This is the second of a three-part essay on my first six months at the News Integrity Initiative. You can read part one here.
If you will indulge me, part two of reflecting on my first six months at the News Integrity Initiative is a bit more personal than part one.
Change is hard.
Before I came to the News Integrity Initiative, I had worked at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey for nearly twelve years. Learning the ropes of a new job after being in one place for twelve years has, on a couple of occasions, reduced me to tears.
In particular, the first four months of the job were intense, long days focused on developing the overarching strategy for NII, building relationships with and getting buy-in from the NII executive committee, setting up a grantmaking system from scratch, getting used to a new (longer) commute, interviewing more than a dozen people in search of a team member, fielding hundreds of emails about all sorts of things, soliciting proposals, and too many other tasks too mundane to list here.
I think I am over the hump of those exhausting days, but what I grappled with, and continue to grapple with more than the volume of the work, is having to adopt a significantly different decision-making mindset.
How to Connect the Dots?
In two ways, NII is substantially different than working for Dodge. First, Dodge is a place-based foundation, which means that geography sits at the top of its decision tree. Is the organization or proposed work in New Jersey? No? Sorry, Dodge can’t even consider it. Geography offers an incredibly useful way to narrow your focus, as well as a powerful way to logically and strategically organize your work.
NII, however, has no specific geographic focus, and I have spent a great deal of time thinking about whether it should. Should NII choose a handful of places where we support a critical mass of organizations in those places and go deep with them? Or is the work more logically structured around ideas (e.g. “trust” and “manipulation”) and we can have impact in places wherever we are funding work?
For me — and perhaps this is my geography bias — the concern when funding projects across great distances is that they can feel disconnected and disjointed. NII has taken a hybrid approach. We do cover a lot of distance with our grants, because NII is meant to be a global initiative, but we take advantage of opportunities that are connected by geography (for example, Free Press’ News Voices and Education NC’s Reach NC Voices projects in North Carolina).
Rethinking and Designing for Impact
The second significant difference is that NII is a finite project — finite dollars, finite time (four years) to make an impact. Although NII may get extended for perhaps one or two years beyond that with additional funding, you can imagine the stark difference — when it comes to thinking about impact — between working for a well-established organization with deep roots, connections and 40 years’ worth of work, versus a brand new project that is trying to accomplish meaningful change in four years.
So I spend a lot of time thinking about what is reasonable to accomplish in four years, and how we can take a $14 million project and make it feel like a $50 million impact in a very short amount of time. And I think the key here is really emphasizing that NII as a project goes well beyond the grantmaking itself.
In addition to grants, we expect to host events and convenings to learn from smart people around the world, and help share their knowledge and expertise with others. We expect to amplify the research we are supporting and help newsrooms apply the information and ideas to their work. We know that we want to help our grantees thoroughly document their work and continually shine a spotlight on what they are learning. And we will try to stitch together the various networks that we are plugged into so that we can help spread valuable lessons, inspiration and solutions as widely as possible. I believe in the power of networks to strengthen, amplify and catalyze work, and with limited resources and limited time, even moreso.
We anticipate frontloading most of our grantmaking activities in the first two years of the project so that we can give our grantees the longest possible runway to make progress on their work. At the same time, this enables us to focus our manpower on all the other activities I just highlighted, which I think will be key to having the capacity to build a body of work and have meaningful impact over the life of the project.
Inspiring People to See What’s Possible
One other question I spend considerable time pondering is, “How do you get people interested and excited about something they haven’t seen — or don’t believe exists or can exist?”
For me, this is the very heart of how NII has to think about its activities moving forward. How do we help inspire and support newsrooms to optimize their work for trust? How can we demonstrate for them that engagement and trust will lead to people investing in the news again? And how do we help communities believe that the kind of news and information they crave is possible, when they feel ignored and invisible, or worse, harmed by journalism?
Obviously, there are no easy answers.
However, I have tremendous optimism and energy for this work because there are so many good, creative, compassionate people leading the charge to rethink how journalism can serve the public. (I don’t want to start a list here, which would inevitably leave people out, but take a look at the grants we’ve made to get to know a few of them.) I am equally inspired by the researchers who have dedicated their careers to understanding and combating mis- and disinformation as it becomes increasingly sophisticated and pervasive.
We are inching toward a critical mass of people talking about and working toward a vision for journalism that builds trust, empathy and solutions in our communities. My fervent hope is that news organizations will look to the example of these journalism pioneers and make the connection — sooner rather than later — that the public will support quality, trustworthy journalism when they feel visible and valued as partners and are invited to be regular, active collaborators with newsrooms.
Special thanks to Julia Haslanger (@JuliaJRH) Umbreen Bhatti (@ub14) Matt DeRienzo (@mattderienzo) and Dana Chisnell (@danachis) for giving me food for thought when I asked for feedback on Twitter. I hope I made some headway on your questions and that we can continue the conversation.
See part three of this series, “Committing to Transparency” here.