Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Nine insights on taking community information projects from idea to impact

Feb. 6, 2013, 10:05 a.m., Posted by Mayur Patel

It’s almost time for our sixth annual Media Learning Seminar, where community and place-based foundations will gather to discuss how to create informed, engaged communities. This year, we’ll give them something new to consider – a case study of how foundations have been able to put together their community information projects.

Why does this matter? Because making positive change in communities requires the free flow of quality news and information. If the news and information environment is in trouble, so is civic life.  Foundations can only help improve education, public safety, the environment or anything else if people understand and are engaged in the issues. Through the Knight Community Information Challenge, more than 80 foundations have stepped up to invest in everything from local and state reporting to citizen dialogue and digital literacy, all to help their communities thrive. These projects have successes to show for it too - resulting in new funding for early childhood education, more environmental conservation and increased digital literacy among teens and seniors.

This new study - published today in partnership with FSG and Network Impact - provides a behind-the-scenes look at four foundations. We asked: Why are they working in media? How does that connect to their overall goals? How did they go about doing it? Has it mattered?

The four funders are:

You can find an in-depth look at each project in today’s report. Here are a few insights and examples of foundation practices that stood out for us:

Lessons on Design and Planning

1) Assess your community’s needs and information behaviors – first.

In south Wood County Wisconsin, the Incourage Community Foundation set aside its initial plans to create an online news site after finding that more than a third of local, low-income families did not use the Internet. In response, the foundation shifted its efforts to include facilitating community discussions and building digital literacy skills.

2) Focus on a specific audience.
Identifying the needs of a well-defined audience helped local news projects find a niche. For example, after conducting a pre-launch market analysis the Community Foundation of New Jersey-supported NJ Spotlight decided to target state policymakers rather than trying to reach a general news audiences.

3) Identify ways to build stronger information channels within existing programs.
Community foundations often improved existing programs by focusing on the information needs of residents. The Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, for example, recognized that the city-backed Sustainable Dubuque Initiative had support from policymakers, businesses and civic leaders, but that residents needed more information about eco-friendly habits to undertake them.

Lessons on Community Engagement

1) Make community data personal.
People are much more likely to act on information that helps them understand their own behaviors and how they compare with others. In partnership with IBM’s Smarter Cities program, Dubuque’s initiative created a ‘smart meter’ that allowed residents to view data about their water and energy consumption, and compare it to their neighbors. The feature proved addictive, and led to house by house changes.

2) Promote community dialogue based on good information.
Projects achieved their broader community goals by providing ways for people to discuss and debate issues. Case in point: NJ Spotlight coupled its reporting on the controversial topic of teacher tenure reform with moderated roundtables that gave legislators, schools, teacher unions and parents the chance to discuss what good teacher evaluations looked like.

3) Use digital training and mobile phones to reach people with limited Internet access.
The Incourage Community Foundation, for example, experimented with SMS text alerts and telephone hotlines to distribute news about job training services to under- and unemployed workers with limited computer skills.

Lessons on Project Development

1) Create well-branded partnerships to accelerate participation.
Local information projects built credibility and broader community involvement by creating partnerships with top-tier media organization. The Hawaii Community Foundation-backed youth news network, HIKI NO, benefited from PBS Hawaii’s statewide reach and prestige, which helped motivate students to sign up and remain involved.

2) Draw on available media and technology expertise.
The Incourage Community Foundation was able to create strong relationships with the MIT Center for Civic Media and IT specialists at local schools and universities, that helped guide its media and technology funding.

3) Look beyond philanthropy to help sustain your effort.
The NJ Spotlight now gets a third of its income from events, advertising and content sharing agreements. And in the case of Dubuque2.0, the community foundation found a long-term home for the project by merging it with the city-backed Sustainable Dubuque initiative, where it will receive full time staff support for the next two years.

We hope you will dig deeper into these case studies to find more lessons that can help shape the way you might approach meeting local information needs. You can learn more too, by tuning into the live webstream of our Media Learning Seminar, which focuses on these issues, on Monday and Tuesday of next week.

By Mayur Patel, vice president/strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation

Related: “Tune into Knight’s Media Learning Seminar via Livestream, Twitter” on KnightBlog