Seeing journalism’s future through the lens of community

In the spring of 2010, I was still deep in the research phase of my work on the New Media Journalism Initiative. I’d conducted a series of interviews with smart thinkers from a range of backgrounds and perspectives about the future of journalism in the digital age.

As part of my inquiry, I was invited to a gathering of the Reynolds Fellows at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. The fellows for that year were presenting the results of their research and project work.

One of those fellows, Michele McLellan, had been a major influence on my thinking that spring. Michele’s project focused on the promising news sites that were growing up throughout the news ecosystem.

Born out of Michele’s frustration that there was too much conversation about what was being lost in the decline of traditional newspapers, her project focused instead on the sense of possibility these startups were bringing to the world of news and information. She developed a useful typology, one I often refer to in my ongoing thinking about the evolution of journalism.

It was at that gathering nearly 18 months ago that Michele and I began a conversation that led to an important collaboration. Among the typologies that Michele had focused on was one she called community. Her working definition then was that these sites “often rely on professional journalists but they tend to be bootstrappers who also focus on community building – actively seeking user feedback and content, writing in a conversational tone, and fostering civic engagement with practices such as voting, calls to action, and partnerships with local organizations and activists.’’

This was the group of news entrepreneurs who most interested me – the people who were focused on news and information as part of a healthy, vibrant community. As someone who had spent most of my career in traditional newspapers focused on community news, I felt a sense of kinship with these publishers when it came to their mission. And I recognized that they had a tremendous amount to teach me about community connection and entrepreneurship.

Michele was clearly intrigued by these publishers as well, and she also recognized that this was a group of journalism innovators who had almost no support system. Foundations and universities were working with what she described as the “new traditionals’’ – the sites focused on investigative and political journalism, what is sometimes called “Capital J Journalism.’’ I think Michele and I bonded over the thought that the community journalism felt pretty darn important – pretty “Capital J’’ to us.

She was in the beginning stages of putting together a “news summit’’ for these community publishers. Her goal was to bring these innovators together to connect, discuss common problems and share potential solutions. She asked if I was interested in working with her, and our collaboration was born.

The first Block by Block Community News Summit came together Sept. 23-24, 2010, in Chicago. The Patterson Foundation enabled travel scholarships for the community publishers, along with other funders such as The Knight Foundation. I said at the time that it was one of the more inspiring journalism events I had ever attended: publishers were motivated by the desire to serve community, and they were generous in sharing their knowledge and experience with each other.

Just the fact that these innovators were able to look around the room and see that they were not alone – that there were others who shared both their vision and their trials – was one of the great values of the gathering.

This year, the second Block by Block Community News Summit will again convene in Chicago, from Sept. 29 – Oct. 1. The bar is a little higher this year than mere recognition, as publishers come together to talk in more depth about sustainability and best practices for engaging communities and serving information needs.

The Patterson Foundation is again enabling this important conversation among community news entrepreneurs. In my upcoming posts this week and next, I’ll share some more of what we hope to focus on and why we at TPF believe this group is so important to the future of community news.