Learning a thing or two about philanthropy and journalism

Posted on March 14, 2011 by Janet Coats

At the very beginning of our journey, some 18 months ago, we brought together a group of thought leaders to help us shape the mission of The Patterson Foundation’s New Media Journalism Initiative.

Now one of our early thought leaders is taking on a position that will help shape the role of philanthropy in enabling journalism innovation throughout the field.

Michael Maness, formerly vice president of innovation and design for Gannett, was named the Knight Foundation’s vice president of the Journalism and Media Innovation program last week.

Michael’s has rich experience leading digital innovation for Gannett, a company with reach into both large markets and community-level journalism. Now he’ll be translating those skills into the non-profit world, as program leader for one of the largest and most influential players in journalism philanthropy.

During his visit to The Patterson Foundation in November 2009, Michael struck me as someone who has given considerable thought to the changing role of journalism in community. He spoke eloquently of the need for a more participatory journalism, one that recognizes that communities want both actionable information and a significant role in shaping and disseminating news.

One image he used has stuck with me during my own work. He said journalism once spoke to audiences who “leaned back’’ to absorb the news – the image of someone sitting back in a chair to read the paper or watch the news comes to mind. Journalism today, he said, is a forward-leaning proposition – news consumers are no longer passive, but want to lean into the news, to help create it, shape it and define it.

Michael’s generosity in sharing his wisdom and experience with us so early in our own process helped shape the direction of the New Media Journalism Initiative. While I would never presume to be a thought leader in this arena myself, I am struck by the similarity between the journey I’ve been on and the one on which Michael is embarking.

None of what follows qualifies as wisdom, but here are some of the observations I’ve made in my own journey from corporate media to philanthropy:

There is a difference between innovation and invention, and it is important to remember and honor the distinction. The search for the game-changing technology application has driven a lot of investment in journalism during the last five years; I fear there has been a lot of wasted money and effort in that search.

While I would never argue that everything that needs to be invented has been and we can close up the Patent Office now, I do think we’ve not invested sufficiently in figuring out how to get the highest and best use out of the inventions already in place. The interesting space, to me, lies in enabling true innovation – developing, refining and implementing the ideas and techniques that will help us maximize the effectiveness of all those existing digital inventions.

We learn as much from failure as we do from success. This has been the hardest lesson for me as I left traditional media, and surely the most valuable. In traditional media companies, we ran from our failures and we buried them in dark, unmarked graves.

True experimentation means there will be failures – sometimes significant and public ones. This is a place where I fear philanthropy has repeated the mistakes of traditional media. Philanthropic dollars have funded a lot of experimentation in the last few years, yet we spend very little time really dissecting what we’ve learned from those investments.

Instead of burying failure, we need to look deeply and honestly at what didn’t work in order to help us discover what might. And we need to share what we learn with others, so that we can expand the circle of knowledge and provide momentum for better practices that might have broad application.

We should resist the temptation to impose solutions. Again, this runs counter to what we learn in traditional companies. Successful traditional managers are valued for their ability to size up a situation and impose a solution quickly and efficiently.

Innovators aren’t looking for solutions that are externally imposed, no matter how good the intention. Innovators and entrepreneurs are invested in a more collaborative approach to problem-solving. Those of us representing philanthropy do well to remember that we are here to provide rocket fuel to the innovation process, not to short-circuit that process by putting our thumb on the scale in favor of solutions that reflect our own bias.

We should celebrate the diversity of innovators in journalism, and we should challenge ourselves to move beyond our own comfortable circle of friends and acquaintances.

As I’ve talked to innovators all across the field in the last 15 months, I’ve heard frustration about the lack of diversity we’re seeing among the innovators who are winning grants and entrepreneurial funding. I hear real fear that women and minorities are under-represented in those circles, even though some of the sites that best represent both community engagement and sustainable business models are led by women and people of color. Think Oakland Local, Baristanet, St. Louis Beacon, The Terminal in Birmingham.

Part of the beauty of the digital age is that it knocks down the barriers to entry that the old media had tended so carefully for so long. That should mean more opportunity for women, people of color, young people – all of those folks who faced difficulties in climbing the power ladder in old newsrooms. Those of us who are enabling journalism innovation should make it our mission to make sure that we are supporting the promise of that diversity and not replicating the old boy network of old media.

Take the opportunity to learn and challenge your own assumptions. I’ve learned more in the last 15 months than I learned in the last 10 years. I’ve had to do hard thinking that deeply challenged what I thought I knew about journalism. I’ve had to evaluate with sometimes painful honesty what my own skill set is in a digital age. And I’ve emerged more hopeful about the future of journalism than I’ve ever been.

I wish for Michael the same joyous journey as he begins his tenure with the Knight Foundation.

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