Strengthening the Civic Core of Journalism and Technology

Three new funding opportunities for journalists and media makers shine a spotlight on the role of media in community engagement and civic health. This comes at a critical moment when, across the journalism landscape we are finally seeing deep reciprocal collaborations between journalists and technologists. Journalism schools are combining forces with computer science programs, the Knight Mozilla fellows just placed their third round of developers in newsrooms and every week there seems to be another hack-a-thon for journalists.

turningoutwardJournalists and technologists working together is a good thing for journalism, but also for local communities. It is notable that this era of collaboration is coming as trends are pushing both professions deeper into the public. Borrowing a phrase from Rich Harwood, they are “turning outward,” a process that emphasizes “making the community and the people the reference point for getting things done.”

In journalism this is embodied by the rise of community engagement efforts within newsrooms. It is part of a growing recognition that journalism will rise and fall with its community. Whether it is a paywalled newspaper that depends on subscriptions or a public broadcaster who depends on memberships, building community around the news on and offline is one of the critical challenges facing journalists today.

At the same time in technology we’ve seen incredible and inventive projects that focus on how technology can be brought to bear on community issues. This civic innovation takes many forms, from public health hack-a-thons to crisis mapping. Pair this with a rise in Gov 2.0 and transparency efforts and we see people working inside and outside government to better connect technology to civic life.

I’m not suggesting that the public good is something entirely new to either sector, but rather that in recent years we’ve seen much more emphasis on the civic and public aspects of these professions. My hope is that these changes, along with other parallel shifts such as the rise of strong nonprofit journalism organizations, represent a shift towards journalism as “public work.” This notion of public work comes from Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs who describes it as a “sustained, visible effort by a mix of people that creates things – material or cultural – of lasting civic impact, while developing civic learning and capacity in the process.”

For Boyte civic life shouldn’t be defined as something separate from professional life, but instead, it should be deeply embedded within our work. Our work together in newsrooms, with other journalists, with coders and fact checkers and with our community is the work of building stronger communities. This notion of journalism as public work is at the heart of these three new funding opportunities:

The Hurricane Sandy Inform and Engage Fund, part of the New Jersey Recovery Effort: “The Hurricane Sandy Inform and Engage Fund is a dedicated portion of the New Jersey Recovery Fund. It recognizes the vital role that reliable, accessible news and information plays in the health and well-being of New Jersey’s communities. The Fund will support projects that inform and engage the public on the issues New Jersey faces as it recovers from Hurricane Sandy.” Letters of inquiry are required by February 25. Read more at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation website.

Looking@Democracy, sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council and the MacArther Foundation: “Looking@Democracy is a national competition to bring attention to ideas, perspectives and stories that are not currently featured in our mainstream political conversation. The Looking@Democracy challenge is offering a total of $100,000 in prize money for short, provocative media submissions designed to spark a national conversation about how we can all come together to strengthen American democracy.” The deadline for submissions is April 30. Read more at

The Knight News Challenge on Open Government, sponsored by the Knight Foundation:  “We expect the News Challenge to generate proposals to improve the way citizens and governments interact. Projects could help parents evaluate schools,  make weather data more usable, identify best routes from one town to another, or identify pork in the federal budget. […] One of our goals for the News Challenge is to involve more people in the use of technology to solve community problems.” The challenge opens on Feb. 12 and closes on March 18. Read more at the News Challenge site.

Public work is about finding the civic center in all kinds of work, and I believe we are seeing this shift within journalism right now. For more on how foundations are tackling these questions, there is no better resource than the Media Impact Funders site, which includes great links to other media projects focused on civic impact. I’m excited to see how these three new grant opportunities build on this idea and how each will help strengthen the civic core of journalism and technology.

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