Ibargüen receives AEJMC’s Presidential Award

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Alberto Ibargüen is president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He is the former publisher of The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. During his tenure, the Miami Herald won three Pulitzer Prizes and El Nuevo Herald won Spain’s Ortega y Gasset Prize for excellence in journalism.

On August 7, 2023, 1,500 members of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) gathered in Washington, DC for their 106th annual conference. The event’s opening ceremony featured a keynote address by Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen which you can read below. 

Local News: A Train Crash Waiting to Happen and How to Avoid It

Thank you, Deb, for your generous introduction — and for your enthusiastic leadership of the AEJMC.

And thanks to the Association — and the 1,500 educators here tonight – for honoring me with your presidential award. 

I feel particularly privileged to be here at the end of almost two decades as president of Knight Foundation, which has long been one of America’s principal philanthropic funder of journalism, journalism education, and mid-career training for journalists.

Congratulations to my friend and fellow awardee tonight, Dean David Kurpius, from Missouri, Professor Rachel Young, from the University of Iowa, and the Journalism Department at the University of Memphis.. The future of journalism education is crucial to the future of our democracy, and I am grateful to be honored alongside you.

I’m also proud to point out the presence here tonight of many of the 26 Knight Foundation-endowed chairs in journalism at universities around the country, and of the 14 Carnegie-Knight deans of journalism who have, for decades, worked to modernize journalism education. And, of course, I want to single out my colleague Jim Brady, who so ably leads Knight’s journalism work today.

I want to share some thoughts tonight about the need for an independent and sustainable press, the critical role of journalism educators, and what will happen if we don’t inform ourselves at the local, geographic base of our democracy. And as a former — and very practical — newspaper publisher, I want to talk about how to avoid the train crash I see coming if we don’t.

One way to help avoid the crash is by educating a generation of American journalists who are committed to full and accurate stories, who understand that independence comes from a sustainable operational model, and who seek to inform on the digital platforms that people prefer. 

Focusing that training on local news that readers can recognize intuitively as reflective of their town, their circumstances, and their communities, is critical.

Throughout most of the 20th century, Jack and Jim Knight built and ran one of the most successful newspaper companies in America. They built a profitable business that supported great journalism and were early and smart adapters of new technology. Knight newspapers thrived because they were committed to their communities and because they were committed to independent journalism.

Jack Knight also recognized that we elect people by geographically determined districts, whether commissioners or mayors or congresspeople. That geography used to be roughly the same as the circulation area of a newspaper or the reach of a local TV signal. But now we have decoupled the way we inform ourselves from the communities in which we live.

Internet favors scale. It has bettered the world and holds incalculable promise – but it is disturbingly difficult to bend to the information needs of the geographic structure of our democracy. As digital has changed the media landscape, it has also focused our attention – and the work of journalists – away from local and regional issues. With tens of thousands fewer reporters, the base of democracy continues to erode. And as long as the basic work is not being done, we will continue electing people we do not know to do things we will never hear about.

In a democracy, that’s a train crash begging to happen.

Just look to Long Island, which last year elected to Congress a man who lied about his education, his career, his religion, and even his mother’s death. A local paper raised questions about the candidate but didn’t have the resources to go further. We wouldn’t even know the story of now-Congressman George Santos if it hadn’t been for the investigation reported by The New York Times.

And if you think Santos is an aberration, you’re just not paying attention.

When the framers first amended the Constitution, they ultimately started the Bill of Rights with the protection of a free press, alongside the freedoms of religion and free speech. They did so with purpose, recognizing the vital role in a democracy of an informed public. If we are not reaching the public with the independent information they need, we are not living up to that promise – and by “public,” I mean the entire community.

This understanding was thoughtfully and thoroughly explored by New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger in his recent Columbia Journalism Review essay. Sulzberger wrote, “…the core value that makes our work essential to democratic society, the value that answers the question of why we’re deserving of the public trust and the special protections afforded the free press … is …  the increasingly contested journalistic commitment to follow facts wherever they lead.”

Our journalism work at Knight is grounded in a longstanding commitment to that vision of independent journalism. 

When Jim and Jack Knight started Knight Foundation, they determined that it should do what their newspapers had done: support independent journalism and informed communities. But they left it to their successor trustees to determine how best to do that, even encouraging future leaders of the foundation to evolve the philanthropy’s programs as the Knight’s had evolved their business.

For many years we supported journalism education in a traditional way, mostly through endowed chairs and programs in journalism at universities around the country.

It was Vartan Gregorian, the polymath president of the Carnegie Corporation, who recognized around the turn of the 21st century that journalism was in deep trouble, and that Carnegie and Knight, from their separate perspectives, academic and journalistic, should join together to help transform journalism education.

In 2005, under the leadership of Eric Newton at Knight and Susan King at Carnegie, who are both here tonight, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative was born. It focused on teaching the modern practice of journalism in an increasingly digital world. Together, they helped modernize curricula, fund positions, promote tenured roles and research funding. 

As much as we believe in the teaching of verification journalism, we also believe policymakers need independent, thorough data and analysis, researched by scholars, on which to base policy. Over the past five years, we have committed more than $90 million to research at more than 60 institutions, including, most recently, the Knight-Georgetown Institute. This new addition to Georgetown University’s Capitol Hill campus is jointly-funded and part of the school’s tech and society initiative. The purpose is to make research insights more accessible to policy-makers, private sector, journalists and civic leaders.

And because we know the digital age is presenting new challenges to defending freedoms of speech and press, we with Columbia University we jointly founded the Knight First Amendment Institute. We have also endowed the legal support offered by the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press to local journalists in many parts of the country.

Over time, Knight has invested more than $700 million in journalism practice and education. Investments made years ago to endow chairs of journalism and university-based fellowship programs are now valued at over $450 million — and today these old endowments are being used to fund journalism education for new times, which are still challenging and still changing. 

Many of you who were around 18 years ago and experienced the shift toward digital journalism likely recall the pushback we got from traditionalists.

We’re still experimenting, because we don’t yet have full answers. In our newsroom investments, we now center our work on finding new business models to support independent local news and information to communities. And some of the experiments are showing tremendous promise.

One is the American Journalism Project, which Knight is proud to have funded from the beginning. AJP has raised some $150 million and helped stand up or provide business support to almost 40 news organizations around the country, and growing. AJP is also experimenting with OpenAI, as is the Associated Press. I was fascinated to hear earlier today about AI developments and experiments at the journalism schools at Northwestern, Syracuse, Howard and others. That’s what we should be doing: engaging with the tools technology has given us.

On a different note, in just over 10 years, The Texas Tribune has gone from experiment to sustainable business, and it has become a critical source covering Texas politics. 

The merger of Chicago Public Media and the Chicago Sun-Times is an example of a different, perhaps replicable model  for sustainable local news.

There are dozens of other organizations popping up around the country, joining local news digital pioneers like the Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, and the New Haven Independent, which have each served its community for more than 20 years

The newer players are everywhere, from Fort Worth to Baltimore, St. Paul to Santa Cruz.

Most of the publications I’ve mentioned are nonprofit, but there are also promising for-profit experiments in local news. Axios Local covers 30 cities. The Daily Memphian, launched in 2018, is another local, digital, for-profit publication. Hearst, Lee, and many family-owned and community news organizations continue to serve hundreds of U.S. cities and towns.

University journalism is a great example of the value of local news. As the former editor of my college paper, the Wesleyan Argus, I take great pride in noting The Daily Northwestern’s reporting on the culture of hazing in the school’s Big 10 football team—reporting that led to the firing of its head coach.

And in California, Stanford’s president announced he would resign, and that he would retract or issue significant corrections to five scientific papers, all in the wake of months of coverage in The Stanford Daily.

These are great reminders of what committed, supported, local journalists — journalists who know their community and have the time and resources to develop sources — can accomplish.

Richard Watts at the University of Vermont is tracking university journalism projects through the Center for Community News, which we help support. He has identified 120 programs where student reporting, under the supervision of faculty and professional editors, is contributing to local news coverage published in over 1,200 media outlets in 2022.

The Columbia Missourian, is an example of a college paper that is the city’s local newspaper. It’s run by professional editors who are faculty, and staffed by Missouri journalism students. It’s digital-first, and structured as a nonprofit affiliated with the University. It’s not the campus paper; it’s the local paper.

These aren’t always easy partnerships. Universities, local papers, and public broadcasting partners all have different ways of operating and different incentives. But we’re convinced these partnerships are worth exploring and plan to keep supporting their evolution.

Academic-professional collaborations are an important way colleges and universities can help to avoid the train crash. 

Also working to avoid the crash is Press Forward, a new journalism funding initiative to be announced next month. Knight is proud to join the MacArthur Foundation and more than a dozen other funders – including many who have never before invested in journalism – to increase support of sustainable, local, independent journalism that reaches and engages all parts of communities in our diverse, pluralistic society.

Press Forward will take a “big tent” approach, which means each foundation will make their own decisions, supporting a range of solutions from nonprofit to for-profit to public media, with a focus on journalism and sustainability. The final details are still being worked out, but you’ll soon hear about this effort to revitalize and maybe reinvent the local news landscape. The goal is $1 billion over the next 5 years. Based on early commitments, I believe we’ll reach it. 

Of course, I know I’m preaching to the choir. More than anyone, the people in this room appreciate how important quality journalism is to the effective functioning of democracy. You know that we need to embrace technology and manage change. A journalism student recently told me his teacher said journalism is a field practice. To that end, all of our efforts are for naught if we don’t find new, sustainable business models. The best way to learn journalism is to do journalism—and you can’t do that without a journalism job.

As difficult as times may seem, i want you to take away a sense that there has never been more philanthropic interest in journalism and in having an informed citizenry – and never been a time when what you do matters more to our society and our democracy.

In all the years I was a newspaper publisher, I never once signed into the editorial system or was tempted to push the button that would start, or stop, a press. It was about respect for the craft of reporters, editors, and pressmen. But I did have opinions and expectations, which I shared freely.

So, I wouldn’t begin to tell you how to teach journalism. But my expectation is that you’ll produce journalists who are good reporters, digitally savvy, and who understand their critical role in our society is to inform community – with a passion to serve.I am optimistic for the future of journalism, because I believe we will rise to the challenge of saving local news. And that is how we begin to avoid the train crash.