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So What Do You Do, Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation President/CEO?

Facing an industry in flux, Ibargüen grants forward-thinkers the chance to create new, sustainable media models

- July 15, 2009
When the Knight Foundation hired former Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen to be its president and CEO three years ago, the organization was trying to adapt its traditional mission -- supporting journalism and community organizations with grants -- to the digital world. Under Ibargüen, the Foundation has tried to fund more forward-looking sustainable projects, particularly those that explore new models of monetization or new ways of achieving journalistic goals amid a news environment in flux. To this end, the organization is planning to spend $100 million over a few years on 130 projects dealing with the future of journalism. Ibargüen also recently testified before Congress in hearings exploring what the government might do to help sustain newspapers and journalism, generally. He spoke to mediabistro.com recently about the Foundation's current goals and some of the projects they're funding.


Name: Alberto Ibargüen
Position: President and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Birthdate: February 29, 1944
Hometown: Born in Puerto Rico; raised in South Orange, New Jersey; currently lives in Miami.
Education: B.A. from Wesleyan University; Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela and Colombia; University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Resume: Legal Aid lawyer in Hartford, Conn., after law school; first executive director of the Connecticut Elections Commission; practiced law for eight or nine years in Hartford. Joined the Hartford Courant as senior vice president for finance and administration; moved to New York to work at New York Newsday, where he stayed for 11 years. Joined the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald as publisher for 10 years; became CEO of the Knight Foundation. He also is chairman of the board at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and serves on the board of investigative news organization ProPublica (which recently received a $719,000 grant from the Knight Foundation for a project in conjunction with The New York Times) .
Marital status: Married for 40-plus years.
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "The A section, the Arts section, or the Business section."
Favorite TV Show: "Recently, The Wire."
Guilty pleasure: "I don't do a lot of guilt."
Last book read: Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb.

Tell me a little about your job at the Knight Foundation, and about the $5.1 million the organization recently gave out for journalism projects.
The foundation has been around for almost 60 years. It was started by the Knight brothers to do good works in the communities where they had newspapers. Less than a handful of the papers they had -- the Miami Herald, the Akron Beacon-Journal, The Detroit Free Press and the Charlotte Observer -- put in some money in the '30s and '40s. And then [when] their mother died in the early '50s, she left a bunch of money. From then on the company that the Knights owned -- and then subsequently Knight Ridder in the '60s and '70s -- never put in a dime. All of the money came from the mother, and then when Jack and Jim [Knight] died. So although it was always tied to the newspaper company, it was always set up separately, and the bulk of the assets -- which are now $2 billion -- were private wealth. There was no written statement of the mother's intent, and what Jack and Jim wrote and said was that they cared about journalism and they cared about the community... So the trustees at Knight have, for a long time, pursued a dual program operation of good works in the communities, and it became at one point the biggest supporter of journalism programs in the United States.

"Here we are trying to teach best practices to the best people in the best schools for jobs that aren't likely to exist. Or, if that's an exaggeration, what isn't an exaggeration is that you can't teach a best practice about a world you don't know -- and we really don't know what is going to evolve."

About three years ago, when I came in, and with the trustees, we took a look at the situation in journalism -- and even in the communities side -- and decided we needed to change the standard and try to do social investing more than charity. On the communities side, we tried to demand impact and sustainability from the money that we used, realizing that we're not the government and the resources aren't limitless. And so whenever we invest in the community programs, we need to invest in a way which leverages the money that we put in.

On the journalism side, we had just endowed 21 chairs at the best journalism schools in the country, and my really strong feeling was that here we are trying to teach best practices to the best people in the best schools for jobs that aren't likely to exist. Or, if that's an exaggeration, what isn't an exaggeration is that you can't teach a best practice about a world you don't know -- and we really don't know what is going to evolve.

The participatory nature is only the beginning of it. It's the knowledge that the information doesn't belong to me that is difficult -- and that it belongs to you. In a way, it's almost like a painter who sweats over a painting for months and months and sells it -- and the new owner sees it as an investment as opposed to a work of art. In the news business, we were sort of late in coming to that realization. So I thought, "I'm no longer responsible for a couple of thousand jobs like I was when I was publisher of the papers, and I'm no longer responsible for sending Knight Ridder, or whatever company, 24 or 25 percent profits. But what I am responsible for is to come up with answers for how to meet the information needs of communities." Not to save newspapers or television news or radio news -- but about how to meet information needs. And so I thought the first thing we needed to do was to admit we don't know what we're doing; we needed to admit that we don't know where we're going. And that's where we came up with the idea for the Knight News Challenge.

Tell me about some of the projects you've recently funded.
We ended up funding Tim Berners-Lee, who did not take out a patent on the World Wide Web because he thought it should be free and universal. And now he believes that the biggest danger to a free and open Web is the lack of authenticity on the Web -- the ease with which you can fool or cheat people on the Web. Being an old newspaper guy, my reaction was, "What do you figure, about 50,000 fact-checkers?" But no, he wanted to write code so that anyone can be their own fact-checker.

"The only thing that we're really insisting on is that the projects be digital. [...] It's important to not keep our head in the sand about how this is going to be delivered."

We also funded a site called Spot.us by a guy named David Cohn who decided he would invite journalists to pitch their stories to the public. The public then pledges money to do the stories. And it's working: Nobody can bid more than $25 or $35, so no one can own the story, and so that has begun to take off. It's still very small scale, but the Oakland Tribune has adopted it, and they put the stories through their editing process. We're working with David now to move it to Los Angeles, where the idea is that it would be housed at the USC School of Journalism.

So what is the macro goal of these and your other awards?
We need to rethink the structure of our democracy. For the first time in the history of the republic, you've got the delivery of information structured differently from the way we elect people to tax us, to educate us, to do all kinds of civic things. In the past, the basic circulation of a newspaper or the reach of a local radio signal or local TV signal was roughly a couple of congressional districts... And that's what really set apart American journalism from, say, European or Latin American [journalism], which tended towards national newspapers with terrific international coverage, good national coverage, and very little local coverage. Ours was exactly the opposite, and I think it allowed for a better informed local electorate, and a more individual expression of the communities throughout the U.S.

So I think the thing in all of this is to keep the goal in mind, which is to meet the information needs of communities: Try to not be prescriptive, try to be open to other people's ideas both about what the information needs are and about how to meet them. And I think we've been fairly good about that. The only thing that we're really insisting on is that the projects be digital. Even in the investigative reporting initiative that we also have done recently -- which is about $15 million altogether -- the main feature running through them is that it's high-quality journalism done on digital platforms. It's important to not keep our head in the sand about how this is going to be delivered.

"In a world where a kid needs to apply online for a job at McDonald's or Wal-Mart, it's a cruel joke to say that you have opportunity when you don't have [digital] access."

We also stumbled on the whole issue of access -- it's not something we ventured out to do, but it became very quickly clear that if 40 percent of Americans don't have access to broadband Internet because they are poor, because they are rural, or because they are old, that suggests a series of programs.

You recently testified before Congress about the future of newspapers and journalism -- and whether the government should have a role in ensuring that local news outlets continue to exist. What was the gist of your testimony?
In the congressional testimony that I was asked to offer a couple of months ago, to summarize, I said I don't think Congress has any role in content, and I think the First Amendment ought to chill them anytime they think they do. And I think Congress has a tremendous role in connecting the nation, and in building a really robust network of digital access, so that it doesn't matter where in the United States you live or if you use existing structures like libraries to get free access. Because in a world where a kid needs to apply online for a job at McDonald's or Wal-Mart, it's a cruel joke to say that you have opportunity when you don't have access. You're a second-class citizen if you don't have access -- socially, economically, and also politically.

Finally, it suggests that you need a lot of education programs that bring particularly the elderly into the digital world. I think all of these things are quite possible; I think the $7 billion for broadband in the stimulus package is an interesting down payment, but I think that's all it is. And so we're spending a lot of time and effort -- we committed $24 million I think, starting two years ago for a four-year effort, to try to make universal Internet access a reality in as many of our communities as possible.

What do you think are some of the most promising models for monetization of digital content?
I don't think anyone has yet come up with the next lightning bolt in terms of monetizing a national broadcasting corporation or even a national newspaper company. What I think is really interesting are the hybrid models.

I spent a day recently in Menlo Park with folks from Mozilla, somebody from Craigslist, somebody from Wikimedia, from Miro.org -- so this was a hybrid summit. And the point of the discussion was to share information and knowledge and learning, as we all are struggling to figure out which are the best models and should they vary by geography, by the nature of the project? …

At The Aspen Institute, we funded a project on meeting the information needs of communities that should be ready sometime in late summer or early fall. We purposely did not pick experts in the news business -- we tried to pick just 15 plain old smart people. The co-chairs of the commission are Marisa Mayer, who is the VP for search at Google, and Ted Olson, who is the former solicitor general. It's been fantastic. The next part after that will be creating some guidelines for meeting information needs and issuing some public policy recommendations for that.

And then we'll focus on the business models for that. With Aspen and City University of New York, we'll move from that exercise to try and establish and pick apart and test two, three or maybe four kinds of business models as we try to explore how you make this sustainable. That will be part of the exercise when we get together at The Aspen Institute in mid-August.

What are some other projects or initiatives you're working on right now?
Obviously, we continue to support journalism education, and we continue to have mid-career training, which is now mainly focused on new media. We gave NPR a grant to train all of their program staff on new media through Berkeley and USC. We will almost certainly continue funding organizations like the Inter American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Center for Journalists in Washington.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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