News and analysis
February 11, 2013

Knight Commits Nearly $10-Million More to Community News Efforts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is committing nearly $10-million in new money to continue to nudge community foundations to support projects that help meet local information needs.

The foundation started the Knight Community Information Challenge five years ago, and so far it has spent $24-million on matching grants to local foundations that improve news and information-gathering in their cities.

This morning, Knight’s president, Alberto Ibargüen, announced that the foundation would spend another $9.5-million on the contest over the next three years. He shared the news at an annual meeting that Knight hosts in Miami, where community-foundation leaders meet with journalism and technology experts to discuss community-information needs.

Growing Interest

When Knight started the challenge, few community foundations were focused on newsgathering. But Bahia Ramos Synnott, a program director who oversees the Community Information Challenge, says Knight has seen a big shift in the past five years. The grant competition has received applications from over 400 community foundations, more than half the nation’s total.

Successful applicants are expected to match Knight’s contribution to the winning projects, but the community foundations have far exceeded that requirement, raising a total of nearly $59-million, she says.

“The market has responded to our call,” Ms. Ramos Synnott says. “Community foundations have stepped up to lead on this issue.”

Case Studies

Knight puts few restrictions on the kinds of projects it will support. Last week, the foundation released a report that featured four case studies from the competition. The report said successful projects have focused on a specific audience, promoted community dialogue, and invested time and money to build their brands.

Among the efforts:

• The Hawaii Community Foundation supports a broadcast-news program run by high-school students that seeks to bring more diverse stories to the state’s PBS affiliate.

• In Wood County, Wisc., the Incourage Community Foundation is helping communities reeling from a weak economy and a downsized newspaper get access to local news through the Internet and text messages.

• In Iowa, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque started a Web portal that features games and personalized data to help local residents become more aware of how their energy usage fits in with the city’s goal to become a leader in environmental sustainability.

Traditional News

The Knight challenge also supports traditional newsgathering—such as NJ Spotlight, the fourth project highlighted in the new report. NJ Spotlight is an online site started by veteran journalists that specializes in news about New Jersey state policy issues.

But Mr. Ibargüen says he estimates that such “hard news” operations represent less than 20 percent of the grant recipients.

“We don’t expect a community foundation to suddenly become The New York Times,” he says. “We think all these projects are legitimate, especially during this early phase of the transition, in the ways in which we inform communities.”

During the next three years of the Community Information Challenge, Knight remains open to innovative ideas, but it is especially keen on supporting projects in three areas: sharing information via mobile devices, using technology to get citizens engaged, and encouraging governments to become more open in sharing data.

“Governments sit on the mother-lode of information,” Mr. Ibargüen says. “We think that data should be easily accessible by citizens.”