News Leadership 3.0

February 22, 2012

At Knight Media Learning Seminar, ideas and tools for assessing community information needs

When the Incourage Community Foundation in rural central Wisconsin won a Knight Information Challenge grant in 2008, foundation leaders thought they would develop a local news website to replace a vastly diminished local newspaper. At least that was Plan A.

On reflection, says Incourage CEO Kelly Ryan Lucas, the foundation realized that building a website in a community with very low computer and Internet usage would be a mistake. It would do little to provide access to news and information to already marginalized people in a community that has been hard hit economically for more than a decade.

“We needed to educate ourselves and engage community around the digital divide but also the larger issue of information,” Lucas said.

For example, Lucas noted, employment is a critical issue in her community, South Wood County. Dominated by paper mills, it had lost 40 percent of its jobs by 2005. But 75 percent of people who lost jobs had never touched a computer at a time when the vast majority of job postings and applications are only available online.

Plan B became a journey of learning and discovery that finds the Incourage Community Foundation aligning its information work with the actual practices and needs of people the community, particularly around job opportunities and community engagement. Its work has attracted national attention, including an innovative partnership with the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The key shift was to put people first and think about appropriate news and technology through their eyes and their practices. In the “gee whiz” world of ever-changing technology, it’s easy to fall in love with the latest bright, shiny object. But that doesn’t necessarily meet, engage and help people where they live.

The idea of focusing on people - what information they need and what information they receive - is at the core of a resource under development by the Knight Foundation - the Community Information Toolkit.

Lucas and Mayur Patel, Vice President for Strategy and Assessment, were panelists discussing the toolkit and citizen-centric approaches to mapping community information needs Tuesday at Knight’s annual Media Learning Seminar for community foundations and innovators working in the local news and information space.

(Disclosure: I am a consultant to the Incourage Community Foundation as a Circuit Rider for Knight’s Community Information Challenge and co-authored “Getting Local,” a report on sustainability for nonprofit news organizations with Mayur Patel.)

Patel said the Toolkit, in a just released 1.1 version, enables community to emphasize demand for and exchange of information on an equal footing with the supply of information.

The Toolkit process includes information checklists and instructions for conducting information scavenger hunts in which community members can assess the availability and accessibility of key information. A Scorecard program enables an assessment of strengths and gaps in the community information system - enabling community foundations and other leaders to prioritize their efforts to improve the system. From there, leaders can define their goals and plan for action.

Participants in the effort might come from local businesses, libraries, government, and schools as well as citizens.

While the scale and pace of the work is flexible, Patel said it generally might play out over 3-6 months at a total cost of $3,000-$9,000.

Another panelist, Kathy Bisbee, executive director of Community Access Media partnership in Gilroy, California, said the process is much more engaging than research. “To me, it really looks and feels like a community organizing project.”

Her nonprofit conducted the work at five events over 12 months. It created an opportunity for her organization when it was trying to figure out its place on a new digital and social media landscape.

‘‘A lot of us are having to reinvent what we do… how we provide the information need of our communities,” Bisbee said. “We needed to look into what some of those opportunities might be.”

Beverly Blake, Knight program director in Macon, Georgia, said her community piloted the toolkit idea a couple of years ago and it has led to efforts to make city and county government more transparent. It also influenced development of the Macon Journalism Collaborative.

Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, said her foundation is integrating the toolkit with its work as a Community Information Challenge winner. Their project, Neighborhood Corner, seeks to engage neighborhood residents with online data. “It is a community engagement model that will benefit us for years to come.”

That’s another key lesson from the Media Learning Seminar and more generally from the work of community foundations in news and information - engagement around information creates meaningful results for communities and the foundations that are trying to improve them.

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

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

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