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Journalism Program Strategy

The Foundation’s previous activities were shaped by the life cycle of a journalist: youth media, college journalism programs, mid-career trainings and news leadership initiatives. Following a Foundation-wide strategic planning process in 2010, the Board approved a restructuring of the Journalism Program’s activities around News Literacy and its role as a catalyst for informing and engaging citizens.

The shift in strategy creates an opportunity for the Journalism Program to further honor the legacy of Col. McCormick. Our founder was devoted to quality journalism, First Amendment values and journalistic innovation. He knew how to build a loyal audience and how to keep it properly informed, engaged and entertained. He believed that nothing is more critical to the vitality of a democracy than a free, vigorous news media that provides citizens the information they need to make reasoned decisions.

Content, Audience and Rights

The News Literacy emphasis is supported by grantmaking initiatives in Content, Audience and Rights (CAR). Staff research and board guidance agree that the current supply of quality journalists is not the problem. There are enough highly trained and experienced professional journalists, many of them under-employed or working in other professions.

Our refined strategy bolsters an informed citizenry by investing in quality news content and educating people—especially students—to better appreciate the importance of news and protecting journalistic rights. Last year, we announced our intention to fund fewer international projects, general support grants for media trade associations, new business model investments and management training projects. In 2011, our grantmaking strategy includes more Chicago investment and increased support for youth media and news literacy activities.

We recognize the competitive nature of seeking grants to fund journalism projects. In fact, we are able to invest in only a fraction of the interesting requests received each year. In 2010, for instance, we received more than 200 formal letters of inquiry requesting about $17 million in support. Furthermore, with a slightly reduced 2011 budget of $5.5 million, it’s imperative that we find efficiencies and focus on quality implementation and impact of programs.

That’s why we’re putting stronger emphasis on performance measurement in 2011 and adding rigor to existing evaluation work to provide a pathway for the Journalism Program going forward. We’re also coordinating and funding more field-building collaborations and partnerships to maximize the impact of our work.

The Refined Approach

A growing sector of the U.S. population does not distinguish between professional journalists, information spinners and citizen voices. The 24/7 news cycle and digital advances in disseminating information serve to further exacerbate this challenging situation.

Our News Literacy goals are to educate and energize citizens—especially students—about the value of news and assist them in developing a framework for assessing information. In addition, our grantees will help citizens increase their ability to find critical information and develop a sense of ethics as digital citizens and media makers. We believe that the process begins in middle school and touches new Americans and under-served populations with the ultimate goal of a more engaged, informed citizenry. Our research and analysis show news literacy programs provide:

  • A frame of reference to distinguish fact from fiction, opinion or propaganda.
  • An understanding of the First Amendment, the role of a free, independent media and the importance of journalistic values.
  • A curiosity to seek information and better understand communities, country and international affairs.
  • Help in navigating the myriad sources of digital information in a more skeptical and informed manner.
  • A foundation for exercising civility, respect and care in the exchange of information.

These priorities are especially important to youth as they seek to collect, analyze and produce credible information. Thus, to be news literate is to build knowledge, think critically, act civilly and participate in the democratic process.

"Someone aware of the values and skills underlying good journalism can better sort valid information from the mere mediocre, and truth from distortion," said Rex Smith, editor of the Albany Times Union. "These are tasks fundamental to active citizenship."

McCormick Foundation grantee Sandy Close of New America Media said the challenge of news literacy "is as great, if not greater, for producers of news content. The danger is that in our obsession to keep pace with new media and social media, we can end up with a narrower, more parochial news lens than we had in the days of mainstream news domination."

Our new focus on nurturing quality news content around timely topics is intended to stimulate the audience’s hunger for and understanding of news. The impact of the Journalism Program also will be fortified by support for basic press freedoms.

A. Content

Our Content category addresses the continuous need to improve journalistic context, depth and quality. The need for such investment is increased by the significant downsizing of reporting staffs. Among the hardest hit sectors are investigative news units, specialized beat reporters and top-flight subject editors.

The new landscape also has prompted the Journalism Program to pursue funding opportunities in not-for-profit news models and investigative centers. Our 2011 grantee list includes support for local, regional and national models, skill-building trainings and quality, non-profit news organizations through content-producing partnership and distribution networks. The following projects exemplify the McCormick Foundation’s support of quality journalism and specialized training intended to lead to a better informed and more actively engaged public.

  • Specialized Reporting Institutes. The McCormick Foundation has a tradition of supporting watchdog journalism, mid-career fellowship programs, journalism school curriculum reforms and reporting workshops. This year, we retained the Poynter Institute to administer the expanding series of Specialized Reporting Institutes. These intensive journalism workshops are designed to provide subject-specific expertise and practical skills to working journalists.

  • Medill School of Journalism for the Watchdog Initiative and Center for Innovation in Technology/Media. Medill has launched an investigative reporting unit to tackle government and civic accountability, with a primary focus on Chicago and the Midwest. The students and professors assigned to the unit will be assisted by data access and analytic tools of the Center for Innovation, which is headquartered in the NU McCormick School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. This year-round, news-producing unit partners with professional news outlets, with an imperative to publish and display its work.

  • Chicago Public Media. Vocalo.org will launch a content collaboration program that will create partnerships with media serving youth and community audiences. Vocalo will spearhead a new partnership program that will include a network of youth and community media partners for journalism training and production collaboration.

  • Investigative News Network. The not-for-profit investigative news movement was galvanized two summers ago with a convening at the Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Two dozen leaders of these groups met to discuss ways of sharing resources, data and distribution channels. Today, that group has grown into a nationwide organization of non-profit investigative journalism known as the Investigative News Network. MF funding will assist in content development and back-office services for INN members.

B. Audience

The Audience initiative recognizes our shift in focus from the newsroom to those who consume news. Today’s audiences are less passive, more engaged and eager to interact with news sources. Our work with young people, community news organizations and scholastic journalism programs has fueled interest in the potential of audience building.

This new and biggest initiative includes support for middle school and high school news literacy curriculum, scholastic journalism programs, teacher trainings, youth media field building activities and research on innovative approaches of engaging audiences—especially youth audiences. The following programs support our theory that through journalism and news literacy education, teenagers become more knowledgeable news consumers, more successful academically and ultimately more engaged as citizens:

  • Stony Brook University. As a follow-up to its national News Literacy Summit in 2009, the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University will convene university and high school educators, policy makers and news media leaders to help evaluate and grow News Literacy initiatives across the nation. The March 2011 summit will address ways to develop and refine protocols on teaching, distributing and assessing news literacy curriculum, practices and resources. One key track will focus on educating news literacy teachers on how to use standardized assessment tools in high schools and universities
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  • The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University will establish a Youth & Media Lab, bringing together young people, teachers, lawyers and researchers to creatively gauge the information quality and credibility challenges of digital media. The team will develop a series of on- and off-line educational instruments for middle and high-school use, such as a credibility assessment and an information literacy curriculum. Youth & Media Lab activities will include: a) Research on youth and social media practices with emphasis on content creation, information literacy and privacy; b) Curriculum to improve youth information literacy skills, to be piloted online as well as with McCormick youth media and news literacy partners in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York; and c) Development of tools to be used as "navigation aids for cyberspace."

  • Free Spirit Media in collaboration with the Chicago Youth Voices Network will coordinate a youth media field-building initiative and serve as ambassadors at large for the Chicago youth media community. FSM will develop college pathways for youth media students through scholarships, informational sessions, assistance on admissions and financial aid applications, and coordinate evaluation with McCormick staff and youth media organizations to develop common assessment standards and tools.

C. Rights

Col. Robert R. McCormick’s unwavering support of First Amendment freedoms and legal protections for journalists are cornerstones of the Journalism Program. Promoting freedom of expression and access to information will remain key program elements. Our funding of First Amendment activities focuses on protecting journalists needing assistance with transparency, accountability and accessibility issues. McCormick Foundation grantees will train journalists, educate the public and assist news organizations in their effort to shed light on questionable government activity. We are especially interested in developing partnerships with organizations that assist and protect journalists covering corruption in Illinois.

In 2011, grantees such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Better Government Association will continue to monitor and challenge abuses, examine restrictive laws and strengthen support for press freedoms. The Journalism Program has identified additional approaches for assessing gaps in the flow of news and information, as well as improvements in policy needed to make Chicago a leading hub of journalistic innovation. For example:

  • Chicago Headline Club is conducting a 2011 survey to assess the city and state in terms of FOIA laws, transparency, press freedoms (including rights for student journalists) and open records/open meetings. The findings will help the Foundation develop a strategy for targeting investment in school curricula, government transparency and related areas.

  • The Center for Social Media (CSM) at American University (AU) will research how fair use and copyright policies impact professional standards in digital journalism. CSM will perform a scan of current standards and practices in U.S. journalistic organizations, including newspapers, magazines, broadcast news outlets, blogs and aggregators. The project will include a two-day conference for journalists, bloggers and community reporters to share preliminary results of the research. CSM will distribute a conference report and identify next steps for the creation of a code of best practices.

  • Better Government Association (BGA) will host online public forums on their recently revamped website and post more national rankings of Illinois government units and civic engagement indicators. To encourage transparency, the digital upgrades will provide open access to an e-Advocacy tool that will provide "take action" features such as contact with representatives, signing petitions and online watchdog training sessions. BGA will also develop news apps that help citizens visualize and localize data.

Impact and Evaluation

The Journalism Program staff actively monitors and evaluates the performance of grantees.  In addition to a detailed annual evaluation form and an independent analysis of our portfolio, the staff visits or interviews each grantee at least twice per year.

The Common Reporting Form, which is now online, asks for detailed information on performance measurements such as accomplishments, impact, obstacles and capacity building improvements. The data is then collected and analyzed by Philiber Research Associates, which then conducts a series of follow-up interviews with grantees and other journalism funders.

In its most recent evaluation report (March 2009), Philiber said the projects we funded:

  • Employed about 1,100 full- and part-time staff
  • Reached more than 600,000 people with their programs
  • Held more than 240 "knowledge" events that connected with nearly 100,000 journalists, policymakers, educators and students
  • Produced more than 200 reports, books, podcasts, videos and other relevant material
  • Provided training and educational opportunities to about 1,000 journalists.

In November 2010, the McCormick Foundation welcomed on board McCormick’s first Director of Evaluation of Learning and Evaluation, Rebekah Levin, who works closely with the Journalism Program and the McCormick Foundation’s other operating units to improve our evaluation and reporting processes.

Next Steps

Although we are committed to aggressive funding in the Chicago area, we recommend continued investment in select, innovative national initiatives that address content, audiences and press freedom. Three factors make a continued national presence an important part of our strategy:

  • McCormick can continue to find ways to harness innovative practices at the national level and apply them to work being done in the Chicago area.
  • McCormick can continue to raise the profile of Chicago-area work by drawing the attention of national organizations and funders, thereby leveraging our investments.
  • McCormick has a well-earned legacy and strong national branding for its commitment to journalism. Selected future national investments that connect with our priority areas will fortify that reputation.

By the end of 2011, we will settle on a portfolio mix between local and national grantmaking that yields optimal leverage of Foundation investments. We plan to increase the level of local funding to as much as 70 percent in the next few years. The goal is to build our presence in the Chicago area and solidify the McCormick Foundation’s reputation as a national leader and the region’s most influential news media grantmaker.