A story told at most online journalism meetings is about the editor who said at a recent conference, "I don’t know what to do to make my paper successful in the digital age, but I’m ready to do it. Just tell me what it is."

It is abundantly clear that the search for "it" is going on at all news "I don’t know what to do to make my paper successful in the digital age, but I’m ready to do it. Just tell me what it is."organizations. New products and new distribution methods are needed to get to where their audiences are. But in getting there, news organizations also must figure out how to retain the values and standards of journalism.

Knight Foundation is on the lookout for the next big idea to revolutionize the news industry and build geographic communities as audiences for news head online.

Oddly, perhaps, we decided to look backward as our guide to moving forward. We asked ourselves whether the digital world is being used for the verification journalism and community building that Jack and Jim Knight did at their newspapers. Then we asked whether news and information in cyberspace are used to bring people together in real space and to help people where they live and work.

If they aren’t filling these roles, then is this an editing issue or a technology problem? Have newspapers lost readers because they stopped delivering what their audience want—school menus and a watchful eye on property taxes, little league scores and city council votes? (Youth soccer and high school football do more to bring together communities than nearly any city council meeting. Woe to the community newspaper that doesn’t report the game scores—via instant text messaging each quarter.) Are newspapers uniquely able to bring people together in their geographic communities? If so, as readers migrate to other media, will there be less on-the-ground community building? What other implications would this change have for our lives and public institutions?

When we raised such questions, answers were elusive. So we created the Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge—a $25 million, five-year investment designed to encourage the formation of connective threads among RELATED WEB LINK
Knight Foundation News Challenge
– www2.knightfdn.org
what journalism does and what communities want and need. We hope journalists, as well as community members, will help us arrive at some answers and steer this initiative in promising directions. Our challenge goes out to anyone seeking ways to use digital news and information to build geographic communities.

Newspapers—with their ability to go a mile wide and an inch deep—give neighbors the ability to debate, discuss and act as members of a shared place and enterprise. Can the Web—with its borderless dimensions—also do this? Or on the Web are we headed toward a time when our sense of shared space—our feeling of belonging to a community—will be experienced only in virtual ways? If so, how can this be reconciled with our geographically based political system?

Our democracy has organized itself around geography since our nation’s founding, and news has breathed life into our civic debate and engagement. But at the dawn of the 21st century, news entities confront numerous issues in this digital transformation. Layoffs of journalists are on the rise. Newspapers and television networks are losing subscribers and advertising revenue to companies without journalism’s backbone, no grounding in its ethics and principles, no obligations for its First Amendment duties and responsibilities. At the same time, online destinations or games such as Monster.com, craigslist, Flickr, MySpace, YouTube and Mortal Kombat are gaining revenue and absorbing the time of those who might have turned to newspapers.

The Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge is an open, international competition for innovative ideas that offer ways of using news and information online to create or strengthen on-the-ground communities. We’ve set as few rules as possible to give ourselves the best chance to find creative thinkers and passionate entrepreneurs. Our award categories follow the cycle from idea to pilot project to broader distribution to commercial product or newly formed company. Maybe we will find the teenager who asks "What if" and has an idea worth backing, or the college student who refuses to conform to "the way things need to be."

Each quarter, as a result of the declining newspaper numbers revealed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, new media converts emerge out of old media newsrooms. They understand the future of journalism doesn’t lie with printing presses. What is less clear is whether a place in cyberspace can be found for those who value on-the-ground civic engagement and responsibility. Does the role newspapers play as community conveners have any meaning in cyberspace? Will younger generations, many of whom have never received their information from a newspaper, even understand what this role is and why it is important?

The 21st Century News Challenge sets in motion a process to see if new media can—or should—replicate certain old media functions. But for changes like this to succeed, news cultures also need to change. A publishing culture built around deadlines and the printing press doesn’t exist in the dynamic world of the Web. And the journalistic skills to succeed on the Web differ vastly from those employed today. Journalists on the Web tell stories in nonlinear, multimedia ways, and news exists in real time, with the expectation of accuracy, depth and insight.

Maybe we will find the teenager who asks "What if" and has an idea worth backing, or the college student who refuses to conform to "the way things need to be."In our digital age, neither newspapers nor newscasts can be a news organization’s primary product, yet they will continue to exist in the foreseeable future. Managers and journalists must avoid, however, being so wowed by flashy techniques that old and essential values are abandoned. Newsroom management will need to change, too, for creativity to rise. An authoritarian manager accustomed to employees "paying their dues" will not heed the advice of an inexperienced new hire who likely knows more about how young people communicate and what they want to read and view than the entire executive committee. Nor will a newspaper built around journalists as gatekeepers easily adapt to citizen journalism and blogging. An important change they’ll be missing is why they should become information guides, not gatekeepers, as people seek help in finding the news and information they need.

Cyberspace comes closer to the infinite than anything humans have ever invented. It operates at a speed nearly beyond human imagination. It is unfettered by geography—a Big Bang of thought and ideas and news and information that is remaking what we know and how we see and express ourselves. If more of cyberspace’s power could be directed toward energizing our on-the-ground obligations and benefits of community, then those who convey news and information will understand better the significance of what they do and the essential role they play.

Gary Kebbel is the journalism initiatives program officer at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He was news director at America Online and helped create USAToday.com and Newsweek.com

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment