Building support for innovation from the grassroots up

Posted on June 14, 2011 by Janet Coats

For the last few days, I’ve been writing in more detail about the work of the New Media Journalism Initiative. Today, I’m focusing on our efforts to help community-focused, entrepreneurial publishers build their own network to support their work.

If the Journalism Accelerator project began as a big idea that we then scaled to build incrementally, the Block by Block project began as a series of small steps aimed at helping a very specific community of innovators. From those small steps, we believe a big idea is emerging.

My involvement with this community grew out of my own deep interest in community journalism. As a newspaper journalist, the vast majority of my experience came in community journalism. Like many journalists, I dreamed of working at a big city daily, but when I finally got a job at one, I found it was a poor fit.

A small-town girl myself, journalism at the grassroots level was always a better fit for me. I liked being stopped at the grocery store by readers. I liked that fact that is a reader didn’t like a story, she would just call me up directly to complain. I liked seeing the impact of our work make real change in the community where I lived and my children went to school.

As journalism moved into the digital world, I saw a vast array of possibilities for even stronger community journalism. But I also knew from painful experience that the very place where newspaper companies are cutting deepest is at that community level.

When I started my work at The Patterson Foundation, my earliest inclinations were to focus on community journalism. But where to start? There was so much innovation going on in the field, so many new sites starting up, I felt I needed a guide to understand it all.

And that’s when I reconnected with a professional friend. Michele McLellan was deep in a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri when I reached out to her to get her thoughts about where I should focus the work of the New Media Journalism Initiative. I first met Michele years earlier, when she worked as an editor at The Oregonian in Portland.

Michele was in the midst of research focused on the types of promising local news sites that were taking root in communities across the country. Michele told me later that she started working on the list in frustration at the skeptical comments of many in the news industry about whether these sites really provided journalism of value. She set out to prove her point that there were smart publishers finding new and exciting ways to meet community news and information needs.

Michele’s List was a first cut at documenting the typology of these promising sites. Of the types she identified, the one that drew my attention was the community category.

Populated by entrepreneurs who were committed to the idea that news and information helps to build community, this was an area that seemed full of promise. But it was also an area that had drawn little focus from funders. Sure, some of the sites had attracted grants and other funding to help sustain them, but there was not much being done to help the sector as a whole.

Michele invited me to participate in a panel to discuss her work at the Reynolds Journalism Institute in April 2010. While I was there, she mentioned that that she was putting together a meeting of these community news publishers.  A community news summit, she called it.

Perhaps I would be interested in attending, she asked. Perhaps I would be interested in helping her put the event together, I responded.

What happened next is one of the more inspirational partnerships of my working life, and it led me to a gathering that would reaffirm my belief in the power of community journalism.

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