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New direction as $2bn journalism foundation takes on Facebook man

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By Noel Young, Correspondent

October 26, 2011 | 4 min read

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has joined the board of the Knight Foundation, a sponsor of journalism-innovation projects whose $2 billion in assets derives in part from legacies from family members connected with America's Knight Ridder newspaper empire.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes

Also coming aboard are Joichi Ito, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab and John Palfrey, who runs Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. They’ll take a "venture-capital-like approach to media," according to Bloomberg Business Week.

Already on the board of the Miami-based organisation is Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and currently editor-in-chief of ProPublica, a nonprofit that produces investigative journalism as newsrooms cut back. More experiments like Pro Publica appear likely.

The Knight Foundation says on its website that "It aims to help sustain democracy by leading journalism to its best possible future in the 21st century." Until now, browsing the website, there appears to have been an emphasis on citizen journalism and community journalism - i.e. unpaid work.

One ex-editor commented, "Many journalists will take the view that more emphasis on work for payment is essential. If the foundation is to support that - for example with the investigative journalism initiative - that would be a positive step."

Chris Hughes said that with newspapers losing readers and advertisers to the internet and people communicating via social media and mobile devices,

“We need to be approaching these questions and these problems with an attitude more akin to venture capital, than with the attitude of a foundation.”

Foundation president Alberto Ibarguenis said they were shifting their strategy from charity to “social investing” as news and information delivery becomes digital. Since 2007, the foundation has invested more than $100 million in new technology for news and information, in more than 200 experiments, according to its website.

“Traditionally in the nonprofit sector, because an idea is founded on fate so much of the time, or founded on hope, the typical thing would be for someone to continue and continue until they ran out of money,” Ibarguen said. “An entrepreneur would find a creative way to make it work.”

John Palfrey said, “It’s about investment both in core activities that relate to media and information needs, as well as invented ones that cross the boundaries of what journalism is and what media is.” Palfrey is author of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.”

Jiochi Ito told Bloomberg that events like the Arab Spring, a wave of protests which the world followed on Twitter and YouTube, show traditional media professionals must be digitally savvy.

Programming and data analysis should be as integrated in journalism as photography or audio, he said, speaking in an interview.

“A lot of foundations look to the Knight Foundation to set an example for doing new things,” Ito said. “Bringing us guys on the board will hopefully send an interesting message.”

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