Our partners make us look smart — and make us smarter

Posted on March 18, 2011 by Janet Coats

One of the best parts of leading the New Media Journalism Initiative is getting the chance to work with people who make me smarter.

In the 15 months I have been working with The Patterson Foundation, I’ve gotten the chance to explore new ideas and approaches in ways that working in a traditional newsroom would not have allowed me. This work has given me the freedom to think and ask questions.

To borrow one of my husband’s favorite expressions, it is work that has made my brain itch.

One of the people who has most influenced my thinking in the last year is Michele McLellan. Michele and I first connected years ago through a mutual mentor, former Oregonian editor Sandy Rowe, back when we both worked in newsrooms. But it is only in the last year that we’ve really gotten to know each other.

Michele has been outside of newspapers for a while now, and much of her work has focused on learning about the emerging news ecosystem. While a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri last year, Michele undertook the task of identifying the types of entrepreneurial news sites that are starting to take hold.

One of those groups – the community sites – stood out as a group that shows much promise and hasn’t drawn the kind of attention and support some of the other startups have attracted. In talking to Michele last spring while she was still at Reynolds, I was drawn to what she was learning about these publishers and how they are focusing on news and information that helps build community.

That interplay – the desire not just to provide news but to also help communities get stronger and healthier – seemed to intersect perfectly with the values of The Patterson Foundation. We supported Michele’s effort to bring these publishers together for the first time last fall, at the Block by Block Community News Summit.

The summit gave these publishers the opportunity to start building stronger connective tissue among themselves, finding ways to share emerging better practices and to solve common problems.  The summit was a success in no small part because Michele has developed strong credibility within this community of publishers.

That credibility derives from her willingness to ask open-ended questions, to learn and to share in a non-judgmental way. I never realized how very judgmental working in traditional media had made me until I started learning from Michele. She has been a great coach for me in my transition to a role more focused on inquiry and learning.

This week, the annual State of the Media Report was issued by the project for Excellence in Journalism. The report, now in its seventh year, takes stock of how journalism and audiences are evolving across a range of platforms.

Michele contributed a section titled “The Emerging Economics of Community News.’’ In it, she shares some of what she’s learning about how these entrepreneurs are developing the revenue streams that will sustain their work.

Her work is a good primer for those interested in how the community news space is evolving. The experiments here have lessons not just for journalism entrepreneurs, but for others interested in building community capital – including non-profits, whose mission has much in common with the work of these community publishers.

We’re proud to be working with Michele. And we’re pleased that she recognized The Patterson Foundation in her report and our goal of helping to build connective tissue for these innovators.

Our goal in the New Media Journalism Initiative is to support innovative efforts that can help sustain community journalism in a digital age.  We believe the best way to do that is by helping the innovators with the means to connect, share and learn. We see power in enabling the network of innovators, rather than in supporting an individual site or effort with funding.

Michele’s work has opened our eyes to the ways journalism and community can connect. Exploring that idea really makes my brain itch.

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