Learning about journalism all over again

Posted on December 14, 2010 by Janet Coats

Over dinner with some friends recently, the subject of my work with The Patterson Foundation and this blog came up. My dinner companions, both journalists, said they’d been following my journey with Patterson with some interest, as I shared some of the things I’ve been learning since I left newspaper journalism a year ago.

With a year of thinking, listening and learning behind me, they asked, what am I focused on next?

I’ve hinted around the edges of the work the New Media Journalism Initiative is honing in on, but it’s time to start talking about that work more directly.

A year ago, I began my work by doing what good journalists do: asking a lot of questions of people who are a lot smarter than I am, and then considering what they were telling me. Here’s what I heard:

  • The range and variety of journalism that is rising up in communities around the country is amazing. It’s hard to see from inside a traditional newsroom, where innovation is often seen as inconvenient instead of invigorating. Out in the world, the level of commitment and creativity among journalism innovators is inspiring.
  • There is so much innovation going on that it is hard to see into it and understand the broader picture.
  • Because of that, there is a lot of reinventing the wheel going on, whether it is in technology or business models or reporting methods.

Based on that, my thinking turned toward the idea of enabling an innovator’s network one that would connect journalism innovators across the entire field to see into each other’s work, to share and learn and discover emerging best practices. I spent a good bit of the summer working on a project aimed at doing just that.

As we tested that idea this fall, I was reminded of something I should have already known.

Journalism isn’t one thing. There isn’t one state of the art or community of practitioners that you can bring together to make decisions or share knowledge. In my journalist’s heart, I knew this: it’s part of the traditions of independence that thread themselves back through the craft’s history. It’s part of the reason journalists never thought of themselves as a profession – because there is no unifying code, no one way of doing this to the exclusion of all others.

With that in mind, as I move in 2011, I’m focused on three efforts for the New Media Journalism Initiative:

  • Working with community-level entrepreneurial publishers to help them connect with each other. This takes the original thought – that there needs to be a way for innovators to connect – and applies it to one community rather than to the whole universe. Further, the way they connect needs to be something they decide and shape, rather than something that is built for them or given to them. I’m drawn to this community because of what it reflects about both my values as a journalist and Patterson’s values as a foundation: that the most vital work in informing people and helping them make decisions about their communities and their own lives happens closest to the ground. We’ve already worked with these community publishers a bit this year, in enabling the Block by Block Community News Summit last September. Moving forward, we’ll let the community itself guide us about their needs and values and how we can best provide rocket fuel for their work.
  • Learning more about how networks form and work constructively to make good ideas better and big problems smaller. Journalists aren’t known for their collaboration skills; the Block by Block community, however, has been marked so far by a willingness to share information and help each other out. I think the lessons we learn about how to build a cooperative network with these publishers may help other journalism communities learn more about developing healthy collaboration networks.
  • Focusing on the training, skills development and knowledge needed to help journalism entrepreneurs develop sustainable business models. We’ll hardly be alone in that effort; other foundations, such as The Knight Foundation, are working in this space already. But the need here is so deep that the more minds come at it from different perspectives, the better. Without a way to pay for journalism, all the great ideas and good intentions in the world won’t mean much.

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


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