Building the future of local news on a foundation of optimism

Posted on June 22, 2011 by Janet Coats

The Block by Block Community News Summit shifted my perspective dramatically – and permanently – about the current state of journalism and the future of news.

I’d contributed in a small way to organizing the September gathering, working with chief organizer Michele McLellan to put together some of the sessions. The Patterson Foundation had provided financial support for the event in the form of travel scholarships for community journalism entrepreneurs who wanted to attend.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down at the dinner on the first night. But what I got was a heavy dose of inspiration.

After spending the last few years in traditional, legacy journalism attending gatherings that were filled with despair about the disappearing business model, I was in a room with people who believed in a future for community news.

Some of the community publishers had come out of traditional media, either by choice or by layoff. Others were at the very beginnings of their careers, building a future for news unencumbered by the “way we always did things’’ in the legacy newsroom.

They had fears, yes. Just as the business model for traditional organizations had disappeared, no new one had grown up to support these enterprises. Figuring out how to scale a local site – from both a financial and a journalism standpoint – was the challenge most in the room were facing.

But they were facing it with an attitude of optimism and a willingness to try new things. They were optimistic about the role of news and information in sustaining healthy communities. They were optimistic about using the tools of the digital age to achieve a kind of engagement with community that old media could only dream of attaining.

And best of all, they were willing to help each other. Rather than the competitive undercurrent that always ran beneath legacy news gatherings, the Block by Block participants were open about their problems and willing to share what they were learning to help each other find solutions.

Before Block by Block, I was intellectually curious about the work Michele McLellan had done in identifying promising local news site. After Block by Block, I was a believer in the power of these sites to create something entirely new in the ways community and news intersect.

Not all the sites will make it, of course. In fact, only a small percentage will likely achieve true, long-term sustainability. But if the core of our mission at The Patterson Foundation is to enable journalism innovation, I could think of no better group of innovators to support.

Since that gathering last September, we’ve been working with the emerging Block by Block network to help provide the resources that allow for connection and sharing. We’ve supported a community manager, Jessica Durkin, for Block by Block to help connect community publishers to each other to share, learn and grow.

We’re working now to enable development of a richer Website for Block by Block . And we’re already planning the next Block by Block for this fall.

Our next step in enabling these innovators is to help discover and develop the techniques and tools that can help these sites thrive. We’re going to be working on a business sustainability project for community news entrepreneurs that will go deep into the existing practices of this group – a group that has not been studied or sustained sufficiently.

Our hope is that from this work, a knowledge bank will grow that can help these publishers solve common problems and give momentum to best practices.

From this work, we’ll get the satisfaction of helping these key piece of the news ecosystem to grow. And I have no doubt that we’ll continue to be inspired by their spirit of innovation, of commitment to community and of collaboration with each other.

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