink, Knight has put more effort and funding into rebuilding trust and supporting news operations nationwide.
“The way we inform ourselves is insufficient to a healthy democracy,” Ibargüen said. He expressed concern about the “distance between news and the reader.” In recent years, Knight research has found that newsrooms in major cities are made up of staff members who have little or no connection to many sections of their cities or the rural communities beyond them.
Ibargüen told the audience comprised of community foundations, major media outlets, regional news providers and funders that there is “too much distance between news and reader.”
He expressed some optimism, however. He referenced an Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation report “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America” that stated, “A number of studies have shown that Americans trust local news sources more than national news media.”
The report included comments from British journalist Jo Allison, who wrote, “One of the primary reasons local news stands apart is that it’s often perceived as having higher levels of reliability and accountability. Proximity also plays a part.”
“Readers, especially those that take an active role in local issues, are likely to have met a reporter, they’re likely to have walked past the newspaper’s [or website’s] office on occasion and as a result they’re likely to have made a different sort of connection to the medium.”
Ibargüen announced on Feb. 21 that the Knight Foundation will invest $300 million over the next five years toward “reimagining local news, funding tested solutions, experiments and basic research.” Knight and many of its partners, including the Democracy Fund, MacArthur Foundation and the Aspen Institute, have spent over a decade supporting and studying what works for journalism. The Report for America Project is expected to bring additional journalists into areas like San Benito County that could benefit from assistance.
“We’re funding organizations that support local journalism from every angle, helping them develop sustainable digital business models, defending reporters in court, engaging with their communities, improving media literacy and placing reporters in news operations that need more staff,” Ibargüen said. Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and Local Independent Online News (LION) have both become the backbone for news startups with legal, technical, and tried and true revenue models to share.
BenitoLink, with the Community Foundation’s assistance and grant support, is developing a sustainable base of smaller individual donors from $25 to $4,999 and several major donors who give over $5,000. It also benefits from the support of local businesses and organizations as sponsors.
BenitoLink began as a Knight Foundation project, assisted by Gary Byrne and the Community Foundation for San Benito County Board of Directors. Hundreds of county residents participated in listening sessions in 2011 that helped form the organization. The foundation and a small team of citizens were concerned that residents were not getting the basic information that informed voters need.
BenitoLink became a separate, nonprofit (501(c)(3) organization in December 2015. We are dedicated to providing readers easily-accessible, free news as a necessary public service to the local community. Locals can attend our monthly open editorial meetings as BenitoLink works to provide genuine community access for all San Benito County residents. Residents interested in learning more are invited to contact BenitoLink staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the forum, Ibargüen made it clear that the Knight Foundation continues with goals that are compatible with BenitoLink, affirming its dedication to keeping news alive—and local news in particular—as the foundation increases its financial commitment and doubles-down on its mission of “sustaining an informed citizenry.”