New Policy Paper Calls for Creation of Regional and Local Collaborative News Networks, Urges Media to Adopt “Digital First” Strategies

June 23, 2011

Contact: Amy Garmer
Communications and Society Program
The Aspen Institute
202.736.5854 | [email protected]

Washington, DC, June 23, 2011—Today the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released a new policy paper that calls on leaders of local print and broadcast media to spearhead the creation of regional and local collaborative news networks that meet the information needs of their communities. These interactive news networks are part of a broader set of strategies for re-inventing local journalism that are aimed at addressing the need for media policies that foster innovation, competition and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism.

Re-Imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World, by Michael R. Fancher, outlines five strategic areas that are critical for reforming local journalism and calls upon for-profit media, not-for-profit and non-traditional media, higher education, community and non-profit institutions, libraries, researchers, government at all levels, and citizens to each play a role in nurturing a revitalized and re-imagined local media ecosystem. Fancher served for 20 years as executive editor of The Seattle Times. Under his leadership, The Times won four Pulitzer Prizes and was a Pulitzer finalist 13 other times. Fancher serves as co-convenor of Journalism That Matters Pacific Northwest, advises other local journalism projects and is vice-president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

The five key strategies for re-inventing local journalism include: (1) For-profit media organizations must re-invent themselves to extend the role and values of journalism in interactive ways; (2) Not-for-profit and non-traditional media must be important sources of local journalism; (3) Higher education, community and non-profit institutions can be hubs of journalistic activity and other information-sharing for local communities; (4) Greater urgency must be placed on relevance, research and revenues to support local journalism; and (5) Government at all levels should support policies that create an environment for sustainable, quality local journalism.

In particular, Fancher urges considerably stronger efforts by newspapers and other legacy media to “be digital first,” and adopt a greater sense of urgency in dealing with the technological disruptions affecting the marketplace for news and information. Legacy newspapers and broadcast stations in particular have considerable capacity in terms of resources, leadership and relationships in the community to nurture networked news ecosystems and create interactive networks that can serve as hubs for civic information sharing, journalism, dialogue and engagement.

“News organizations and industry associations must develop a greater sense of urgency about helping their people succeed in the digital media ecosystem.  Failing to do so will mean that the journalism industry will not attract and retain the digital natives who will be tomorrow’s leaders,” said Fancher. He further noted that news organizations must participate in open, honest conversations about their own work.  “The public should be encouraged to participate in shaping the future of local journalism. News organizations should use interactive technology and social media to enhance the transparency, openness and accountability of journalism,” Fancher observed.

Fancher went on to say, “For legacy media, the key to re-imagining journalism for a networked world is to be digital first. This is particularly hard for newspapers because so much of their revenue comes from their printed products. It seems clear that a print-driven strategy gets in the way of implementing robust interactive strategies.”

Among the key recommendations that Fancher calls for: 

  • Legacy news organizations should exercise leadership to nurture their local news ecosystem through the creation of collaborative, interactive news networks;
  • Traditional media companies should collaborate with local start-ups and non-profit media to create new forms of content syndication that operate more like social networks;
  • Libraries should host journalistic activities, with the Institute for Museum and Library Services leading the way by soliciting proposals for and funding innovative projects in this area;
  • Academic and government research institutions should develop metrics for measuring the Social Return on Investment (SROI) in journalism, with the National Science Foundation requesting proposals for research to measure the social capital produced by, and economic and social benefits of, investments in local journalism;
  • National and community foundations should fund networks, collaborations, shared infrastructure and open source technology to support the local media ecology;
  • The National Conference on Citizenship should add local news to its list of metrics for measuring community health and civic engagement, as part of a national conversation on the importance of local journalism to community health;
  • Federal and state governments should consider measures to facilitate new ownership and collaboration models, including legislation to encourage the creation of non-profit or hybrid business models for local journalism (such as L3c or Benefit Corporations), changes in Internal Revenue Service regulations governing when newsgathering and publishing may qualify for tax-exempt status, and other legislative or regulatory changes to make it easier for private news companies to transition to non-profit status.

Adopting these strategies will enable communities to address the critical information needs identified by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and the crisis in local, professional, accountability reporting identified by the Federal Communications Commission in its recently released report, The Information Needs of Communities.

“When the Commission issued its report in October 2009, the commissioners expressed their concern that the loss of traditional media at the local level would lessen citizens’ ability to have the information they need for their personal lives, for civic engagement, and to hold government accountable. Yet they also noted that the digital age has created a time of great journalistic opportunity. Mike Fancher has laid out a blue print for how everyone – media companies, academic and community institutions, government at all levels and citizens – can seize this moment to reinvent local journalism in ways that create value and benefit communities,” said Charles M. Firestone, executive director of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program.

Directing media policy toward innovation, competition and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism, and increasing the role of higher education, community and non-profit institutions as hubs of journalistic activity and other information sharing for local communities are among the recommendations made by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. This paper is the seventh a series focused on implementing the Knight Commission’s 15 recommendations for creating healthy informed communities across the country released in 2009 in a landmark report, Informing Communities. This bipartisan blue ribbon commission called for universal broadband, open networks, transparent government, a media and digitally literate populace, vibrant local journalism, public media reform, and more local public engagement. The first six papers in the series cover universal broadband, digital and media literacy, public media, government transparency, local online hubs and civic engagement.

In addition to the release of Re-Imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World, the Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation also announced the release of a second white paper, Creating a Public Square in a Challenging Media Age, by Norman Ornstein, with John Fortier and Jennifer Marsico, of the American Enterprise Institute.

Re-Imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World was featured today in a high-level roundtable discussion among a select group of leaders, innovators, advocates and critics from the national, state and local levels at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C. The roundtable also discussed Creating a Public Square in a Challenging Media Age.

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The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy was a blue ribbon panel of seventeen media, policy and community leaders that met in 2008 and 2009. Its purpose was to assess the information needs of communities, and recommend measures to help Americans better meet those needs. Its Report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, was the first major commission on media since the Hutchins Commission in the 1940’s and the Kerner and Carnegie Commissions of the 1960’s.

The Commission’s aims were to maximize the availability and flow of credible local information; to enhance access and capacity to use the new tools of knowledge and exchange; and to encourage people to engage with information and each other within their geographic communities. Among its 15 recommendations the Commission argues for universal broadband, open networks, transparent government, a media and digitally literate populace, vibrant local journalism, public media reform, and more local public engagement.

The Knight Commission is a project of the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. The Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote informed and engaged communities and lead to transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.

The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. The Aspen Institute does this primarily in four ways: seminars, young-leader fellowships around the globe, policy programs, and public conferences and events. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and has an international network of partners. 

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