Project Update: Exploring Models and Developing Priorities
Over the past month, OMG Center for Collaborative Learning (OMG) and I have worked to share findings from our individual processes to coordinate our work and ensure the networked journalism collaborative project (which I am responsible for developing) dovetails with the overall grant-making strategy for the William Penn Foundation (which OMG is responsible for developing). Through that coordination process, we have made significant progress to giving shape to our projects.
As I mentioned previously, the team at OMG and I are working to build off of the findings of J-Lab and the input of potential collaborators (both mainstream news and new media), as well as learn from national best practices, to inform our work. The project or projects developed through the collaborative (composed of local media partners) would provide experiments where OMG’s overall strategy would be tested, while building relationships and learning in the public affairs journalism community.
Among the questions discussed as we consolidated our efforts:
- Models: The networked journalism project could take many forms. In its report, J-Lab proposed a collaborative news organization staffed by journalists and working closely with many of the existing new media projects in the city to create a hub website for public affairs news in the region. Other cities across the country have seen the emergence of news organizations (i.e. Bay Citizen, Voice of San Diego, Texas Tribune) that publish almost exclusively online, and develop syndication relationships with new media journalists, with varying models in terms of newsroom organization and networked collaboration. In attempting to organize this project, OMG and I have explored the (healthy) tension between the necessity for strong leadership and credibility (particularly to fulfill the watchdog function journalism often provides) and the need for strengthening the network of public affairs media (the need to seed a larger, more diverse news ecosystem here). Might there be a hybrid model that allows for networked, enabling leadership that is strong and accountable, and also work to amplify the power of the network as a whole?
- Sustainability: It seems necessary to infuse any project with a sustainability mindset and build in expectations that it identify an intended pathway to sustainability from the outset. Journalism projects these days must have diverse revenue streams and be prepared to innovate to survive. I recently heard an analogy in which the leader of one of the nation’s largest and most successful new journalism compared his enterprise to a boat, saying, “Philanthropy’s role is to untie the line at the dock and wave goodbye as we sail away.” I expect this effort’s leaders would adopt a similar self-reliant mindset once it’s up and running.
- Diversity: Ensuring this project expands the network interested in public affairs media is a goal of this project, and is important to the stakeholders involved. Expanding coverage to underserved communities, creating hyperlocal news organizations, and providing news-making tools and training to undercovered communities are some of the methods which have emerged here, and represent advancements to begin to build new networks using local reporting. This project should emulate the best practices learned here and across the country, but should it attempt to deliver the scale of reporting seen at the neighborhood level, or should it focus on city and regional issues? Some ask if it can, and some ask if it can afford not to.
- Leadership: In creating a project, leadership must eventually emerge and/or be identified, and the strategy and implementation plan would ideally be developed with this person and/or an advisory group on board. OMG and I are ultimately trying to lay groundwork for an effort that others (likely directed by a visionary leader) will advance.
All of these questions must be filtered through the significant factor of the relatively scarce resources which the project will face from the outset. Although Foundation grants can provide significant resources, they typically represent what would be a fraction of the budget for a traditional news organization. So how to gain the greatest value from the investment and create something that endures regardless of changes in content delivery, news organizations and sustainability models?
This period of consolidation has allowed us to identify priorities for coverage and resource allocation in the project, including:
- Focusing on public affairs journalism with an emphasis on promoting public accountability. Because the broad outcome of this project is intended to help achieve greater transparency in government decision making and promote best practices and excellence in the public sector management, it makes sense to sharpen the focus of our work to directly contribute toward advancing these goals. Narrowing the focus a bit would hopefully allow for deeper analysis and more explanatory reporting around public issues than is often available in the current media landscape.
- Providing support to encourage entrepreneurial journalistic efforts. This would be both through services not easily acquired by independent new media efforts (like accounting, advertising/marketing services, basic technology assistance, liability insurance, etc.) and use funding to work with/support existing and emerging news and information creators to fill gaps in coverage.
Whatever organizational or project structure emerges, it will likely seek connections with potential partners in the field, including mainstream news organizations (The Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.com, WHYY, KYW and broadcast TV stations), alternative weeklies and new media sites and blogs, as well as organizations creating public accountability information and analysis, to expand the network interested in public accountability.
Moving forward, OMG and I are working to develop a process for scoping the project by November, in expectation of creating a proposal for consideration by the Foundation. If the project is funded, then it would commence development after the grant is made. This means that OMG and I will use the next three months to identify an appropriate host organization, potential leaders, advisors and partners for the project, further detail how the entity can interface with the current existing network and further support it, detail what start up and early operations might look like, and develop a draft organizational plan (with mission, goals, and possible strategies) so that the leadership can hit the ground running if the project receives funding.
OMG and I will continue to keep you updated as organizational and leadership models emerge. Please feel free to leave comments and questions, or contact me at michael.greenle <at> gmail.com.