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Vivian Vahlberg Vs. The Usual Suspects: Why the "Community News Matters" Grantee List Is No Surprise

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Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

Yesterday, I asked why the Chicago Community Trust's recently announced "Community News Matters" grant awards seem to ignore the future sustainability of online local news. It turns out there may be a reason for that. In August, a key Trust staffer claimed in signed comments here on Chicagosphere that the foundation never considered the grant monies to be more than bridge funding--and that it had no idea who would receive that funding. So why did the foundation's own request for proposals (RFP) announce the future sustainability of Chicago's local news sector as a main goal of the grant program? And why are most of the winning grant recipients organizations and bloggers to whom the Trust reached out prior to releasing its RFP in the first place?

The Community News Matters grants were awarded by the Chicago Community Trust in partnership with the Knight Foundation, from which the Trust won a challenge grant to fund community news initiatives in Chicago. The Trust matched Knight's money and added monies from other foundations to create the new program.

In response to my August 19th post criticizing the Knight Foundation for what I saw as its needless abandonment of former grantee EveryBlock.com shortly before that site was purchased by MSNBC.com, on August 20th the Chicago Community Trust's project director for the Community News Matters grant, Vivian Vahlberg (also the former longtime director of the McCormick Foundation's journalism program), posted a lengthy, 1,276-word set of comments (here and here) in defense of Knight and the Trust. Vahlberg defended the trust along with Knight because my post also questioned whether the Community News Matters program would give similar short shrift to sustainability.

Sifted out of healthy doses of Knight Foundation apologia and standard nonprofit executive self-puffery, here are 358 of Vahlberg's most telling words (emphasis added):

"I think you're thinking about foundation funding of media in the wrong way. Community News Matters is designed as bridge funding - to help news and information projects of all types crop up and stay afloat while people figure out a sustainable business model for news going forward. That's a more appropriate role for foundations than endless subsidies. Practically speaking, foundation funding can never become a substitute for what was generated by a fully-functioning, commercially-supported media; at best it can be a supplement. News is just too expensive...

The old business model that produced lots of funds for journalism is broken. No one has yet figured out the new model --- but scores and scores of people are working to crack that nut. Knight and the Trust are providing funds to help them experiment and grow - with the expectation that the successful ones will find a way to support themselves and the ones that don't will fade away...

As a result of educating itself, the Trust had the guts to change its plans - moving from the idea of creating an information Web site of its own to the current plan of providing grants and contracts to local innovators already in the sphere. Yes, the switch resulted in short deadlines for proposals..but we know that lots of people already have plenty of ideas in their heads for what they would do if only the money were available...

FYI, the Chicago Community Trust does not already know who we want to fund. We may end up funding some people we already know -- but if that's all we wanted to do, we could have just done that without going to all the work of soliciting and judging what we hope will be scores and scores of different proposals...As for "secret" meetings: yes, in the course of developing the program plan, we had meetings with some people we knew and respected to sound them out about ideas and approaches and needs. It was all part of educating ourselves -- which you rightly pointed out was important to do. But it wasn't any kind of pre-selection process; it was just fact-finding."

So according to Vahlberg, the Community News Matters grants are about bridging funding gaps, not supporting evidence of sustainability. If you're a grantee who ends up with a sustained funding stream, great. If not, well, as far as Vahlberg's comments go, you're history.

Moreover, according to Vahlberg, the Trust planned to award grants and contracts to folks already working in the community news sphere. Of course, the Trust already knows those people on a first-name basis. The foundation spent summer 2009 meeting with Chicago's leading journalism schools, nonprofits, and bloggers (including Yours Truly). At least 110 bloggers, judging by the blogger outreach Excel file the Trust emailed to me back in June from which I just made that cursory count.

Certainly these media stakeholder meetings weren't secret. But from so many meetings is it believable that the Trust didn't come away with a very good idea of specific people who were about to pitch specific projects? In my opinion, no--and a resounding one at that. With all that outreach done directly into the grant program's target community, I find Vahlberg's assertion that the Trust didn't "already know" in some way who they would end up funding difficult to accept. Your mileage on this point may vary.

Even harder to understand is how the Community News Matters program director could label the grant program a "bridge funding" initiative. As directly quoted from the co-branded Chicago Community Trust/Knight Foundation press release that announced the grant program in August, the goals of the program were to:

"Increase the flow of truthful, accurate and insightful local news and information in the region in new ways that engage residents, bring important issues to light, and enable people to work together to find solutions to area problems; and help the region's cutting-edge media innovators develop new forms, methods and models for providing this information that can be sustainable in the future."

Those are the entire stated goals of the grant program, mind you. I sure see sustainability mentioned in them. Can't seem to find any mention of stop-gap bridge funding though. Perhaps this quote from Chicago Community Trust president and CEO Terry Mazany, also in the press release, will shed some light on the matter (again, emphasis added):

"Good quality information is the lifeblood of any community. That's why we've been a proud sponsor for almost 20 years of the Chicago Matters series, the longest running multimedia public-affairs series in the nation. Now, with traditional news media struggling, we seek to ensure that citizens in the Chicago metropolitan area have a robust flow of high-quality, relevant information available to them."

Did someone just open the blinds? Because it suddenly seems pretty glaring in here. If that last sentence directly attributable to the Trust's own head honcho doesn't plainly and simply mean the grant program is about sustainability, then Vahlberg knows something about the English language that I as a former grammar teacher don't. Nothing is "ensured" if not for the future. Mazany is talking about the future availability of local news. And that, my friends, can only come as a direct result of sustainable funding formulas.

So what I'd like to know is at what point did the Community News Matters grant program go from aiming for sustainability to settling for keeping the doors open another year? That shift in funding emphasis might explain why a site like Gapers Block, whose editor and publisher, Andrew Huff, announced at the ChicagoNow blogger meetup at Clark Street Ale House last night that his site is already at the point of sustainability, is getting a check for $35,000.

Telling me I needn't keep his words off the record (and in the presence of a Chicago Now editor), Huff said Gapers Block would use the Community News Matters grant to help pay more of the site's writers. When I asked him how he would pay those writers when the Trust money ran out, he told me advertising could already cover the outlay. But if advertising can already cover the expense of paying more Gapers Block writers, then why did the Trust cut them in on what originally was supposed to be sustainability grant monies in the first place?

The same goes for the $45,000 Columbia College received--in partnership with the Chicago Tribune, no less--to fund a news blog for the Austin community. How much overhead does it really require to cover a single neighborhood? And what about all those ChicagoNow bloggers, some of whom are surplused reporters, themselves, who are covering niche news beats already--and certainly not being paid $45,000 for the effort? If there's an ounce of sustainability here, I can't find it.

While in my heart I know some of the Community News Matters grantees truly deserve the monies they'll be receiving and believe some of the projects funded have a shot at sustainability (as I noted yesterday, especially the grants going to the Beachwood Reporter and Windy Citizen), the fact remains that the grantee list reads like a who's who of Chicago community news. Every major journalism school, community-based initiative, and A-list blogger (save for former Chitown Daily News editor Geoff Dougherty) got a piece of the pie.

I find it surprising Vahlberg didn't see that coming. Don't you?

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3 Comments

Aaron M. Renn said:

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Mike, I think you might be reading too much into Vivian's inartful use of the term "bridge funding". If you read that as "venture capital" or "seed money", I think it makes more sense.

When it comes to sustainability, I don't think any foundation is going to commit to fund ongoing operations in perpetuity. I know, for example, that the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia has declined to get involved in local news there because they fear it will be an open-ended commitment and they'll get criticized if they ever turn off the tap (similar to your take on the Knight/Everyblock scenario). I think the Trust wants to be clear that they are not making any ongoing funding commitments.

As to whether any of these ideas will pan out in the long run, we'll see. Most VC investments fail, however, even when fully profit motivated. Venture funds rely on a handful of "home runs" to make up for the large numbers of utter failures. Often they invest in products they think are cool or have value, but don't appear to have any real way to make money. Google, Facebook, and Twitter were all like this. Facebook and Twitter are still not cash profitable.

I actually think a high rate of failure can be a good thing, because it implies that you have a rich entrepreneurial culture. To me a greater danger might be that organizations that should be allowed to fail get propped up, consuming resources that might otherwise go to ventures that have a chance and crowding the marketplace. I think of all the zombie companies back in the day in Japan, for example. In that light, perhaps we can take it as a good sign that Chitown Daily News was allowed to fail. They made a play on a model that was probably worth the risk, but didn't pan out. Now we know better.

The reality is that nobody knows what sustainability means out there. If someone had a model that would work, they'd be rich. And they'd probably be able to get commercial funding for it and not be reliant on the Trust in any case.

Having said all that, it is certainly reasonable to question the long term viability of any of the projects that were funded, as indeed you and others have. Even if we assume the Trust is as good at picking winners as a professional venture firm, history suggests most of these programs (though not necessarily the organizations themselves) will not survive over the long haul.

Andrew Huff said:

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I just now came across this post. Mike, your recollection of our conversation pretty effectively mis-characterizes Gapers Block's situation. Setting aside that a conversation between three people is hardly an "announcement," I did not describe Gapers Block as having "already reached sustainability" -- unless you consider an all-volunteer staff sustainable. I mean, it is, so long as you never want to pay writers. But paying our writers has been a long-term goal, and this grant allows us to begin doing so.

What I told you that night was that the program we're putting in place will be sustainable with advertising revenue once this grant runs out. The grant puts us in a comfortable enough financial situation that we can begin this program -- without it I'm not sure how soon we'd reach that point -- and continue it for the foreseeable future.

So yes, I suppose GB could have forgone this grant and continued struggling along living hand-to-mouth. But the point of these grants was to foster growth and innovation in Chicago's media landscape. Seems like at least for Gapers Block, it's doing what it's intended.

Aaron M. Renn said:

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In fairness, I don't think what Mike wrote is that much different from what you already posted over at Windy Citizen (pay existing writers, sustainable if advertising stays on track), so it isn't like he is tipping confidential info. I think he just put a different spin on what it means than you did wrt sustainability.

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