News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Knight Community Information Challenge

January 12, 2010

Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations

Launching a civic-minded community news enterprise costs real money. Increasingly, community foundations are helping these projects get up and running by making grants and making connections. So if you’d like to start a community news project, it can pay (literally) to get to know local community foundations.

(This is part of a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.” Read more articles in this series.)

Even more help is available for projects that would serve any of the 26 US cities where Knight-Ridder formerly operated newspapers. On Jan 7, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation unveiled a seven-year Community Foundation Initiative that will funnel $70 million through selected community foundations in the target cities. image

Knight Foundation VP of Communication Marc Fest explained, “The program’s goal is to support projects that promote informed engaged communities—and we’re pretty wide open about that. We try to have as few rules as possible for these programs to encourage innovation.”

Here are some tips for individuals (including journalists) and organizations (including news organizations) seeking community foundation support for local projects.

Recommendation 2 of the Knight Commission report was: “Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs.” The Knight Foundation sees community foundations as a key source of this support.

What are they? Community foundations are charities that focus on improving life in a geographic area. Typically, large donors make tax-exempt donations to fund their activities and grantmaking.

The Council on Foundations notes: “Community foundations go beyond simply making grants that advance charitable activities. They also identify current and emerging issues, channel resources to address their communities’ needs, and help their regions prepare for the future.”

Where are they? One starting point for finding local community foundations is the Council on Foundations’ community foundation locator. (Note: There may be additional community foundations beyond what’s listed there.)

ACTION STEP: Do any community foundations serve your community? Search at the local, county, and regional level. If you’re in one of the Knight Foundation’s target cities, check the Community Foundation Initiative page for links to specific foundations working with Knight to channel these grants. Fest said that information will be available in coming weeks.

Unique priorities. Each community foundation sets its own priorities and programs. For instance, the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, Colo., currently has funding programs focused on the arts, the environment, social justice, emergency housing for people with disabilities, and much more. Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley focuses on grants for education, healthcare, social services, and arts and humanities.

Although community foundations have existed for more a long time, their involvement in the local news landscape is a new trend—significantly spurred by the Knight Foundation’s efforts to enlist their support, such as the Community Information Challenge, launched in 2008.

It’s important to study the funding priorities and history of local community foundations before asking them to fund your project. Think creatively about what might make a good match. Roberta King, VP for public relations and marketing of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community Foundation, notes, “Community foundations are innovative in their funding. They tend to be good risk-takers.”

King added, “Not all community foundations are looking to fund journalism projects. But news and public engagement may fit in with their priorities. For instance, a community foundation focused heavily on the environment might be willing to fund a news-related project on that topic.”

ACTION STEP: Community foundations publish grant program guidelines or application procedures. These are generally available on their web sites, or by request. Once you have this information, read it over and pay close attention to deadlines. Usually there is an annual deadline for applications.

Plan for results. According to King, community foundations tend to focus strongly on community benefits. So it’s important to consider how, specifically, a project for community news, information, or engagement might benefit the community—and devise how you might measure those results.

ACTION STEP Check out previous grant winners—which of their efforts survived beyond the grant funding? How? This might give you an idea of locally viable revenue streams. Be willing to think unconventionally. The goal here is not to recreate the traditional news business model, but to offer a community service.


Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

January 13, 2010

Community foundations invest in news and information

The Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge grants $4.3 million to 24 more projects that are sponsored by local foundations. Here’s an overview of the projects.

Earlier this week, Amy Gahran posted “Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations.” Knight Foundation just announced 24 new grants to that shed more light on the types of news and information projects Knight and local foundations think have value and may have legs. Knight and a local foundation provide matching funds for these projects. (Disclosure: I will work with some of these grantees as a consultant to Knight.)

Established news outfits in these communities might want to explore collaborations with these projects, perhaps giving wider distribution to some of their content.

The projects fall in three broad categories:

1. Professional journalism projects. These projects will employ journalists to produce professional news content. Several focus on state or regional issues such as statehouse coverage rather than on local communities. Examples: Connecticut’s, news service for the statehouse, Florida Independent (Sarasota area), Health News Florida (Southern Florida), a public interest news service covering the New Jersey statehouse), WyoFile, Write for Arkansas.

2. Citizen contributor projects. These projects will engage citizens in producing news and information. Most are local and/or target a specific group, such as youth or seniors as major contributors and users. Examples: Gables Home Page (Coral Gables, Florida), Neighborhood News bureaus in six Detroit neighborhoods, TheDuSu (Duluth, Minn. - Superior Wisc.), Beyond Bullets (New York City,  Digital Media Center in Akron, Ohio. Also, the Chicago Community Trust will use its grant to give minigrants to projects that strengthen the news and information ecoysystem in that city.

3. Civic engagement projects. These projects provide information and actively seek citizen engagement outside traditional news frames. Some are issue specific, such as environment, and some are specific to a place. Examples of environmental projects: GreenSpace in Southeast Michigan, Envision Bay Area in California, and the River Partnership in several states along the Mississippi River. Place based projects: Data visualization in Massachusetts; We the People forums in North Florida; an education awareness program for Latinos in Boulder, Colo.; a public forum partnership with NPR in Rhode Island; Be Counted Be Represented to encourage Latinos to respond to the 2010 Census in Los Angeles, as well as projects in Chautauqua County, NY; central Pennsylvania; South Woods County, Wisc.; and Alexandria, Virginia.

Here are fuller descriptions of the projects.

February 11, 2010

From Chicago: A snapshot of online news experiments

Despite the demise of Chi-Town Daily News last year, Chicago enjoys a lively news environment. Chicago’s experiments may help us understand and shape an emerging new media landscape.

I interviewed operators of three Chicago online news sites - Gapers Block, Windy Citizen, and Chicago Talks - recently and found the mix of content and revenue ideas worth following. I’m adding several Chicago sites to my list of promising online news sites.

Gapers Block

Led by Andrew Huff, this site is aggregates and offers original content, mostly from about 80 volunteers (professional journalists, other professionals, students and others), edited by eight professionals who receive small stipends.  It is expanding its original offerings with a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

Gapers Block, Huff says, is a Chicago expression for “rubbernecking” or stopping to take a look.

“We’re pulling out the news you may not have seen. We cover in brief ways the big stories of the day. What we really like to do is cover the stories that got buried and you have missed and bring them to the forefront. We’re trying to send people other media,” Huff said, who founded the site in 2003 after an unhappy stint in public relations.

The volunteer writers stick around for about a year, Huff said. The site relies on advertising revenue and Huff draws a small salary.

“We’re are a pretty collaborative effort. It’s a pretty flat structure. I’m writing constantly for the site so it’s not some guy up on high. Because we have such a good reputation in the media and in organizations we cover, (writing for the site) attractive. It’s a little bit of cachet to say you write for Gapers Block.”

Windy Citizen

This site, founded in 2007 by Brad Flora, aggregates links to the interesting stories of the day.  Flora and two interns prime the site. It has an engaged community of users who vote stories and comments up and down. User votes play a significant role in determining what stories rise to the front page of the site.

Advertising is the main source of revenue and Flora says the site makes $5-10,000 a month. In August, he hired two part-time advertising sales people. He thinks he needs to double or triple his user base to be a sustainable business and is using grant funding to improve his content management system to support more users.

Flora believes his two core user groups are attractive to advertisers - Young people in their 20’s or early 30’s who like the off beat news and 50-60 somethings who want a place to discuss politics.

In general, Flora says the discomfort journalists experience when trying to make money holds many sites back.

“The sites are too small. They are run by people who are afraid to ask for money. The journalism curse. My plan was to get big enough that I could attract someone mean enough to sell advertising. Journalists are not comfortable doing that. They can make a fine product, but they’re under pricing advertising, they’re not very good a presenting it, at working the phones. These are all things I struggle with personally.”

Flora also says he’s encouraged by the second wave of large non-profit news organizations such as Texas Tribune who are coming on line with the know-how to raise money.

Chicago Talks

This site draws most of its content from Columbia College students. The school provides support including editing by faculty and grad students.

Site content focuses on original news that others aren’t covering and aims to produce at least five original stories a week. Suzanne McBride, associate chair of Columbia’s School of Media Arts, said content is fairly traditional and consists of news, not opinion.

McBride said the site turned primarily to students after finding citizen contributors were difficult to rely upon on a consistent basis
With expansion grant funding, the site will pay teenagers and provide them with transit cards to report on the Austin neighborhood, one of Chicago’s most challenged.

McBride and Columbia College’s Nancy Day said the site ultimately must create an advertising revenue stream, which may prove difficult in neighborhoods such as Austin that have low income residents and relatively few commercial operations to form a pool of potential advertisers.

Chicago News Cooperative

While I did not interview anyone from the Chicago News Cooperative during my visit, I’d be remiss not to mention this newcomer. Funded by large start up grants from several foundations, the CNC employs professional journalists who focus on politics and policy in the Chicago metro area. It provides content for The New York Times Chicago edition two days a week. Launched in October as a not-for-profit, it fills the role of a traditional alternative to established newspaper organizations. The site promises to “introduce novel ways to connect the community with our news room in a two-way exchange of information.” I asked founder and editor James O’Shea via e-mail to elaborate on that and I’ll report back on what I learn.

(Disclosure: All four of these operations recently received expansion grants from the Chicago Community Trust as part of the Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge. I was on the CCT review panel as a consultant to the Knight Foundation.) Knight is opening another round of the competition and you can apply here.

None of us knows what models for providing news and information will survive. But I think these four sites—three of which have found very inexpensive ways to create content and attract a community of users and one that is attempting a focused professional model—underscore the idea that a diverse mix of media may serve the information needs of communities rather than one large institution.

For more information about the news ecology of Chicago, check out this study commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust, “The New News: Journalism We Want and Need.”

Please join the conversation about online news start ups and new models for news. If you have suggestions for my list, please add them in comments below. You’ll find my list of promising sites here and the criteria for the list here.

(This is cross posted in the Reynolds Journalism Institute blog.)

February 27, 2010

LIVEBLOG Mar 1-2: Community foundations, media/tech experts explore local info needs

Community foundations are a growing source of funding for local news and media. By learning how community foundations work, what they want, and how to work with them, journalists can get help launching or grow local news startups.

On Mar. 1-2, 2010, Amy Gahran will liveblog a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation “Media Learning Seminar” where community and place-based foundation leaders will meet with journalism and technology experts to explore community information needs.

Here’s our liveblog…

Presenter list

Twitter: Monitor the hashtag #infoneeds

More on the Knight Foundation’s community foundation efforts:

March 21, 2010

Community Information Challenge Boot Camp: Liveblog, video stream

This week, the Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg is hosting a boot camp for local news and information projects funded via Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. Representatives of several place-based foundations will be learning and brainstorming on how to launch and run local projects under this initiative.

KDMC will be liveblogging this event today through March 25. Here’s the liveblog, and also information on our live video stream of some bootcamp events…


We’ll live stream most of the conference. That includes these segments, and much of the rest of the program (times are Pacific):

Monday, March 22

For participants who cannot download/use MS Word or Xcel spreadsheet documents, they are available on Google docs. But PLEASE FIRST watch this short video tutorial to learn how to make your own copy of these documents, so other people have clean originals to work from.

Tuesday, March 23

Wednesday, March 24

September 23, 2011

Quick survey for local mobile market research

By Amy Gahran

At the recent bootcamp for this year’s Knight Community Information Challenge projects, I discussed how new digital media projects serving local community needs can go mobile in useful ways. A good way to start is to do some local mobile market research…

Local is always a key aspect of mobile media, since the characteristics of wireless networks and mobile users can vary substantially from one community to the next.

Some towns, or some parts of town, may have better or worse access to faster wireless networks. Similarly, some people in certain demographics or neighborhoods might be more or less likely to have the latest smartphones. Also, people often are influenced by local peers in their preferences for how they use their cell phones.

If your mission is to serve your entire community, going mobile is essential. Gartner has predicted that in the next couple of years, most internet access in the U.S. will occur on mobile devices.

“Going mobile” means offering content or engagement through a variety of channels supported by cell phones. Native smartphone apps are only part of this picture. Some of the most popular mobile media channels are SMS text messaging, e-mail, the mobile web (using the phone’s web browser), multimedia messaging (photos and video), and social media.

The point of going mobile generally is not to try to deliver the full value of your venue. Rather, mobile tends to complement your larger online presence by building awareness, enhancing your timeliness and relevance, and encouraging engagement and sharing.

Last year for Oakland Local (a community news/view site I helped found), I conducted some basic mobile market research. Based on that experience, below is a rough outline for the kinds of questions a community news/info publisher or service provider might want to ask in a survey, to suss out which mobile offerings might work best in their community. I’ve tried to explain how each question yields actionable info for a mobile strategy.

How to conduct this survey

I strongly recommend going out into the field to talk to people face to face,  in the situations where they use their mobile phones. Look for people who are using their phone for something other than talking. Also look for people who are representative of the locations and demographics you most want to reach or serve. Don’t just poll people who already know your news/community site—part of the point here is to use mobile to grow beyond your current audience.

Surveying strangers in the field is more work, and perhaps more daunting, than polling people you know or via online channels. However, it’s really worth the effort. You’ll get to see firsthand what types of phones people have—and how, when, and where they use them. If you ask, people will generally show you what they like or don’t like about their phone.

Bring some gift cards for popular local stores or eateries—a $3 gift card seemed to be sufficient to convince people to spend a few minutes talking about their phone. Wearing a t-shirt or badge advertising your news venue can make it easier to approach potential participants.

When I first did local mobile market research for Oakland Local last summer, I made this process much harder than it needed to be—primarily by asking too many questions. When a survey is complex, it’s harder to get people to participate and it’s harder to clean useful answers from the data. So I’ve pared down my question list below to the bare minimum, to yield the data that will probably be most directly useful.

How many people should you poll? A good goal is about 50, as long as you’re really hitting a fairly representative sample. But 25 is a decent start. This is basic market research, not a scientific investigation. Also, this research should be iterative—done every 6-12 months. Mobile changes very fast.


1. What kind of phone do you have? Manufacturer and model.

It’s a bad idea to ask people whether they own a smartphone—people commonly answer that incorrectly. For example, many owners of simple BlackBerry phones don’t realize they have a smartphone. Conversely, many feature phone owners mistakenly think they have a smartphone because their phone has a web browser and/or a touchscreen.

If you’re doing this survey in person, as I recommended, you can look at the phone and jot down the manufacturer and model. This will also tell you what kinds of networks the phone can access (3G, 4G, etc.) so you won’t have to ask about that separately. (But if the person has an iPhone, ask what generation it is. That info might not be immediately obvious from looking at the device.)

A true smartphone uses an operating system that can run native applications (software designed to run on a specific platform). And that’s all you’re trying to discover with this question: whether it’s worthwhile for you to develop a native smartphone app (a considerable investment).

At this point, the only smartphone platforms that are important to app developers are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. In the future, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry QNX might also become more viable for app publishers.

Stick to cell phones. Tablets and e-readers offer a very different, more immersive user experience—so while those devices are portable, they’re not really “mobile” media tools. If tablets and e-readers are common in your community, they probably warrant a separate strategy. (The exception is the iPod Touch, which many people use as a cheap wifi-only iPhone without the phone.)

2. How do you pay for your phone?

Answer options:

  • Two-year carrier contract
  • No contract (monthly bill or prepaid)
  • Don’t know / I don’t pay the bill

Knowing how people pay for their phone today can indicate which kind of phone they’re likely to have in a year or two. This can help you plan what kinds of mobile offerings to develop.

People who have a two-year carrier contract probably already have a smartphone or will get one very soon.

People who are on no-contract plans (monthly flat rate, or prepaid) are more likely to own a simpler, less costly feature phones. Unless highly affordable smartphones ($100 or less up front, with monthly costs of about $70 or less) start becoming very common on no-contract plans in the U.S., expect that for the next year or two at least these people will probably remain mostly on feature phones.

If the overall or local economy improves markedly and quickly, smartphones might take over sooner and this question might become less relevant. But if the economic recovery continues to crawl or stalls, expect smartphones to remain the minority in most communities (except highly affluent towns, or college towns) for some time.

This means non-app options (especially the mobile web, e-mail, and SMS) probably should form the core of your mobile strategy for now, since they’ll reach the widest possible audience.

3. Which of these features do you use on your phone, and how often?

Record this answer in a grid. For each, indicate one of these options: Most days, sometimes, rarely, never/not available

  • Text messaging (send or receive messages to other people)
  • Text alerts (sign up to get news or alerts via text message—from your bank, your favorite sports team, etc.)
  • Take photos or video
  • Share (or post online) photos or video that you took with your phone
  • E-mail (send or receive)
  • Access web sites or search the web
  • Social media (peruse or post by any mobile means: apps, web, SMS, etc.)
  • Watch videos (YouTube, TV shows, anything)
  • Subscribe to or download audio or video podcasts
  • Download and install new apps

This question will reveal which mobile channels most people in your community are already using for any reason (not necessarily related to news). Whatever is most popular—make sure you include that in your mobile strategy!

This question also indirectly indicates the answer to another question—which inbound mobile channels you should offer to allow people to contribute content, comments, or ideas for your venture. For instance, if lots of people in your community share photos from their phone, then maybe you might want to set up an e-mail address or phone number at which you could easily accept community photo contributions.

Definitely do not ask how people get “news” or “community info” on their phones. It’s more important to focus on device usage preferences than content preferences. People often tend to pigeonhole “the news”—and you want to become part of their overall life.

In another year or two it’ll be worth asking whether people are using location-based services to discover important, interesting, useful, or fun stuff nearby. But for now—given the difficulty with properly geotagging news/info content and integrating it with popular locative services such as Foursquare or Yelp—it’s probably too early for that information to be actionable.

4. When people you know send you links or other stuff to check out (via text messaging, photo messaging, e-mail, social media, etc.), do you tend to check it out on your phone—or wait until you’re at a computer?

Answer options:

  • Usually I will check it out from my phone.
  • Sometimes I’ll check it out from my phone.
  • I rarely or never check out links or recommendations on my phone.

As new Gallup research indicates, recommendations that people receive through their personal social networks are perhaps the most powerful tool to increase and enhance brand awareness and loyalty.

Absolutely everyone who uses any digital communication channel gets recommendations from their social networks—everything from cute cat pictures to huge breaking news stories. Most people also share links or other recommendations with their social circles via digital media.

On most mobile devices it’s a somewhat simpler task to follow a link (read a forwarded e-mail, etc.) that you receive from someone else, rather than send or post a link, picture, etc. for others to check out. So it’s sufficient to simply ask whether people follow links they get on their mobile device.

The more common it is for people in your community to use their cell phone to check out links, content, or recommendations that they receive from people they know, the more important it is for your mobile web site to display reasonably well on a simple mobile web browser—specifically the browsers that come installed on feature phones.

Even if your primary audience mostly uses smartphones, chances are good that they’re also sharing links or content with their networks—and it’s likely that plenty of people in their networks are using feature phones. You want those recommendations to work, because that can help grow your audience.

5. Which digital services do you tend to use most to communicate with GROUPS of people (not just individuals)—whether from your phone, computer, or any other device? (Includes posting, commenting, and reading/viewing)

Record this answer in a grid. Customize this list according to what’s appropriate for your community. For each, indicate one of these options: Most days, sometimes, rarely, never/not available

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • MySpace
  • Tumblr
  • Foursquare
  • LinkedIn
  • Flickr
  • E-mail discussion lists
  • Group texting (GroupMe, etc.)
  • Group instant messaging (via BlackBerry Messenger, AOL IM, etc.)
  • Other (describe)

Social media is one of the most popular mobile non-voice activities, after e-mail and texting. It’s also one of the most powerful channels for community engagement and personal recommendations. Any local news or community site must have a strong presence in the social media that are most relevant to your community.

I’m defining “social media” very broadly here, as: any channel or service that allows people to communicate publicly or privately with a defined group on an ongoing basis. That’s because the point is to figure out how to build awareness and engagement within groups—not just to get the most Facebook friends.

Whichever social media channels are most popular with people in your community, make sure you have a strong presence there. If most local people are on Twitter or MySpace or Foursquare, you need to be there—actively conversing with people, not just broadcasting. If e-mail lists, group texting, or other more closed channels are popular, you need to be there too (though that’ll take more bridge building to gain access and trust).

And of course, every link that you post on social media should lead to a page that works well on simpler mobile browsers. If it’s a kind of content that simply won’t display well on a feature phone browser (such as an interactive data visualization, a pdf file, a large video, or a Soundslides presentation), indicate the content type in your post so mobile users can decide whether to click. Preventing their frustration is key. Mobile users remember when someone frustrates them.

...These five questions are a very basic starting point. They won’t tell you absolutely everything about your local mobile market—but they’ll probably give you enough information to make better choices as you start experimenting with mobile offerings.

These questions also can be a great starting point for community conversations. After you’ve run through the quick survey, you can ask, “So what do you you really love to do with your phone? Or what really bugs you? Could you show me?” That can lead to some fun and intriguing conversations.

People tend to have very strong emotional connections to their cell phones—positive and negative. The more you understand that connection, the easier it will be to engage with them via the phones in their hands.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

January 23, 2012

Knight Community Information Challenge - A way to promote community engagement with news, info

The Knight Community Information Challenge provides unique opportunities for community foundations and news innovators to partner in creating or improving projects that engage their communities in local news and information. Here are three things to consider if you have an idea for a challenge project:

Round V of the Community Information Challenge just opened, and applications will be accepted until Feb. 27.  (Disclosure: I am a Knight circuit rider and consultant to this initiative. I help foundations and partners hone their projects but have no role in assessing applications.)

Keep these points in mind:

1. A community or place-based foundation must be the applicant.

It’s not enough to have a great idea - a foundation with a geographic focus must play a role in creating the project and must contribute some of the funding.

Why local foundations? Knight Foundation believes community and place-based foundations are uniquely positioned to address information as a core need of communities, just as important as health, education, hunger and other challenges these foundations address.

As well, news and information projects enhance foundation leadership and can create impact in areas it cares about - a healthy flow of news and information about the environment, for example, helps citizens make better choices about resources.

For news innovators,  important to see the project and its potential impact through the eyes of the foundation, rather than thinking a good idea simply deserves funding.

2. Effective partnerships will bolster the chances that a news and information project will have impact. likely

For example, some local foundations may not necessarily have deep expertise in news or in digital technology and social networking.

Partnerships with local organizations and institutions - such as universities, libraries, and community media centers - as well as news innovators and entrepreneurs can help fill those gaps.

At the same time, partnerships can pose some challenges - cultures and expectations of the partners may differ significantly. It’s important to explore assumptions up front.

Previous KCIC winners include a wide range of partnerships - with newspaper organizations, public broadcasting outlets, local nonprofits, universities, libraries and independent community media centers.

A forthcoming report from the Knight Foundation looks in depth at community foundation partnerships in news and information projects so stay tuned for more information.

3. Community foundations that get involved with news and information often are looking for citizen engagement and impact - and not exclusively through digital channels.

Most of the previous KCIC projects are digital.  They range from independent journalism sites to citizen media sites to data visualization platforms and efforts to use mobile technology to engage certain communities.

An example of a non-digital project is production of a weekly radio show about industrial pollution, sponsored by the West Anniston, Alabama Community Foundation. The Community Foundation of Rhode Island partnered with a local NPR affiliate to sponsor a series of community forums on local issues that were broadcast and displayed on the radio station’s website.

In this and other respects, the Community Information Challenge is different from the Knight News Challenge. The News Challenge is looking to advance tech innovation that will help transform local news. The Community Information Challenge encourages innovation, but it is not required.

Here are links to key Knight Foundation information about the challenge:
FAQ for community foundations
Previous winners

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

February 15, 2012

For community foundation media projects: Rules of the road for partnership

As community foundations become active leaders in local news and information, many are learning they don’t need to go it alone. A variety of different partnership models are emerging and they are detailed in a new report by FSG for the Knight Foundation.  The report is aimed primarily at foundations entering the news and information field, but other players, such as traditional news organizations, nonprofit community media organizations, and universities are prominent members of an emerging constellation of potential partners.

Foundations, the report says, are learning that, “Partnerships are vital to their success, whether they are developing online platforms for community dialogue, financing new online professional news outlets or otherwise providing venues for community engagement about important issues affecting residents’ lives. “
For example, community media organizations may have more experience than the foundations in creating news content, while established news organizations can add reach as distribution partners. University partners might help with technology or students may help create content. Community nonprofits may bring valuable experience with community outreach.

The FSG report notes that 79 local projects supported by the Knight Community Information Challenge count a total of 450 partners. Local media and nonprofit organizations each account for one-fourth of the partnerships.  Others are foundations, schools, corporations, government and libraries.

Based on interviews with foundation leaders, the FSG report also highlights three key principles for effective partnerships:

1. Build on existing efforts, rather than creating information tools and resources from scratch. Duplicating efforts that are already under way is a poor use of resources - and partnering to build up those efforts may be an effective path.

As Mary Lou Fulton of The California Endowment notes: “I would encourage foundations to be proactive in connecting their grantees to other groups working on similar regional campaigns, so that efforts can be collaborative and not duplicative.”

2. Develop a clear understanding of expectations and responsibilities at the outset. Partnerships that are formed without a clear and explicit understanding of the roles and goals of each partner are likely to suffer unnecessary bumps in the road.

Candace Winkler of the Alaska Community Foundation advises: “Spend more time up front developing your partnership by clearly articulating each organizations’  roles and responsibilities, as well as an understanding of what the other partners want to get out of the project.”

3. Formalize the partnership as appropriate to get the necessary level of commitment. Not every partnership requires a contract but formal documents may be a good idea when the partner’s effort is vital to the core project or money and other resources is being shared.

The report also details how partners help local foundations fill gaps in their expertise in these key areas:

1. Creating and curating content

Foundations are turning to a number of partners, including professional journalism organizations, universities and local nonprofits to create news and information content.

Examples: The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving help launch the Connecticut Mirror, a news site that covers state policy issues.  For the Black Hills Area Community Foundation, local libraries are the content partner for the Black Hills Knowledge Network, aggregating content from a variety of sources including government and local news media. Youngstown University students are the content creators for The News Outlet, a project of the Raymond John Wean Foundation.

2. Distributing content

Rather than building a news site and working to gain a wide audience - which takes time - foundations may turn to existing organizations with reach on the Web to distribute content.

Example:  The Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, for example, supports I-News, an investigative news start up that distributes its content through more than 20 media partners, including both print and broadcast.

3. Conducting outreach

Community outreach is often integral to the work of local foundations - but some find help in these efforts from partners such as local nonprofit organizations, public media organizations and government.

Examples: The Rhode Island Foundation partnered with a National Public Radio affiliate as a broadcast partner when it held six community forums about pressing issues. Act for Alexandria and the Community Foundation of North Florida have benefitted from partnerships with community nonprofits in their efforts to increase engagement in their efforts to address community problems.

4. Developing and maintaining technology

A number of foundations have found they lacked technology expertise to implement their news and information project. For help, they have turned to partners in universities and private companies.

Examples: For Dubuque 2.0, a community engagement project that focuses on sustainability, The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque is partnering with IBM, which is piloting water and energy metering technology.  The Greater Lowell Community Foundation partnered with the University of Massachusetts Lowell to develop a easy-to-use data visualization tool for nonprofits and government agencies.

Partnerships and this report will be part of a livestreamed discussed Tuesday Feb. 21 at Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar. Watch the video live at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday at

The fifth round of the Knight Community Information Challenge is open for applications through Feb. 27.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This is cross-posted on the Knight Blog.

March 13, 2012

Mobile skills: New gateway drug to community engagement

By Amy Gahran

This year, smartphones are beginning to comprise the majority of U.S. mobile handsets in use. So mobile skills are becoming crucial for anyone who wants to stay informed and connected, or to access jobs or services. The catch is, it’s often not easy for consumers to learn how to use mobile devices well.

Partnerships between public libraries, community news/information projects, and other community stakeholders could play a key role in helping to bridge the mobile skills gap—while engaging communities in the process…

Digital media is the channel of choice for most new community news and information projects, mainly because it’s cheaper and easier to create a digital presence than a print or broadcast product. Most of these projects focus on websites intended to be viewed on a computer. But in the next couple of years, mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, and whatever comes next) are expected to become the most common way that people access the internet in the U.S.

Recently the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation held a conference exploring the future of libraries in the digital world. Watching Knight’s collection of video interviews with eight public library directors who attended this conference, I was struck by how often the themes of an education mission, digital literacy, and getting out into the community were mentioned—yet mobile technology was not mentioned by any of the library directors.

In fact, only James Crawford, the engineering director for the Google Books project, mentioned mobile technology in his interview from that conference: “Tablets and mobile devices allow libraries to extend their services out into the community,” he observed.

For more than a decade, public libraries and schools have been key community resources for free access to the internet via computers. And for many people this access has been a lifeline for access to jobs, education, information, connection with friends and family, and more.

Libraries are now extending this digital literacy mission to take computer skills training beyond the library and into the community—by holding training sessions at community centers, assisted living or senior centers, and elsewhere, often in cooperation with other community organizations and institutions. But this approach requires buying computers, arranging for mobile access to wifi, transporting all that gear around, and getting it set up and running.

That costs a lot of money, requires finagling with setting up wifi networks, and it overlooks a key opportunity: Teaching community members how to make the best use of the mobile devices many of them already have in their hands—and which many people consider indispensable to daily life.

Mobile skills don’t necessarily replace computer skills, at least not yet. But imparting good mobile skills has the engagement advantage of helping people realize greater immediate benefits from the devices and connectivity they already own—and that they carry everywhere they go. They won’t have to buy a computer, get broadband at home, or make a trip to a library or community center in order to put their newfound mobile skills to good use—or to improve their lives and communities in the process.

Consequently, mobile skills training might be a powerful “gateway drug” for community engagement. Especially if it’s focused on using web-enabled phones to meet pressing real needs, rather than more abstract learning.

For instance, many consumers don’t know how much about how to use the web or e-mail on their smartphone or tablet—or even on a feature phone, since many feature phones are capable of web and e-mail access. Yet the mobile web and e-mail can be key tools to access to news, information, jobs, social media, and more.

So a mobile training session geared toward, say, using your cell phone to find a job might include teaching:

  • How to use e-mail on your phone. (Employers and interactive systems must have a way to contact you.)
  • How to bookmark some key mobile-friendly job and networking sites on your phone. (, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Guidance on setting up your profile and resumé on these services. (This may need to be done on a computer, but generally you can at least handle the basics via a mobile web browser, and finish later on a computer.)
  • Tips on searching for and responding to job listings from your phone.

Note that all of these job-search skills also have other uses. If you know how to use e-mail on your phone, a world of digital interaction and connection becomes open to you—as well as the ability to subscribe to e-mail alerts and newsletters (perhaps from a community news or information providers, or your local library or school).

And if you know how to bookmark mobile-friendly job sites in your mobile browser, you can bookmark any mobile web site—such as a blog run by a local community organization, or a health information resource.

And if you learn how to fill out a mobile form to create a user account on a job site, you learn a basic skill for interacting with any digital service—such as social media, or subscribing to alerts from your local government.

And if you learn how to search a jobs site from your phone, you’ve learned the basic concept of doing any kind of web-based search on your phone.

And if you learn how the computer-based web and mobile web (or mobile apps) can complement each other, what their respective strengths and weaknesses are, you provide a motivation for people who might only have a cell phone to also get a tablet or computer, so they can have expanded access.

Positioning training to align with the community’s priorities is key to demonstrating its relevance and increasing its appeal. Consider which approach might be more effective to get the attention of community members: a generic class in computer skills (especially when many people might not have their own computer or broadband internet), vs. how to use your phone to find a job.

Once people get started with digital interaction and media, on any device, they’re likely to keep using it and build upon that base of knowledge—and to teach others what they’ve learned.

Community news and information outlets, libraries, schools and other key players with a mission to serve their communities should consider adding mobile skills training to their outreach efforts. One resource advantage of this approach is that you probably won’t have to buy as much equipment, or mess around with network access so much. However, you will have to invest in learning the basics of a few different kinds of mobile operating systems, and learn about the various kinds of e-mail service and basic data plans that wireless carriers offer.

Aside from mobile skills training, community members probably will also want help understanding what they can and can’t do with their phone without incurring extra fees. Asking people to bring a current cell phone bill into the library or other public venue, so you can see the kind of plan they’re on and look up details online, can help people gain confidence to do more with the phones they already have.

As low-cost Android tablets (such as the Kindle Fire) increase in popularity, it may make sense to also offer training in using the web browser and apps on these mobile devices, since they can do much more than just let people buy and read books. With a larger screen size than mobile phones, these devices can also be a great way to showcase community news and information resources intended for the computer-based web.

For any mobile training, a printed list of free public wifi hotspots in your community and their hours of availability can help people with wifi-enabled devices (but limited or no carrier data plans) find the access points most convenient to them. This can be especially valuable as many libraries are having to curtail operating hours and close branches due to funding challenges; and many nonprofits and community news outlets aren’t able to sustain multiple physical locations.

Finally, making sure your own digital presence is mobile friendly and accessible through a variety of mobile channels (mobile web, e-mail, and social media are the basics—although text messaging interaction and mobile apps might make sense in some cases) is another important way to build on the initial engagement of training. This is how you can help the people your train stay connected with your organization and mission.

What it means to be digitally literate is changing fast. Training is a powerful type of engagement, but it must keep pace with the times and make full use of available resources. Once you have the attention of your community, where they are, at any time, you have even more opportunity to help them improve their lives and enhance their individual and collective opportunities. Perhaps even more important, right now, than training them how to use a computer mouse.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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