Documenting the New Media Journalism journey helps us focus on future

Posted on April 11, 2012 by Janet Coats

What is the value of documenting the work you do?

We live in a right-now age, when information moves at the speed of Twitter. Judging the value of our work by that standard, we wouldn’t care much about how we got here – only where we stand now and where we are headed next.

I admit I place a high value on immediacy, but I remain a fan of the historical perspective. I’m sure I drove reporters and editors nuts for years with my insistence on commemorating anniversaries and my love for the detailed, nuanced retrospective. Where’s the place for that kind of work in a newsroom, they must have thought?

It’s an interest I came by honestly, raised by a mother with a historian’s eye for detail and a belief that the very best vacation a 14-year-old girl could possibly enjoy was a tour of Civil War battlefields. While I spent a lot of time eye-rolling about those tours, I couldn’t help acquiring an appreciation for the thoughtful backward glance.

Historical perspective shouldn’t be reserved to the battlefield. I read a fascinating story in The New York Times on Monday about the fact that researchers now can accesss thousands of Ford Foundation records, films, oral histories and unpublished reports at the Rockefeller Archive Center. The documents give new insight into how Ford helped to nurture art, music and literature during critical moments in American culture.

“Ford was the first billion-dollar foundation, said Jack Meyers, president of the archive center. “It changed the way American philanthropy worked. …’’

The New York Times story illuminated the value of this trove of documentation through the story of James Baldwin’s request for funding. The money he received from Ford enabled him to complete the novel he was working on at the time: “Another Country.’’

The history geek in me loves the idea of combing through all of this material, developing new insights into how the folks at Ford thought about their role in supporting artistic endeavor and shaping the country’s cultural landscape. The article, though, had resonance for me beyond mere curiosity; it connected to a subject I’m thinking about in my work here at The Patterson Foundation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those useful backward glances as my work in the New Media Journalism Initiative moves into another phase. With both our Journalism Accelerator and Block by Block projects deep into operational work, I’m now in the process of thinking about what we’ve learned since our work started in November 2009.

From the start, I’ve thought very purposefully about documenting what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and what we’re learning. TPF CEO Debra Jacobs influenced me in that direction when she told me that the work we did would not just be aimed at journalism, but at helping TPF discover ideas and approaches that could be applied to other subjects.

Now, it’s time for me to start sorting through my collection of documents, notes and blog posts, to think about the trajectory of our journey has been. In truth, Kathleen Majorsky, our initiative reporter, is doing most of this work now, with an eye toward talking to those who’ve helped us and who we’ve attempted to help.

While Kathleen and I will work to put together a summary of what we discover, we’re also interested in hearing from others who’ve been watching our work. So if as a reader of this blog, you have thoughts about what we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, feel free to reach out and share them with me.

It’s a right-now world. But understanding how we arrived at this moment remains a vital part of understanding how to keep moving forward.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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