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New Funding Ops, New Fault Lines

As any grant-giver will tell you: It’s hard to give away grant money well.

You want a diverse grant pool – diverse project leaders and diverse communities participating. You want geographic diversity, socio-economic diversity, urban vs. rural diversity, gender diversity, a diversity of ideas and of delivery platforms.

You also want an articulate vision for the project; a suite of tech, outreach and project management skills; and a can-do confidence. And, of course, you want your grantees to succeed: You want to be proud of what they do and not flinch.

Most of all, you want to know whether they will still be around after your funding winds up. Sustainability is a key benchmark for funders, and the bane of grantees.

The staff at J-Lab, with help from consultants and our Advisory Boards, has spent the last couple of months vetting more than 850 proposals seeking funding to start up various news initiatives. Funding for nine New Voices community news projects, selected from 284 of these proposals, was announced yesterday. We are eager to work with this new group of pioneers and share their experiences. And we are proud of the diversity of ideas.

From my perch, though, I see some serious fault lines brewing in the new media ecosystem.

On one hand you have funders wanting to boost the supply of Big-J journalism in their news-beleaguered communities.

On another hand, you have news startups trying to supply some of this juice and often doing it well. But they tend to be traditional voices – of the poli-influential class, speaking to the poli-influential public affairs junkies, and supported by some of the more affluent poli-influentials (people who are politically aware and carry a lot of influence) in the community.

Sifting through some of the rich plankton of the news and information ecosystem, you find indy media, advocacy media, ethnic media, alternative media, youth media, citizen media and others.

Often, these outlets amplify some of the most diverse voices in a community. Yet they frequently don’t do – or even aspire to do – the kind of public affairs journalism that lately has been attracting sponsors or funders.

So, how do you boost civic reporting without leaving them out? At the same time how do you create space for the evolution of new kinds of news and information? And how do you ensure voices for the voiceless?

New digital tools are supposed to make access easy for everyone. To be sure, open contests that issue broad invitations for proposals, such as J-Lab’s New Voices program funded by the Knight Foundation, do give new players access.


But we are starting to hear pleas (even demands) for more. The answer is not easy. It’s not as simple as adding new grants or restricting others to certain members of certain communities. But rather, making sure that everyone knows about funding opportunities, is comfortable with new digital tools, and delivers competitive grant proposals. There is no inalienable right to a grant.  But there is a right to have barriers lowered, access enhanced, and diverse ideas validated.

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