Alberto Ibargüen

President and CEO,  John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Local Journalism & Democracy: A Conversation with Alberto Ibargüen

April 2022

By Susan Wampler

The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy hosted an illuminating conversation with Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation president and CEO, on March 11, 2022, as part of its Distinguished Speakers Series. Cinny Kennard, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, interviewed Ibargüen about local journalism and its importance to democracy.

Drawing on Ibargüen and Kennard’s extensive media experience, the discussion covered “recent trends in the news industry, the challenges to a healthy and sustainable local information ecosystem, and the prospects for a more vibrant local democracy – including how philanthropy can help,” said James Ferris, PhD, Center director and the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy.

Even though polls show that local reporting is trusted by more people than national news, community-based journalism has been devastated by declining advertising revenues. Meanwhile, the internet that allows voices to reach wider audiences has also given rise to social media that perpetuate misinformation.

Ibargüen noted, though, that this is nothing new, citing the Gutenberg printing press as an example. After that innovation, he said, “any Tom, Dick or Martin Luther can print whatever he wants. And for 100 years, people didn’t know how to tell truth from fiction.” What is different now, he added, is that “information is coming at us at absolutely unprecedented speed.” Technology shifts and corporate consolidation have largely caused a situation in which people are informed nationally and internationally but not locally, he noted.

Sustainable economic models for journalism must be found – whether for profit or not for profit, he said. Kennard referenced Axios Local, which currently serves 14 cities and regions and is aiming to reach 45 locales, as a for-profit example. Ibargüen offered the Voice of San Diego, New Haven Independent, MinnPost and Texas Tribune as nonprofit examples.

News outlets can also shift from for-profit to nonprofit status, as The Salt Lake Tribune did, according to Ibargüen. He also cited the example of philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and donated it to the nonprofit organization now called the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Of course, traditional publishers and broadcasters are held to legal standards that social media platforms are not. “In every other part of the economy, if your product does harm, you have liability. That’s the world we live in – except for media technology online,” Ibargüen said, citing the loopholes allowed by Section 230. The 230 provision generally shields online platforms from the legal responsibilities that publishers and other content creators have.

Even so, Ibargüen urges caution in any attempts to overhaul Section 230. Even with the mis- and disinformation perpetuated through such platforms, he posited that social media is filling a void in reporting—especially in international news. The challenge, he added, is establishing some sort of gatekeeper to ensure accurate information.

“I think if the private sector doesn’t do it, then government will intervene,” Ibargüen said. And if that happens, “it’s a short step to interfering in content.”

Ibargüen also discussed the need to address racism and sexism in the journalism industry. Although women have made enormous strides in newsroom representation, he noted “that is not, by and large, the case with race.”

Addressing intentional and unintentional racism and prejudice, he emphasized, will result in reporting that more accurately represents the communities covered. This will, in turn, further build the trust in journalism felt by diverse groups.


About The Center:

Since its inception in 2000, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy has emphasized research and analysis as a means to deepen the understanding of complex issues in philanthropy and to ensure important topics are addressed by the field. CPPP’s groundbreaking research has led to innovative strategies and insights and powerful partnerships. Now in its third decade, The Center is committed to strengthening philanthropy through sharing knowledge and building networks among foundation leaders and philanthropic families. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information:
Please contact Bhanu Anton Cruz, Senior Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at [email protected] or (213) 740-1776.