Experiments in Community Media

In September, the Newspaper Association of America stopped releasing quarterly reports on newspaper advertising sales. After 26 straight quarters of decline, it certainly made sense for a trade association to stop feeding the momentum of its members' decline. On the other hand, it has the feel of packing up the finish line at a marathon: The race, it seems is pretty much over with ominous consequences for local communities.

In many ways, the old daily newspapers defined what the geography of a community was. You could always tell what the most influential city was in any area by which paper was sold on the newsstands. And the newspapers were almost always the primary source of information for residents about what was going on in their community. For obvious reasons, people working in community philanthropy have been fretting over what will replace the newspapers if they disappear completely.

One new answer to that question appeared this month when the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, Florida released the inaugural issue of a new local magazine called "Proaction." To be issued twice a year, the magazine focuses on a community issue, providing the readers with an in-depth look into issues facing the community. The first issue of Proaction focused on understanding the region's homelessness problem.

The new magazine is just another in a growing number of experiments, most of them online, funded by local foundations to provide information in their communities. The William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, for instance, helped establish "The Notebook," an independent source of news about the deeply troubled Philadelphia School District.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the local community foundation has supported the Rapidian, one of the broadest-based attempts to provide a new source of local news. And the community foundation I work for helped expand the capacity of a local public access TV station.

Many, but not all of these efforts have been done in conjunction with the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to building "informed and engaged communities." In fact, the Knight Foundation just released a report on the progress of some of those news outlets. Knight's involvement is another example of the broad concern among America's foundations about the decline of traditional news media and its effect on democracy at both the national and local level. That interest grew large enough that the Council on Foundations, a membership association representing foundations across the United States and the Knight Foundation jointly issued a report urging the Internal Revenue Service to revise its rules to make nonprofit status easier to achieve for news organizations (full disclosure: I chair the board of directors of the Council on Foundations).

America's foundations continue to experiment with new models of keeping our communities informed. There will continue to be legitimate concern about whether efforts like those in Venice bring enough objectivity and independence to the effort, but the same concerns always existed about traditional media.

"Death of the newspaper" stories are old hat and, at this point, rather pointless. Still, America's foundations are looking ahead to what the next chapter in journalism and information will look like.