Mid-Peninsula Community Media Center / Lisa Padilla

February 13, 2017; Poynter

Last week, the news industry made some news itself when the nonprofit Poynter Institute released information about an $881,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to strengthen local journalism with a focus on digital and cultural transformation. Charged with building on conclusions from an initial program last year, the Poynter Local News Innovation Program will be open to up to 20 news organizations “of varying sizes, geographies and ownership models” per year over three years with content and training provided through online platforms and in-person workshops and seminars. The Poynter program is part of a larger collaboration between Knight and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism called the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. (We covered the foundation of the Lenfest Institute, formerly the Institute for Journalism in New Media, in a series of articles last year, including one with a specific reference to Knight.)

In a statement, Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism, said the program, “recognizes the importance of a concerted, strategic effort to address the challenges that local news organizations are facing in the digital age.” She added, “This next phase will help to create a model for the digital transformation of news organizations that can be shared across the country, helping local journalists better connect with their audiences and develop new innovations in storytelling.”

In a follow-up email about the program, Butch Ward, senior faculty member at Poynter, highlighted the timeliness for newsrooms nationwide. “This program is aiming to help local news organizations become more valuable for their communities.” He added, “for some, that will mean offering new or expanded content, and for others that will mean new, or improved, methods of delivery and the exploration of new forms of community engagement.” Ward emphasized that “all participating news organizations will have to develop a company-wide focus on audience that drives decision-making.”

In the context of journalism, Ward noted that “for many companies this is an important shift—to stop judging success by the information they deliver, and begin judging success by the value their work creates for the community.”

The Poynter program is an outgrowth of a Knight-funded program last year, which identified seven Table-Stakes as “baseline competencies that a news organization must possess to compete and succeed in a digital news environment.” In addition to Poynter, other partners include Temple University, the University of North Carolina, and the American Press Institute.

To broaden access to the findings of the program, Poyter has also established a local innovation channel that will examine change in local newsrooms nationwide.

As an example of a media organization tweaking its business plan to be more responsive to local audiences, earlier this month, Nieman Lab profiled local publisher Technically, a Philadelphia-based company with five tech sites. According to the story, the company found some success last year in adding revenue-generating programs such as a hiring platform to offset low revenue. Providing a rationale for his company’s experimentation, which will probably sound familiar to many nonprofit leaders, Technically’s co-founder, Christopher Wink, told Nieman, “We’re trying to have the most profitable services we can provide our community that deliver on mission and fund our work.”

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to follow Poynter’s advances with the Poynter Local News Innovation Program and to watch the effect it has on the news industry as a whole.—Anne Eigeman