AUDIO
May 05, 2017

Podcast: A Conversation With the Head of the Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation was founded in the belief that newspapers are an important vehicle to inform communities. To advance the telling and delivery of reliable and consistent news, Jack Knight was dedicated to investing in cutting-edge technology, experimenting with fax technology as early as 1948.

Carrying forward the themes of journalism, technology, and healthy communities, the $2 billion-plus foundation supports innovative ideas through competitions such as the Knight News Challenge, Arts Challenge, and Cities Challenge.

In this Business of Giving interview, Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation’s president and chief executive, discusses the five key elements the foundation looks for in making grant decisions: discovery, vision, courage, know-how, and tenacity. Mr. Ibargüen also describes the mission for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the critical issue of First Amendment law in the digital age.

Transcript

Denver: There haven’t been too many newspaper guys that have gone on to lead one of the premier foundations in the country. But if my next guest, who has served as a publisher at the Miami Herald… and has done stints at the Hartford Courant and Newsday among other places… is any indication, then it might be a good place for a foundation seeking a CEO to take a look. He is Alberto Ibargüen, the President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Good evening, Alberto and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Alberto: It’s a great pleasure to be here. 

Denver: Tell us about John S. and James L. Knight, who started this foundation back in 1950… what their original vision was, and the influence that vision has on the work of the foundation today.

Alberto: They were originally from Akron, Ohio. They were newspaper people. They saw newspapers as a way of informing communities, and in Jack Knight’s own words, “So that the people may determine their own interest.” Although I would say, not actually really sure that he was a partisan, but I would say he was a patrician, republican, very wealthy man who was actually a small-d democrat. He truly believed in an informed society. He also believed in technology, and he used new technology to advance his business, to advance the telling of news and information–reliable and consistently reliable product– that people would come back to as a matter of habit and as a matter of staying informed about things that were going on in their community. He used the telephone as the new modern thing in the early part of the 20th century in the 1920s to go from Akron, first to Miami, then later Charlotte, Detroit, Philadelphia, and so on… And created what in his day was the biggest newspaper company in America, when newspapers were the key source of news throughout the country. 

Denver: As a matter of fact, I understand he even had some fax technology back in 1948. Although it was short lived, he was delivering the news like that. 

Alberto: It’s actually a great story, I didn’t know it until somebody pointed  out there’s a German engineering magazine that talked about this crazy American, who in 1948…I don’t think 99.9% of the world knew what a fax was…in 1948, there’s this American guy talking about one day faxing his newspaper to his customers. They also lost a lot of money, early internet with Viewtron. I think this was before pictures, before motion, before video. It was just text, but they made a big investment, and I think it’s typical of the history of the Knights– and then later Knight Ridder– that the early Knight Ridder should have invested in whatever the technology was, so that when the customers were ready to go there, they were already there with their reliable news package.

Denver: Well, that spirit of adventure is still alive today with the Knight Foundation as you do all you can to try to stay ahead of the curve. Now, you’re a national foundation, both I think, in impact and scope, but you’re also a local foundation in that you’re rooted in the 26 cities which had Knight Ridder newspapers. That’s a somewhat unusual structure for a foundation. Have there been advantages and disadvantages in that kind of set-up? 

Alberto: I think there are huge advantages from my perspective. In the first place, we’re not a behemoth like Gates, or even extremely large, like Ford. Two billion dollars sounds like a lot of money until you start figuring out how much it costs to do all these various things in 26 cities. The Knight Brothers were really pretty clear: they explicitly said, “We don’t have a crystal ball, and we know that just like our business, the foundation will need to evolve to stay relevant. What we care about is journalism and the communities that made us successful.” And so, that gives us a really clear “true north” for what we do, and how we do it depends on what’s available now.  And so for me, it was absolutely clear that we had to move away from ink on paper. Why? Because the world had moved away from ink on paper, and it was never about the paper, and never about the ink.  It was always about the news. And how do you get people really well-informed so that they can make the best choices? That’s what journalism should be– always about, it seems to me. 

Denver: Well, when you arrived at Knight, a bit over a decade ago, the foundation was apt to make some really large gifts to universities to endow some chairs in journalism.  But you started to fund innovation along the lines you just said– with smaller grants to start-up enterprises. Tell us how that change evolved, and how it changed the way the foundation both operates– and its corporate culture. 

 

Alberto: I don’t want to make more of it than it was. I was a newspaper publisher. I saw how much we were struggling to put the newspaper on the web. It occurred to me at some point that what we were trying to do is to make a movie that was really faithful about the book.  And if you make a movie that’s really faithful to the book, it’s usually a dull movie. You see the page turning, and frankly, you fall asleep. 

Denver: Love that analogy.

Alberto: Instead what you’ve got to do is give a movie director the story and say, “Go, make a movie.” Not “Go write a book!”  We already did that, and the problem was: none of us had ever done this on the internet because it was new. I figured the best thing we can do is:  “The truth shall set you free”… and admit that we didn’t have the answer. We were not going to fund our theory of the game because we didn’t have a theory of the game– except for the fact that it was the internet; and then it was mobile,  and that it was likely to be moving– whether  video and voice.

We decided:  let’s do this; let’s just pause this endowed chair business, which actually we’ve revived some, and simply ask: “We have some money; do you have any ideas?” And it has been phenomenal!  It has been so liberating in terms of the corporate culture of the foundation because you don’t have to come up with– before the fact– a theory of how things should happen. Ten years later, we’re now saying, “Okay, we’ve done these experiments.” Our contests, whether for journalism, for arts, or for communities, all have a fairly common trait which is: it just says, “What’s your idea?” It defines it in field, in the arts for example, or in a particular set of communities, or in a particular field like journalism.  But then after that, it says, “Give us your best idea; take your best shot.” Now we’re saying, “Okay these things, lovely people, we’re glad we gave them a chance to experiment, to fail fast and move forward.” But that didn’t work. These other things we’re thinking maybe we should invest a little more in.  And so now we’re at a stage where learning and impact is significantly a greater part of what the foundation is spending money on– figuring out what works, and then reinvesting in it.  

Denver: I think one of your milestone moments was the way you designed these challenges or competitions.  Just to recap: you started that Knight News Challenge in 2006, and then the Arts Challenge you referred to was 2008. And then the Cities Challenge in 2014. So, they came to you and said, “Alberto, we’ve got some guidelines, and we’ve got some rules we want to lay out.” What was your response to that?

Alberto: Actually, no, they didn’t come to me. I actually was the one who said: “ I don’t have any answers, and I don’t want to pretend that I have any answers.”  What my good dear friends, Eric Newton and Gary Kebbel, literally came up with were three pages of rules for the News Challenge. I took them, and I turned them over gently and I said, “Look, I’m not being disrespectful, but the answer to all of these is “No.”  Because if we have three pages of rules, what we’re going to get are variations on themes we’ve already imagined, and the whole point of this is to bring in people like Tim Berners-Lee– the inventor of the World Wide Web– is one of our first grantees — 10 years ago — trying to figure out how he could use, how he could program, how he could code and develop programs that could do instant fact checking. That’s a popular theme these days in computer and in news, alternative fact news circles, but 10 years ago, nobody else was talking about it. Berners-Lee, through this contest, was able to come up.  Nobody would have imagined doing a contest on that.  But by doing it open, you had somebody like him step forward with ideas that actually now matter.  

Denver: I wonder, Alberto, the energy that you have around innovation. How much of that may have been informed by being an old newspaper guy and looking at an industry that did not adapt as quickly as it should, and in some way is paying the price for that?

Alberto: I looked at how Jack Knight ran his business. I sat in Jack Knight’s office at the Miami Herald for the better part of 10 years, and I’ve sat in his office for a little more than that at the foundation. And I feel I’d never go wrong listening to the old man. There’s a wonderful little clip that I have where somebody–late in his life– and he says, “If somebody comes in and says, ‘Did you hear what they said about you?’ ‘No, was it good?’ ‘No.’  ‘Then who gives a g*d*mn. I just want to be known as a guy who does the right thing, is fair, open-minded and opinionated.’”

You have to be open-minded, and you have to figure out structures to let this new technology  carry your business, but be open-minded about new ideas, and then make up your mind. It doesn’t mean that you’re right; it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re right. I’ve never have been always right… In a way it’s very Silicon Valley. It’s:  Fail fast.  Move forward.  And iterate; keep iterating.

Denver: As you mentioned just a moment ago, you continue to fund innovation, but perhaps a little less so. You’re beginning to turn your attention and focus to some of the promising things and projects that you have funded. What would one or two of those be?

Alberto: Right now, we just funded with Reid Hoffman from LinkedIn and Pierre Omidyar, who started eBay. We’ve together joined to pool a significant amount of money to be used at the Media Lab at MIT and Berkman Center at Harvard to imagine the governance and ethics around artificial intelligence. This is a bit more “out there” than…

Denver: But closer than we may think…

Alberto: …than building a pop up pool in Philadelphia– which we’ve also done with great success. But it is the kind of thing that we were led to by seeing the increasing importance of artificial intelligence in every part of our lives. And realizing that there is somebody sitting in Mountain View who’s probably 21 years old, likely male, almost certainly white, and that has a certain world view… And even algorithms have parents.  And as they write the algorithms, the parent, the programmer, is putting in, I believe, some bias– even by what he’s leaving out. I think the simplest example is there was a point there about three years ago when in Google, if you typed in “thug”, you would get pictures of only young black men. Can that be influenced? Well, if you type in “thug” today, you’d get pictures of really ugly looking black men, white men, Hispanic men, but mainly men. Women apparently are not thugs. 

Denver: But there’s a parent. That’s what you’re trying to make the point. There’s a parent that changed that.

Alberto: There’s a parent that changed that. There are choices that are being made when you set these things up. And so we’re looking at how you structure that. How can we influence the governance of this for the benefit of the most people?

Denver: Let’s turn our attention to the news. One of the questions that has driven the Knight Foundation right from its very start is:  how you can use information. data, the news, to make healthier communities. What are some of those answers in the year 2017, Alberto?

Alberto: I don’t know that I’d want to get political about it, but the core belief of the foundation really is: An informed community makes the best choices, to the extent that you’re making choices based on a limited, filtered bubble. We all live in different versions of different bubbles. But to the extent that you can make it as broad as possible, that includes many points of view. That includes importantly a basic set of facts that we can all agree on.  So that left and right can then come in with their interpretations, and we can debate and compromise and move forward. That has been the genius of this country. Leading from the middle. It’s the middle class that everybody’s trying to save, but it’s the middle class that really needs to be able to not be polarized and without– I hate to say it this way, but frankly– Without the leavening impact of newspapers presenting a basic middle ground, it’s very hard for people who come from left and right to find that middle ground where they can compromise, where they can meet each other.

Denver: Yeah, I think you may be right because it seems the other kind of reporting is more theater, and everything in that theater has a point of view. It is really hard today to find any unbiased news.   

Alberto: I think that’s right, and I think it’s hard in many ways because we’re not often even trying. To some extent, remember Marshall McLuhan saying: “The medium is the message.” To some extent, this is natural because television, for example, which is still the main source of news for most Americans, is a cool medium. And what works on TV is a hot personality, it’s motion, it’s color. Imagine trying to be a television newsman and covering the debate over taxes; that’s a really tough assignment. A car accident is a story that tells itself on television. In print, it’s a very different thing. The warm medium can stand a different kind of cool approach — dispassionate and explanatory. But if we’re not able to spend the time on that, or not willing to spend the time, we have to find another way. I am not going to sit here and wring my hands and say, “Oh, Woe is me!  The newspaper is dead.” That ain’t me, and so my choice…

Denver: Not looking in the rearview mirror.

Alberto: And I think Jack Knight’s choice would have been to say, “All right, where is the audience? Let’s go find them, and let’s go inform them so they can make their best decisions.”

Denver: Well, we’re both old enough to know that the Jack Webb on Dragnet approach of:  “Just the facts, M’am!” will not work on television these days. And I do find sometimes that people live in these echo chambers, but they want to live in these echo chambers. And they don’t believe in anything else that is from outside of that echo chamber. 

Alberto: Look at the website, The Big Sort, that shows people moving more and more and more to zipcodes with people who think and look and vote just like them. 

Denver: Those are your Facebook friends.

Alberto: Absolutely! When people talk about black Twitter conversations on Twitter within a black community…. There was a study at MIT about this. It is absolutely natural for” birds of a feather to flock together.” Okay, fine. But we happen to have a system that really needs to have diversity and is virtually always better with diversity. You asked me earlier, before we came on the air, about:  What’s the big thing that we ought to be looking at in philanthropy?  And I’ve got to tell you: I am so optimistic because I have been talking about this with my friends in philanthropy for a long time. And they would say to me, “But we don’t do newspapers…” or “We don’t do media.” And I would say, “I am not talking about media, I am talking about democracy.” I am talking about saving a democratic system. It absolutely requires that we find the answer to how we inform people consistently, reliably, and reliably consistently.   

Denver: A part of that answer is to find a sustainable business model, and that’s really difficult in the news industry when everybody wants things for free. It started with Napster with music.  And now certainly, among young people, they don’t want to pay for the news. Have you seen or heard of a model that’s been articulated that shows some promise?

Alberto: I think it’s way before Napster. Look at the television model. Television in the United States didn’t charge you. You got Walter Cronkite for free. Not really for free; you got it for the price of paying attention to the ads in between. I think what we’ve done is: we’ve been funding dozens of online news operations. We need to experiment with membership models that maybe substitute for what used to be called newspaper circulation.

We will have to have some rethink, I think, of the tax laws that figure out what a nonprofit can do… how much a nonprofit can actually act like a business, for example, in terms of selling advertising. Others like Texas Tribune organizations, news organizations, online news organizations like Texas Tribune have been fantastically successful at events. Some of the best political events in Texas happen, sponsored by the Texas Tribune.  And I think in all of this: support the technology.

There’s a reason why Texas Tribune has been successful– and there are others who have been as well– but I will pick on them. Here’s an example: there was a woman named Wendy Davis, who was doing a filibuster in the Texas legislature, and she was getting some attention and Texas Tribune– their subject is “Politics in Texas.”  Which Governor Ann Richards once said, “Politics in Texas is not for the faint of heart.” And that’s their beat. So, they had the editor, and they had the managing editor, and they had the technology guy at the news table. So this was not afterward; this is in the news meeting and they’re talking about, “We could do this, and we ought to do this angle on the story and that angle…” And the tech guy says, “Why don’t you just put it on our website?” And they say, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, the Texas legislature has a feed.” This is some years ago, obviously. The Texas legislature has a feed. With a couple of strokes, I can just click, click and move it right on. So all of a sudden, this woman is on the Texas Tribune site, and Blam! The thing goes absolutely crazy. It’s a simple example though.

Denver: But it’s a way of thinking.

Alberto: It’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of saying: the natural state of things is this technology. How do I use it to tell the news? NOT: I’ve written the story. How do I change this written story into something that might fit the web?

Denver: Absolutely perfect. You know, it’s a little like a rip current, don’t try to swim into it, swim with it. I say that First Amendment rights are reasonably well understood in certain domains– print, broadcast, for instance.  But the internet and digital media, I don’t know if they’re so well understood in those domains. So recently, what you have done is you have helped found The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. Tell us why you did that, and what you see as their mission and charge.

Alberto: You just gave the reason. The law of First Amendment as to broadcast is settled, and the law of First Amendment as to individuals and print is also reasonably settled. Individuals– you and I and print can say what we want and print what we want. Broadcast has a license from government; that’s a different First Amendment. That’s a different way of understanding free speech, and if you don’t think that has had consequences, go look up on YouTube: George Carlin and 10 Things You Can’t Say on Television.  

Denver: I remember the seven words very well.

Alberto: Seven words, not ten. Now we’re in internet, and we have not yet litigated this. This did not get handed down by the framers. The First Amendment is a living thing, and how you interpret what is free speech is something that evolves over time. What is freedom that evolves over time? The freedom of assembly has evolved over time and many lawsuits. And my fear was that since the newspapers of the second half of the 20th century: the New York Times, Times Mirror and others were the principal funders of these lawsuits that gave us the kind of unfettered free speech that we have. I thought there needed to be somebody  that was independent and who’s bent– even knowing that these things are never black and white– whose bent was going to be freer than not free.

Denver: Make the mistake in that direction.

Alberto: More open than controlled by government… and that’s what I hoped for internet.  And since it hasn’t been litigated yet, I thought it would be a great idea to set up an institute that was well-endowed, affiliated with a great university that could not be pushed around by government, but also independent from that university because of its own endowment. Try to have your cake and eat it too!  Happily found a phenomenal partner in Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, who is a First Amendment scholar. We donated $30 million, and Columbia will match the $30 million. We’ve hired the executive director, Jameel Jaffer, a brilliant young lawyer. I think when the time comes for interpreting the First Amendment for the digital age, my hope is that the Knight First Amendment Center in Columbia will be right there in the front ranks. 

Denver: And I think you’ve also made the point, Alberto, that we’ve always been focused on this issue around the government.  But now there are some other players that control the access we have to information… whether that be Facebook or Google or whatever. So, it really is pretty sticky, isn’t it?

Alberto: Which is one of the reasons I am so interested in artificial intelligence, and what we know– or think we know–is being determined by these artificial intelligence agents. 

Denver: You’ve been described as someone who can move just as easily in the corporate world and that of the establishment, and with the startup world and the world of tech. Do you believe that there are things that they can learn from one another?

Alberto: I don’t know that I see the difference, honestly. 

Denver: Okay, that’s a good point. 

Alberto: I was thinking when I was coming over here, I looked up a couple of things that I have written to our staff as to who had influenced my thinking in these things. And I think about John Cage. I think about attending a concert in electronic music in 1965 when he came to the chapel at Wesleyan and stood in the back of the chapel and had arranged metal platforms in descending order– thrusting out toward the stage– and he rolled ball bearings down, and “Plink, Plank!”  And it amplified with microphones, and I thought, “My god! If this is music, then there are no rules except for the blinders that we’re willing to put on our imagination.” And Victor Butterfield at the time told us that if the four years at Wesleyan were the best years of our lives, then Wesleyan failed because the purpose of the liberal arts education was to always keep on learning. I think anybody in the corporate life, or anybody in nonprofit life, who stops learning, who stops evolving, who stops paying attention is doing the organization a disservice.

I think about Mies van der Rohe.  There was a note that I sent to staff. It was actually in 2007. I had just been at the Corcoran Gallery, and I read the notes that he wrote about a design that he had for a new kind of building with steel and glass. It was airy.  And in the same show, they had paintings by Mondriaan, and I just want to read you this… Here are two examples of the work in concepts; they are explanatory cards to a charcoal drawing of a glass-clad skyscraper by Mies van der Rohe and a painting by Mondriaan. Each man saw the world, not as it was, but as it could be. Mies understood the new technology that allowed him to transform buildings of stone into airy, light-filled glass enclosures, and Mondriaan painted at the interstices of the spiritual and the material– a place where we often make grants. That’s how you ought to think, I think, about transformative philanthropy.  That’s the kind of thing. We need to look for the people who have this kind of idea– and if not us, who should take that bet? Who should take that risk?   

Denver: That’s an exceptionally well-stated thought. Alberto, you have had a very interesting personal journey from your days as the editor of the Wesleyan Argus that you referenced for us a moment ago, to your current role as the CEO of the Knight Foundation.  And with that comes a lot of wisdom and experience which sometimes is not as valued in today’s world as it once was, but it should be. It provides you with a great perspective and context to what is currently going on. Share with us some of those milestones that you’ve seen and some of those learnings that would root us a little bit as to what’s going on here. 

Alberto: I went to a place that taught me to be skeptical, and I’ve lived a life as a lawyer who worked in newsrooms, so I am always hopeful. In Cornel West’s phrase: “I’m a prisoner of hope.”  But I am also the skeptical first reader of my own newspaper. If somebody says, “You’re wise,” I get a rash. I’m just not made that way.  But the kinds of things that you find and you look for are — what are the elements of transformation? What are the things that you want to really look for when you’re making significant grants?

The five elements that I always find: discovery, vision, courage, know-how and tenacity. Discovery is basic reporting; people who come in and give me a plan based on what they wish the world were like are probably are going to be disappointed and are going to disappoint me. Feet firmly planted on the ground; what’s the upper and lower level of tolerance of this manufacturing process? And then have the vision to see that a glass turned upside down is a stand or a table… that nobody else saw with the same common set of facts, the courage to put yourself out, the know-how to either get it, or do it, and then most of all in all these social change things: the tenacity.

Social change does not happen on the calendar year of a foundation or, frankly, on the election cycle that somebody set 200 years ago. Social change happens when the society is ready. I love thinking about The Tipping Point ideas of Malcolm Gladwell, which are underground currents that somehow come together in an unexpected and usually unplanned way.  But if you’re paying close attention… and this is what I charge all of our community program directors: don’t tell me the census data. I mean, it’s kind of interesting to know.  Tell me the things that I can’t know by sitting at my computer. Tell me:  what are the underlying themes?  If the underlying theme of Charlotte, North Carolina –where we do a fair amount of work–  the story of tectonic plates that are crashing, and one of them is an old southern town and the other one is an absolutely modern 21st century financial center, and they bring different kinds of people with different sorts of values… and if you don’t understand that about Charlotte, you’re lost in terms of trying to figure out how might we go forward.

And sometimes they cover it over by talking, and sometimes it comes bursting out in the open.  If  you don’t understand the story of Miami as diversity… It’s not New York; it’s not the beach, it’s not Latin America. It’s the fact that three quarters of the people who live in Miami were born someplace else.  And the guy that brings you your car… at the valet… in a restaurant, may have papers that say that he was born in Nebraska, but he’s got a Peruvian accent. Technology in San Jose… So these underlying stories.

I joked in Miami in 1959, you had air conditioning, jet propulsion, and Cubans– all happening independently. It was a Cuban revolution, and so you have air-conditioning that makes Miami livable year around. Jet propulsion  makes it really easy to get to in just a couple of hours… because Miami is really far away;  the peninsula is really long. With jet propulsion, not a problem. And then Cubans changed the cultural nature of the place and make it available to become what it becomes at the end of the century– which is a genuinely international place. 

Denver: And getting back to what you said about artificial intelligence, it’s going to be those insights, connecting those dots, is what we, as humans, will have to contribute for the next 20 years. 

Alberto: Years ago, I remember having a conversation with Jerry Yang, who is the founder of Yahoo. Brilliant guy. And I asked him… this is easily 15 years, maybe 20 years ago… I said, “Who are you looking for? What do you look for when you’re hiring people for Yahoo?” And he said, “My best degree is a philosophy degree; and second is English.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes, because internet is about connecting the dots, and people who study philosophy and people who study English… and to some extent history.” “Yeah, of course!” We’ve got all kinds of engineers. We’ve got all kinds of programmers, but the people that are going to move this thing forward are the ones who can connect the dots– that seem otherwise unrelated, that are moving things forward to get to the point where all of a sudden there’s, in Gladwell’s phrase: there’s a tipping point, and everybody says, “I could have had a V8.” 

Denver: Well, Alberto Ibargüen, the President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, I can talk to you all night! I want to thank you so much for appearing on the show this evening. For people who are interested in learning more about your programs and the work that you do, what is your website?  And what might they find there? 

Alberto: Knightfoundation.org. It tells you what we’re thinking, it tells you what we’re funding, and it tells you what we think is coming. 

Denver: Great! Thanks so much, Alberto. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show. 

Alberto: Thank you!

Correction: A previous version of this transcript called Wesleyan University Westland.