This is a story about who foots my paycheck. It is a story about who funds this very blog, along with all of the projects that we write about here. It is the story of the transformation of media and the efforts to make that transformation sustainable.

From the Akron Beacon Journal to National Media Conglomerate

It is a story that begins in 1896, when Charles Landon Knight, a recent graduate from Columbia University Law School, took a job at the Philadelphia Times. Four years later he moved to Akron, Ohio where he worked his way up from advertising manager to editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, which he then purchased in 1903. Unlike his educated father, Charles Knight’s eldest son, John, never finished university. He dropped out of Cornell in order to enlist in the Army during World War I and was sent to Argonne for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. According to his biography at the University of Akron:

Upon his return to the United States, Knight traveled to California with $5,000 won in crapshooting to contemplate going into the cattle business. Instead, he followed his father’s wishes, returned to Akron and became a sports journalist, writing under the pseudonym “Walker,” because, he confessed, “I was ashamed of the stuff. I didn’t write well enough.”

Nevertheless, by 1925 John S. Knight was already managing editor of the Beacon Journal and upon his father’s death in 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, he inherited the positions of editor and publisher, as well as ownership of the paper itself. Along with E.W. Scripps, Frank Gannett, Robert McCormick, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst, John S. Knight was one of a handful of men who led American journalism into one of its most questionable periods, when family-owned community-based papers were swallowed up by national media conglomerates. In 1937 Knight purchased the Miami Herald for $2 million, bought and closed down the Miami Tribune and Akron Times Press, and acquired control of the Detroit Free Press and Chicago Daily News.

After merging with Ridder Publications, Inc. in 1974, Knight-Ridder became the largest newspaper publisher in the United States with media outlets in over 26 cities. It should be noted, however, that unlike the centralized management of the Hearst Corporation, John S. Knight believed that each paper should be largely managed within its own community. As the Knight media empire expanded, James L. Knight, John’s younger brother by 15 years, played an increasingly active part in the company’s financial management. According to an NY Times obituary, “James Knight … was the financial brain behind the partnership. John Knight was editorial director.”

Geekiness and Innovation

The brothers disagreed on management decisions, but both were essentially geeks when it came to technology. They used the Interstate Highway System developed under the Eisenhower administration and the national telephone network to deliver international and national news faster than other papers. In 1983, before the internet even existed in its present form, Knight-Ridder was distributing news from the Miami Herald and Associated Press online with Viewtron. Viewtron even offered airline schedules and limited banking services, but after a reported investment of more than $50 million it was closed in 1986 and replaced by the World Wide Web.

When its west coast community paper, the San Jose Mercury News, began to rise to prominence along with the Silicon Valley that it covered, Knight-Ridder moved its corporate headquarters to San Jose, and the Mercury News quickly became one of the first newspapers to publish its full content online. Knight-Ridder has a long history of research and development of new technologies, which has sometimes led to risky financial investments, such as Viewtron.

The Decline of the Daily Paper

On June 27, 2006, Knight Ridder was purchased by another corporate descendent of the newspaper baron era, The McClatchy Company. For about $4.5 billion in cash and stock, the McClatchy company acquired 32 daily papers, 12 of which, including the San Jose Mercury News and The Philadelphia Inquirer, were immediately sold off.

Ever since The McClatchy Company acquired Knight-Ridder, their stock has continued to fall. Meanwhile, former stars of the Knight Ridder empire, such as the Mercury News, announce layoffs with almost predictable consistency. They are hardly alone – with the current pace of newsroom layoffs, it appears likely that the print legacy of Knight Ridder will be put to rest within five to ten years.

The Transformation of Media

The legacies of John S. and James L. Knight, on the other hand, seem poised to become even more influential in the 21st century than the 20th, because of the investments made by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in new media innovation. The foundation got its start as the Knight Memorial Education Fund in 1940 to honor the Knight brothers’ father who had a tradition of of helping local financially strapped students pay for college. A decade later, the fund, with assets of just over $9,000, became the Knight Foundation, which started to distribute small grants to ‘journalism-related causes’. James L. Knight died in 1991, leaving the foundation $200 million and the charge of investing it in transformational journalism and in the 26 communities where the Knight brothers spread their newspaper empire.

In July 2005, Alberto Ibargüen, former president and publisher of The Miami Herald, took over the presidency of Knight Foundation and its approximately $2 billion in assets. In December of the same year the Knight Board of Directors reviewed the foundation’s mission and strategic plan, and “directed the staff to continue looking for opportunities to fund transformational change in journalism and communities in pursuit of the Knight brothers’ legacy.” Less than one year later, in the fall of 2006, the Knight News Challenge was born under the leadership of Gary Kebbel (blog), who formerly directed AOL’s news operations. He was also founding editor of USA Today.com, Newsweek.com, and front-page editor of Washingtonpost.com.

Holding Up a Mirror to a Community

Let me briefly stop here to describe a conversation I had last year with Alberto Ibargüen before I knew who he was or that he would soon indirectly sign my paycheck, thanks to the Knight Foundation’s support of Rising Voices. The conversation, I believe, is indicative of the transformation that Ibargüen hopes to help provoke. I had just stepped off the stage at the 2007 We Media conference when Ibargüen clasped my hands and asked me to expand on a few of the points I tried to make during the panel on ‘soft power’. We both shared our excitement for the promise and potential of new media, but we also bonded over our nostalgia for the recent past when media monopolies meant that entire communities would both read – and, more importantly, discuss – the articles and editorials in their local papers. I described my experience of living in Mexico, where even though we all complained about the media duopoly, it always ensured that we had something to discuss at work the next morning.

Compare that with my conversation last night over dinner with five of my friends, all in their late 20’s. We went around the table, discussing our favorite YouTube videos. The problem, though, was that none of us had seen any of the others’ favorites, leading each speaker to end with, “I guess you have to see it … I’ll send you the link.”

Ibargüen wants to know if new media can perform the same function as old media. That is, hold up a mirror to a community, a space of analysis and discussion, which can help propel it forward. Gary Kebbel echoes this same central question in an article he wrote for Nieman Reports about the creation of the Knight News Challenge.

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?

Whatever you want to call it (citizen media, participatory media, civic media, new media, citizen journalism, etc.), the Knight Foundation is placing some valuable chips on the table to see if social entrepreneurs can use new technology to replace the newspaper’s former role as local community builder. In addition to the $25 million that has been allocated for the News Challenge, the foundation also supports the Knight Digital Media Center, the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, the Knight Program In Community Building, MediaShift, the Center for Citizen Media, J-Lab, the Knight Citizen News Network, and the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. In other words, anyone who is focused on citizen media wants to be on the good side of the Knight Foundation, and with good reason. Last week the foundation furthered its commitment to the growth of citizen media, on an international scale, by giving the Ashoka Foundation a $3 million, three-year grant, to fund 30 Ashoka Journalism Fellows worldwide.

But is it Sustainable?

The Knight Foundation is single-handedly making citizen media both more serious and more respected by giving financial support to some of the field’s most innovative thinkers. But is this a sustainable model for the transformation of media? What happens when the News Challenge’s five-year funding period concludes? All of the News Challenge grantee projects are impressive, innovative, and important, but not a single one is turning a profit, nor do they seem poised to any time soon.

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