Looking beyond the worlds we know

Posted on April 01, 2011 by Janet Coats

My regular meetings with Patterson Foundation CEO Debra Jacobs serve a couple of purposes. We touch base on the logistics of my work with the New Media Journalism Initiative. We talk about milestones and roadblocks and (less often than you would imagine) money.

But almost always, the real meat of our conversation is about connections. Debra is forever giving me some thought to “noodle’’ that has me thinking beyond my daily work and focusing on how that work connects to the larger world.

This week, we talked about the connection between the world of journalism and the world of philanthropy. It is easy for me to get lost in thinking about the folks within my own large but still insular network – the people who are thinking about journalism’s evolving role in community.

Debra has challenged me to think about how the work we’re doing in the New Media Journalism Initiative – work that is focused on network incubation and enabling innovators to find the path to sustainability – connects to the world of philanthropy.

I’ve taken up Debra’s challenge and I’m starting to thinking about those connections. But as is often the case for me, I’m finding that my mind is taking a few detours on this trip.

Our old systems – in journalism, in government, in education, in philanthropy – are built around the idea of controlling and containing information. We built systems this way because information was valuable. It took effort and focus and proprietary tools to gather it and package it into something useful.

But now we live in a world where information is a commodity – you can search for almost anything in the digital world and find it in seconds. Knowledge is valuable, understanding is priceless, context is vital. We don’t create the opportunity for knowledge and understanding and context by controlling and containing information – we create it by sharing it.

That sharing means we have to look beyond our own tribes, to others with experience and wisdom that can inform our thinking and expand our view.

I remember a conversation I had with Geneva Overholser of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism during my initial research for the New Media Journalism Initiative. Geneva talked about the need for journalists to stop talking exclusively to each other in an attempt to find innovative solutions. She said then that journalists tend to think we are the only ones facing the redefinition of our world in a digital age when, in truth, every institution in our society is facing that same challenge.

If we are all facing the challenges and the opportunities that come with the democratization of information and the need for meaning, then we’d best start learning from each other.

When we talk to the people we know – people whose work is like ours and whose values and world view have been shaped by a work life we share – we reinforce what we already know. When we reach out to those in other fields, with other experiences, we challenge our assumptions, we see new possibilities, we make connections that can enliven our own work.

We could afford to stick to what we know – to what is safe – when all we were doing was collecting information. But the business of creating knowledge is more complex than that – and we need to help each other with that important work.

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


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