When local foundations bought some time to ponder the future of WDUQ, it wasn't just the radio station's future they worried about. It was the future of local media as a whole. And they may yet play a part in reshaping it.
"We and other foundations have been seeking ways to be the bridge for new ways of disseminating quality news," says Doug Root, a spokesperson for the Heinz Endowments. Duquesne University put WDUQ up for sale while those deliberations were going on, Root says. "We were scared of the vacuum" if the station's buyer decided to scrap the National Public Radio programming on its schedule.
When Heinz Endowments joined with three other foundations to buy a 60-day option on WDUQ, the move was widely seen as an effort to "save WDUQ." In many ways, however, WDUQ would have been a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
Grant Oliphant, who heads the Pittsburgh Foundation, notes that "much of our work involves strengthening communities." And one key to a healthy community is a public that is "engaged in decision-making and informed about what's going on." That's why, along with the Heinz Endowments especially, "We're very concerned about the future of journalism."
They aren't alone. Thanks to the recession and readers shifting online, newspapers are hurting. So much so that late last year, Federal Trade Commission head Jon Leibowitz began openly discussing possible government assistance for newspapers.
So what role can grantmakers play, short of establishing halfway houses for recovering journos?
Oliphant says his foundation may announce new initiatives "within the next few weeks" -- though he's careful not to delve into specifics. ("I don't want to mess anything up.") In the meantime, among other things, local foundations are looking at helping to establish new partnerships between existing media outlets, and at spawning new-media upstarts like Voice of San Diego (www.voiceofsandiego.org).
Backed by foundation support, Voice is an online news venture whose staff includes some displaced newspaper journalists. It drew the attention of The New York Times in 2008, after a Voice investigation resulted in the removal of two city redevelopment officials.
Outlets like the Voice, the Times wrote, offer "news coverage and hard-digging investigative reporting." But because the Web produces so little advertising revenue, their business models "mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are ... supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising."
Local foundations have also followed the efforts of the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based grant-maker with roots in the newspaper business. Through its "New Voices" grants, Knight has helped fund upstart community journalism projects around the country -- from Oakland, Calif., to Coral Gables, Fla.
Not all the resulting journalism has shaken the pillars of power ("Dutton/Brady [school] board approves three bus routes," read one recent Knight-funded headline) and some ventures have gone dark since getting Knight funding. But they have provided new forums for community discussion. And as a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism notes, "some partnerships have begun between the old and the new media." Some newspapers, for example, share links and collaborate on reporting with local blogs.
The Knight Foundation's ventures "tend to be really good models for how you could do something here," says Oliphant. But he also notes that "There are a lot of possibilities that don't require us to do something in place of for-profit media." For example, he says, "It isn't too hard to imagine creative partnerships between one of our newspapers and a radio station."
Creating brand-new media platforms is never easy. A decade ago, foundations bankrolled the creation of On Q, a community-affairs TV show that airs weeknights on WQED Channel 13. But despite considerable fanfare, the show's impact on current affairs has been marginal. In March, a WQED official told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that it might be replaced by "a show with a different name or many shows with different names."
And Internet economics remain vexing. Jason Togyer, a former newspaper reporter who runs a blog focused on events in McKeesport, says foundation-backed ventures "could make a small fortune." To do so, however, "They'll have to start with a large fortune."
Indeed, the Pew study noted that even the best websites "still offer fairly limited levels of new content."
But increasingly, the same could be said of old media, too. Says Oliphant, "The opportunity to go deeper and be thoughtful about the things that really matter -- we just don't have the resources to do that anymore."