February 11, 2013; Source: Knight Foundation

For the past five years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been supporting approximately 100 community foundations in a five-year initiative to incentivize foundations to invest in news and information projects. Yesterday, foundation president Alberto Ibargüen announced that Knight would extend the program for another three years.

Ibargüen’s opening presentation at this year’s Media Learning Center emphasized the importance of the media, or more specifically, the importance of the free flow of news and information for a well-functioning democracy. Getting community foundations and other place-based foundations to invest their own dollars in building and strengthening this essential building block of democratic practice—Knight requires a real dollar-for-dollar match from the community foundations in the program—is a significant achievement given the frailty of local media around the nation.

Going forward, the Knight Community Information Challenge (KCIC) will emphasize expanded technical assistance through teams of Knight Foundation consultants, work with a number of existing community foundation grantees to partner with others and share their knowledge, and seed funding support for new community foundation-generated information projects. For the latter, Ibargüen made clear what he and the foundation are particularly interested in seeing as avenues of exploration.

Ibargüen’s first theme was open government, which he referred to as “the motherload of information that is available but not accessible” to most citizens. He suggested that projects that give “average citizens…the means to access information to drive positive change in their communities” would be a high priority. Consequently, the foundation’s interest in open government projects isn’t simply an academic interest in increased government transparency. Ibargüen indicated that he hopes that these projects will be predicated on specific problems that citizens face that can be targeted for solution by virtue of these open government initiatives.

Ibargüen’s other priority interest was in mobile communications and information sharing. With half of all web data to be accessed by mobile devices by 2016, Ibargüen said that the ubiquity and low price point of mobile “gives everyone the ability to communicate in immediate and affordable ways.” He called it “a community organizer’s dream.”

The specific problem solving function desired in the seed projects is demonstrated in existing KCIC projects such as: NJ Spotlight, a dedicated news website in the Garden State; training and mentoring of citizen journalists for Winnipeg’s Community News Commons; making public information more accessible through the Colorado Data Commons; building environmental engagement and action through citizen journalism in Buffalo, N.Y.; and a program in Washington, D.C. to track affordable housing in what has turned out to be one of the hottest and least affordable housing markets in the nation. The utility of each project in terms of community problem solving and building an ethic of journalism and information flows is self-evident and consistently impressive.

Will these projects continue without the continuing involvement of the Knight Foundation? Ibargüen indicated that many have continued past the initial Knight funding. With the support of the learning network evolving from the original grantees, more seem destined to continue. In a way, KCIC is creating the infrastructure—through community foundation partnerships—for netizens, people actively engaged in infrastructures through online venues. Bringing people together in cyberspace is all well and good, but we cannot forget that we also need venues for people to connect as people, as citizens as well as netizens. —Rick Cohen