Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Were you hoping to be a new kind of gatekeeper?

Now that newspapers and other traditional gatekeepers in the media are on the wane, you might be thinking, "Our role as a gatekeeper is going to be Even More Important" or "Now's our chance to take over where journalism failed."

Well, maybe. There's no denying that more organizations and companies are taking their communications straight to the public audiences they want to reach. But when it comes to controlling the gates, it's worth considering whether that gate is attached to a working fence before you get all dreamy-eyed.

Take it from a longtime journalist who embraces a "digital first" philosophy: Steve Buttry's thoughtful Gatekeepers need to find new value when the fences have blown away is aimed at journalists, but is worth reading if your company, foundation or organization is thinking of jumping into the void left by journalists. Buttry points out numerous misses journalists made even when they had the gatekeeper role, and identifies the areas where he believes journalists still have a role to play in a social-media or "digital first" world. But the main takeaway: You can't have gates and gatekeepers if the fence is broken. And that's true beyond journalism's borders.

Foundations have been supporting journalistic forays increasingly in recent years, from support for public opinion surveys to journalism fellowships and competitions like the Knight Challenge, funding community news efforts (you'll find the latest winners, announced this week, at the link). And recently, the Ford Foundation gave $1 million over two years to the Los Angeles Times to support coverage of issues like immigration. It's a controversial grant, prompting New York University's Jay Rosen to say on Facebook, "The grant isn't about finding a sustainable model...So when the money runs out, what has been gained? Two years of unsustainable coverage ? Four years of it? The logic escapes me." And yet, I've heard plenty of journalists think out loud about finding some nice foundation to fund their efforts--despite the fact that other nonprofit models haven't fully lived up to that goal. For example, Chicago's nonprofit news group, the Chicago News Cooperative, recently announced it was suspending operations. And this foundation-funded effort intended to improve environmental reporting has faltered when no major news organizations signed on.

This isn't to say that foundations are angling for control of the gate when they fund news organizations. But any organization that hopes to fill a void created by journalism's demise might just be missing the point. The days of control are over, for the most part. The days of command-and-control, even more so. I'd be looking for ways to fuel the crowd that took the gate down, myself, or maybe the field that everyone's running over.

If you want to listen in on the discussion between foundations, researchers, academics and others, take a look at As traditional media decline, do opportunities for philanthropic organizations rise? Communications Network's Bruce Trachtenberg shares a discussion from the recent Council on Foundations meeting in Los Angeles on "how trends in digital media offer foundations, policy organizations, think tanks and others unprecedented opportunities to increase their dialogue with the public by taking their messages directly to audiences and key constituencies." It's a long video of a roundtable, but as Trachtenberg points out, you can run the audio in the background while you work and just listen to the discussion. Please share your comments on the video and the issue.

"Philanthropy and the Digital Public Dialogue" was hosted by the Center for Digital Information at the Council on Foundations annual conference in Los Angeles, April 30, 2012. It addressed the challenges and opportunities facing philanthropic foundations in a rapidly evolving digital age.

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