Enabling Block by Block is driven by focus on community

Posted on September 22, 2011 by Janet Coats

In July, I attended the Journalism Funders meeting, a gathering of representatives from foundations that financially support journalism.

There were 27 different foundations represented at the meeting in Chicago, all of them doing good and important work in supporting journalism as it transitions to serve a social, digital age. This was my first meeting, and I was excited to hear from other funders about their efforts.

One fact stood out to me: The overwhelming majority of the foundations were supporting investigative journalism in some way. I was one of a handful of folks who did not mention investigative journalism as a funding focus.

Let me take it one step further: I was the only person in the room who said community-level journalism was a primary focus of my work. This fact is a big part of the reason The Patterson Foundation has been working with the network of community news publishers known as Block by Block.

Our work with Block by Block reflects one of the values that The Patterson Foundation holds as important, and it also is a reflection of my belief as a journalist about the importance of community news.

At The Patterson Foundation, we want to focus on work that no one else is doing. There is no question that investigative journalism is vitally important to the task of holding institutions accountable. Concerns about the decline of traditional newspapers have spawned worries about the future of this time-intensive, often expense form of journalism.

But the fact that so many foundations are working to enable investigative journalism means that adding our efforts would largely be duplicative. The fact that there is relatively little focus on community journalism means we have an opportunity to make a difference in this space. In our work with Block by Block, we’ve been able to play a substantial role in enabling both the first Block by Block Community News Summit in September 2010 and this year’s second event, scheduled for Sept. 29 – Oct. 1.

We’ve also provided financial support for a community manager, Jessica Durkin, who has helped connect Block by Block publishers throughout the year. Jessica’s work means that we go into this year’s summit with a stronger sense of the issues most important to the publishers, and with a stronger sense of community.

And we enabled Michele McLellan to follow up on the work she began as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, including a second survey of community news publishers on issues of content, resources and financial sustainability. These are all efforts that likely would not have happened with The Patterson Foundation, and we’ve been pleased to help incubate them.

As I wrote in my last post, I felt an affinity for the Block by Block community-level publishers early on. As a reporter and editor, I spent most of my working life in community journalism. I’ve long believed that healthy communities need reliable, intensely local sources of information to support good decision-making and governance. The Block by Block publishers believe this at their core: that healthy local news ecosystems are an important building block for healthy communities.

Beyond that, I’ve always believed that the very best investigative journalism springs from strong community coverage. Supporting folks who are proficient at investigative journalism now is all well and good, but I’m interested in supporting the community news systems from which investigative journalism will spring in the future.

Not all of the Block by Block publishers view investigative journalism as part of their mission. But many are looking at ways to sustain themselves not just financially but journalistically. The idea of building a ladder of community journalism – whose rungs include knowledge of local issues, engagement with local people and the skill sets to investigate local problems – is an intriguing one to me.

Our belief is that the ladder can’t be imposed from the top down; it will grow organically as community news sites find more solid financial footing and are able to extend their local reach.

So while much of our conversation at Block by Block next week will, by necessity, focus on financial sustainability, I will definitely be listening for ideas about journalism sustainability and how we can help provide momentum to that effort.

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