News and analysis
March 02, 2011

Community Funds Are Offered New Ways to Measure Health of News Coverage in Their Cites and Towns

Robertson Adams, Knight Foundation

The panel on the Monitor Institute and Knight Foundation's first draft of the "Community Information Toolkit" on March 1, 2011 in Miami. From left to right: Mayur Patel, Knight Foundation Director of Strategic Assessment; Tony Siesfeld, partner at the Monitor Institute; and Barbara Kibbe, partner and vice president of Client Services, Monitor Institute.

People who regularly follow the news are more likely to be involved in their communities and feel they make a difference, according to a study released by three nonprofits this week.

Those findings were unveiled as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation played host to about 350 community-foundation leaders as part of its annual Media Learning Seminar—an event that pulls together journalism experts and foundation officials for two days of discussions about how foundations can help provide better information to their communities, in part by giving grants to news organizations.

In conjunction with the release of the study, Knight unveiled a “community information toolkit” designed to help community foundations identify problems with news-media coverage and information infrastructure in their cities and towns.

A Scavenger Hunt to Find News

The 51-page document suggests traditional ideas, such as conducting surveys of how well informed local residents are, as well as unconventional ones, such as conducting a “scavenger hunt”—asking people in communities to find certain types of information online

After three tests of the ideas in the toolkit in Macon, Ga.; Philadelphia; and San Jose, Calif., some patterns became clear. Among them: If people believe their community shares information well, they also feel good about their town in general.

“That’s not to say, though, that a lot of people think their government is transparent,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which, along with Knight and the Monitor Institute, conducted the study. “Only about 20 percent of people felt that way.”

Among other findings about people who use the Internet:

  • Sixty-nine percent said the Internet made a big difference in their ability to learn new things.
  • Forty-eight percent said it made a major impact on their ability to manage their health and that of their families.
  • Thirty-two percent get local news from social networks like Facebook.

Kathryn Dennis, president of the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, said participating in the research was an “energizing” and eye-opening experience. Participants discovered information wasn’t as easy to find as they had expected and that in many cases, long-held beliefs were disproved when people had the facts.

“We have a vibrant downtown, but people swear it’s dangerous to go downtown,” Ms. Dennis said. “If you look at the facts, that’s the lowest crime area in the city.”

New Local Reporting Effort

This week's seminar was an annual part of the Knight Community Information Challenge, a five-year, $24-million program that makes grants to foundations that fund community journalism projects and provide community information. The effort has provided grants to 75 foundations in the past three years.

At one session here, Arianna Huffington, who last month announced the sale of her Huffington Post to AOL, noted that as part of the transaction she is helping to start—a nonprofit effort that will report on communities that do not have strong local news sources, starting with Newark, N.J. 

The nonprofit will complement an effort called Patch that AOL already runs to provide local news.

She also encouraged community foundation leaders to continue their work in journalism and information.

With the Internet, "we have a 24/7 network of community solutions, we just have to do a better job of capturing it,” Ms. Huffington said.

Steven Waldman, senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a snapshot of the current journalism world from a forthcoming commission report.

The problem, he said, is a lack of “local, full-time, professional, accountable journalism.”

“The things that used to be well supported by the commercial sector are now things nonprofits, especially local foundations, must support,” Mr. Waldman said.

“If we, as a society, solve this one nut, we will actually have the best media system we’ve ever had,” he said.