Toward a Journalism R&D Fund

Journalist 2.0

This innovative journalist needs support to survive.

This week the Knight Foundation announced three new board members and a new strategy regarding its journalism investments. The foundation, whose aim is to “help sustain democracy by leading journalism to its best possible future,” has been one of the leading funders of journalism projects and initiatives across longstanding media organizations and new news models. The new board members are all leading media thinkers who have a long history of putting innovative ideas into action. In a press release on its site, Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen said, “They will challenge and help guide us to an even more entrepreneurial approach to media innovation and engagement of people in communities.”

The keyword here seems to be “entrepreneurial.” A Bloomberg article described the shift at Knight as a move from “charity to ‘social investing.’” In the same article, one of the new board members, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, told Bloomberg  that when it comes to the future of journalism, “We need to be approaching these questions and these problems with an attitude more akin to venture [capitalists] than with the attitude of a foundation.” This shift is important because the Knight Foundation has already funneled more than $100 million over the last five years into experiments focused on reshaping journalism.

Knight and a handful of other foundations have led the way in funding such experiments, but the pool of funding is still relatively small. The FCC's recent report on the Information Needs of Communities points out that “newspapers have been suffering an estimated $1.6 billion drop in editorial spending per year [while] foundations have contributed an estimated $180 million to fund new online ventures over a period of five years. Billions out, millions in.” So the journalism sector stills suffers from a huge gap in funding that likely won’t be made up through ads, foundation support and charitable donations alone. At this critical juncture we need more experimentation than ever to find workable solutions to funding shortfalls. How can we maximize the potential for this kind of work?

In our 2009 report “Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy,” we called for the creation of a public/private “Journalism R&D Fund” that would function like a public interest-oriented venture capital firm. We wrote, “Just as government invests in medical research to heal the ails of the body, we need government to invest in experimentation with news models to heal the democratic ails of the body politic.” We suggested that such a fund should function as a private/public partnership, in which government funds match investments made by foundations, universities or private companies.

As we noted in 2009, such a fund is not without precedent:

“The Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF) was created by Section 714 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to focus investment in small businesses that produce important public goods in the communications sector that were ignored by for-profit venture capital. A private, non-governmental venture capital firm, TDF was seeded with public funds and authorized to make investments with public service goals.”

Other models of connecting private and public funding for public good already exist in various forms, from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – the birthplace of the Internet). The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has also created some vital funding streams, such as its Diversity and Innovation Fund, but these are still small potatoes.

This idea is gaining traction. At an FCC workshop in Washington, D.C. in April, Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab at American University, called for the creation of a “public media participation fund” with an annual budget of $220 million. In her testimony she suggested that “ISPs [and] cellphone, computer and television manufacturers … be asked to match this funding.” The fund would support and build on longstanding public media institutions but would be expanded to aid other public, community and noncommercial journalism efforts.

The final FCC report doesn’t mention Schaffer's idea, but it does highlight two other potential funds related to media, journalism and technology. In 2009, U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced S. 1029, “a bipartisan bill to establish a 21st Century Skills Incentive Fund that would provide $100 million annually in matching grants to public primary and secondary schools that establish digital and media literacy programs.” This effort is part of a much larger push for news and media literacy as a core component to reshaping our media and journalism. So far that legislation has stalled in Congress.

Finally, Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation suggested a government-sponsored “Technology Fund” in a letter to the FCC:

“If a tech fund systematically unleashes open-source software applications and the technology needed to operate them, and grants money for code, coders and computers to news organizations across the country, it could spread public media innovation faster into new groups and deeper into existing ones, and create nothing less than a news renaissance in America.”

Obviously, we face difficult economic times for considering such proposals, but the impact of such a matching fund could be profound and help encourage other kinds of investments in journalism innovation and experimentation. As the Knight Foundation shifts its investment strategy, we should think about how we can encourage even greater investment from all sectors to support innovation and experimentation in journalism.

*Full disclosure: The Knight Foundation has funded our work on journalism and media policy in the past.

Image courtesy of the Knight Foundation

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