Our initiative’s goal: Providing rocket fuel for innovation

Posted on March 29, 2011 by Janet Coats

Last week, I had the opportunity to brief some of Sarasota’s journalism thought-leaders on the work of The Patterson Foundation’s New Media Journalism Initiative.

Sarasota is blessed with a strong local media ecology, with smart leaders focused on journalism’s role in building a better community. I enjoyed sharing what we’re learning in our work at Patterson with them.

Putting together my thoughts for this presentation gave me the chance to see the path we’ve been on in our journey during the last 18 months. I thought I’d share what that looks like with you.

When I began my work in November 2009, Patterson CEO Debra Jacobs gave me only a couple of parameters to consider.

We knew we wanted to honor the Patterson family’s legacy of journalism innovation, stretching back to Jim Patterson’s great-grandfather Joseph Medill and his purchase of the Chicago Tribune in 1855. And we knew that we wanted to work in the local journalism arena, rather than enabling innovation in national and international news coverage.

During the next few months, I talked with thinkers across the field – reporters and editors, entrepreneurs and academics. We learned that there were two needs that transcended all types of journalism innovation: the need to provide a way for innovators to connect and share, and the need to better understand the practices and processes that can lead to sustainability.

During the last nine months, we’ve explored a range of possibilities for helping to meet those two needs. We’ve had a few “a ha” moments, and we’ve followed a few roads that turned into dead ends.

We’re now working with two communities to test tools and techniques aimed at enabling connection among innovators – the kind of connection that helps make problems smaller and creates momentum for good ideas.

As we undertake this work, we’re guided by what we’ve learned along the way:

• Even when we deeply understand the nature of a problem, we can’t impose our preferred solution on a community. The role of our work is to provide rocket fuel for innovation, to help provide the support that allows a community to discover the solutions that best work for them.

• We can serve a valuable role by connecting smart thinkers to each other. One of the ways we can enable innovation is by serving as the connective tissue among efforts and individuals who otherwise might not find each other.

• Funding one project builds one solution; funding innovative thinking helps us to discover a range of possibilities.

• Finally, money isn’t everything – and it isn’t even the most important thing. One of the ways the New Media Journalism Initiative has been different from other foundation efforts to help journalism is that we provide intellectual capital, as well. We don’t fund a project and walk away; we’ve been providing sweat equity to our partners, working with them to think about how to approach a problem and to build the tools and techniques aimed at providing relief.

As I told Sarasota’s journalism leaders last week, the work of the New Media Journalism Initiative has been an exercise in both learning and humility for me. I see the future of journalism in much more inclusive and optimistic terms than I did as a newspaper editor. And I better understand the value of trying, failing and learning from those efforts instead of seeking some elusive, single perfect approach.

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