Tactical Philanthropy Podcast: Alberto Ibarguen

Today’s podcast interview is with Alberto Ibarguen, the CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation has its roots in the newspaper business and today makes grants that transform journalism and communities. Alberto was publisher of the Miami Herald before he joined the foundation in 2005.

During the interview, Alberto discusses the foundations effort to hire an “online community manager”, why one of the Knight Foundation’s major projects might make some people “vomit on the table” (and why he’s OK with that), how the foundation is planning on funding “wonderful strangeness”, and the promise of “prize philanthropy”.

(Please be patient while you wait for the audio file to download. The transcript is below.)

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Alberto will be responding to comments, so let us know your thoughts. You can read the transcript by clicking on the link below.

(Full disclosure: my brother is currently on a Knight Fellowship at Stanford. However, he was not involved in any way with the production of this content nor in setting up the interview).

Sean Stannard-Stockton: Hello and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy Blog and Principal and Director of the Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is Alberto Ibarguen. Alberto is CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation has its roots in the newspaper business and today makes grants that transform journalism and communities. Alberto was publisher of the Miami Herald before he joined the foundation in 2005. Alberto thanks so much for joining us.

Alberto: I’m glad to be here, thanks.

Sean: So first I want to start off and just briefly — the foundation was funded by brothers, John and James Knight. They made their money in the newspaper business.

Alberto: Yes.

Sean: And today the foundation makes grants to, in your words, transform journalism and lead it into the digital age. I believe that the big challenge for philanthropy in the coming decades will be learning how to share information to make the world a better place. What can you tell us from your experience about the challenges and opportunities that the shift to digital information distribution brings with it to journalism and in a broader sense to philanthropy.

Alberto: Well I’ll tell you. First of all just a very minor correction, the foundation was funded by the two brothers and by their mother. It was always separate from the company that the brothers ran. And the foundation was set up by the three of them over time. And they always had journalism and community as the two overriding principles of the — purposes of the foundation. They didn’t prescribe how they wanted the foundation run, or specifically what issues they wanted the foundation to deal with. Which they did on purpose in order to allow subsequent generations of trustees and obviously foundation administration to decide how we should build community and how we should address the issues of excellence in journalism in future generations.

I think there is no doubt in my mind that what we are doing today with the digital revolution, with what we are doing today at Knight Foundation and funding the Knight News Challenge and funding the initiatives we are doing with community foundations, which I’d be glad to tell you about, and funding the Knight Commission on the information needs of communities in a democracy at the Aspen Institute. These are things the Knight brothers would never have imagined but I think they are exactly the kinds of things that the Knight brothers would be doing if they were alive today.

Sean: So it seems to me that for a lot of the business world, the digital revolution looks for the most part to be an opportunity. But for journalism in particular a whole set of challenges have come up. And people have been wrestling with how does journalism function in the digital age and so — what are the challenges and opportunities you think for journalism and how does the Knight Foundation help journalism work through that?

Alberto: Well I think first of all I don’t want to be too corny, but think about our history; Jack Knight was a guy who ran a newspaper in Akron, Ohio. Thanks to new technology, something brand new then called the telephone; he was able to build the second biggest newspaper company in America. He was a guy who understood that you — that change can be discontinuous but change is — the kind of new technology that came along in his day was something that he used as an opportunity.

I think that’s how we ought to approach this. Just like other businesses. It’s not just — at Knight Foundation we don’t have a newspaper that we are running. We’re not affiliated with a television station. We don’t have an interest in any of the telcos. What we do have is a huge interest in making sure that communities have the kind of information they need to manage their business.

We are awash in information and yet at the local level, at the community level, we find that there is less and less usable information of the kind that newspapers and local television stations used to provide. So we can either wring our hands and say, oh dear, I wish we were back in 1966 when things were different. Or we can say, all right who’s got ideas out there? And that’s what we decided to do.

Last year we had our first year of the Knight News Challenge. We offered five million dollars for ideas for using digital platforms to deliver news and information on a timely basis to a geographically defined community. Why do we do that? Doesn’t that sound suspiciously like what newspapers and local television used to do except on digital platforms, number one. And number two; we did it that way because virtual communities don’t need our help to propagate, to do their business. By using the Internet, using the web, using digital technology for informing geographically defined communities, I think it does need help. I think it does need focus.

The reason it’s important is that we still elect the people who decide — who decide and define environmental policy, education of your kids, who fixes the potholes, who doesn’t, or whether to fix the potholes in a particular community. All of that is still done by geographically defined communities, by election in geographically defined communities.

So I think it’s really — and we still live in geographically defined towns. And I think it’s important that we figure out how to share the kind of information we need for these entities called communities to run themselves and figure out how to do it digitally. It isn’t going to — it just isn’t an option, in my view, to sit around and say I wish we were all reading the newspaper or I wish we were all listening to a one-hour local news report on television. That’s gone and — or at least it’s gone in the way that we knew it. And with the kind of reach that it used to have.

Is it your cup of tea that you get your news and information on your cell phone, on your telephone? It may not be but it certainly would be somebody else’s. And that’s why last year, for example, as part of the contest we gave a grant to MTV to hire and they have hired 51 young people to cover the presidential campaign on cell phone.

So they will be covering it, texting and video clipping the presidential campaign in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. And then once a week MTV will, or several times a week I guess, MTV will run, “the best of” and if you want to get Mary’s report from Iowa or Pete’s report from Kansas send in your telephone number at this website and you can sign up and get the report.

Now some people will listen to this and they’ll just vomit on the table. They just, they will absolutely — they just won’t be able to stand the idea that you can actually deliver serious news and substantive news and information in such a frivolous way.

Well that’s too bad and so for them I recommend they continue subscribing to the newspaper, which is delivering information in a way that suits them. But for a whole generation of people who are used to using their telephone, their cell phone as a primary means of communication, this is going to make the presidential campaign something that happens as part of their lives. It’s kid to kid. It’s on the preferred medium of — the preferred platform of information. And I think the worst that will happen is those folks will be touched by an important civic event, the presidential campaign. But what I really think is going to happen is that we’re going to learn a lot about how to deliver serious news on these other platforms.

Sean: Okay, so let’s talk a little more about The Knight News Challenge for the listeners that don’t know the background. And Alberto you want to add anything to this? The News Challenge, you’ve committed 25 million dollars for the next couple of years that you are going to award as, essentially, prizes to people who have the best concepts on how to transform community news. Is that a good characterization?

Alberto: That’s a great characterization and really what we’re willing to do is give you the money to carry out your experiment or your innovation. And the reason why it’s not exactly without rules, because it does have to be a digital platform. It does have to be news and information timely shared. And it does have to be for a geographically defined community. But outside of that we decided to have no other rules. And the reason for that is that we did not want, by setting up a bunch of rules, we did not want to get back variations of things we had already imagined. What we are looking for were fresh ideas and we’re willing to fund the experiment. We are willing to fund the innovation.

Sean: This sort of philanthropy, generally referred to as prize philanthropy, where part of the outcome here is that not only are you going to fund a set of people who have these ideas but you’re going to motivate another group of people who don’t end up getting the award to actually put their idea into action enough to pitch it to you. And some of those other ideas may very well go on and do their work with some other sort of funding.

Alberto: That’s exactly right. And by the way we actually, last year when there were a number of ideas that the staff did not feel were appropriate or were not as good as some of the ones we funded, we actually introduced the people who proposed them, the potential grantees; we introduced them to other potential funders so that the ideas could move forward with others.

Sean: Do you think that prize philanthropy is sort of something that can be used really broadly in philanthropy or is it really just kind of transformational type projects?

Alberto: Hmm. Well I’m not, explain to me what you mean by really broadly?

Sean: In other words, prize philanthropy is being used by different foundations for different purposes. But it is a very, very, very small piece of the overall grants made. And so do you see prize philanthropy as continuing to have a very kind of niche piece of what foundations do or could it grow into something that maybe most foundations have some sort of prize philanthropy grant in progress.

Alberto: I think it will grow and I think, exactly how much it will grow I suppose we’ll all get to see. But here’s why I think it will grow. I think it will grow because we have the capacity to get back — how should I say this? We have the capacity to get back the ideas we can fund. We have the technology and we have the attitude among people that is different from “I write, you read” or “I broadcast and you listen.” And instead the new model is I produce and we participate. And that’s a very different way of thinking about how to approach community issues than before where the foundation might say we are interested in journalism and we will fund a — we will endow a chair of journalism in sports and society. That’s not one I made up that’s one we actually did. We will endow a chair in investigative reporting, we will endow a chair in you name the subject and we probably endowed a chair in it.

Sean: You know at the Council on Foundations community foundation meeting down in San Francisco this year and I spoke on the morphing media panel. And I forget who it was, but somebody wrote an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle that day talking about community foundations’ roll in community news reporting.

Alberto: Right. That was Dan Gilmore.

Sean: Yeah. Right.

Alberto: In the San Francisco — and I spoke the next day at the lunch and I used part of his column and that’s when I was, actually, sort of talking slightly extemporaneously and — this is a true story. I actually had a speech written for the lunch and I actually got bored with my own speech and I thought this is ridiculous I don’t want to talk about this. I want to talk about information in community and that’s when I got off on that tangent and then in the course of talking I said, “You guys probably aren’t involved in this but none of you are involved in it, even though it is clearly a core need of your community. Maybe you’re not involved because you’re scared or maybe you’re not involved because you don’t know enough about media.”

So here’s what we’ll do. We’ll invite all you people down to Miami in February, which got some acceptance. And we’ll hold an information seminar. So actually, the seminar we’re holding on February 20th is cosponsored by the Council on Foundations and ourselves. And the idea is to bring these 250 people, both executives of community foundations and board members, and have them first of all accept that it’s a core need and second of all consider whether this is a roll they would like to play. And if is, we’re willing to match them.

Sean: That sounds really great. One of the themes of my blog in recent weeks has been efficient markets in philanthropy and how efficient markets require really good information that’s widely distributed. And that’s true across funders trying to make grants to people trying to make political decisions. And as a financial advisor, efficient markets in financial markets mean one thing and I think that philanthropy is kind of desperately in need right now of more efficiency in the sense of efficient markets and information flow. So it’s a great roll for you guys.

Alberto: Well that’s great. I — well you’ve just given me yet another reason to pay more attention to your blog. Thanks.

On a different topic here is our thinking about arts in Miami. We believe that arts, public education, and sports are a great way for Miamians who come from all parts of the world to form a common experience and create a new Miami. There’s a place that’s going to develop a fusion culture, it’s going to be this one where half of us were born in another country and ¾ of us were born some place other than Miami. So we’re in the middle of a major effort to fund various arts projects in the city.

Some of our endowment, some of our grant making, are endowment grants to the art museum to the local symphony. But half of our endowments and this is back to where we were talking about before. Half of our grant making in this round is really offering to the community an opportunity to tell us their ideas for making art in Miami. And the way that will work is we’ll offer twenty million dollars, four million dollars a year for each of five years, for ideas about making art in South Florida. If we like your idea, we’ll invite a proposal. If we end up liking the proposal, we will ask you for how you are going to match our contribution. And if you want to write an opera or write a poem or run a museum or do whatever the project is, we’re interested in hearing from you. And I think this is a way that between the twenty million dollars we’ll do in endowments to two museums and an orchestra, and the twenty million dollars we will offer to people in general, plus the twenty million dollars that they will bring in matching grants, it’s 60 million dollars in a period of five years. That I think can really have a transformative kind of influence in a city like Miami.

Sean: I want to ask you…

Alberto: And let me just say one other thing Sean, and that is what I hope will come out of this is ideas that we would simply never have imagined. I can imagine the 50,000 kids that are going to go through the art museum — that’s at the Miami Art Museum. I can imagine the new technology that they use at New World Symphony and I can imagine the cutting edge art that they can do at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I want to believe — I do believe, I’m actually betting 20 million dollars on believing — that I cannot imagine the number and variety and depth and wonderful strangeness of the ideas that are going to come out when we ask people, as generally as we intend to, when we ask people what are — how do you want to make art?

Sean: Wonderful strangeness, that’s a great line. I want to talk specifically about a job that you are hiring for now with the title of online community manager.

Alberto: Online community manager, right.

Sean: And so philanthropy is slowly moving into the digital age. It’s only in the last year to two years that there has really been all that much kind of a robust conversation across different blogs and online platforms.

Alberto: Mm-hmm.

Sean: And as far as I know you’ll be the first foundation to hire for this, with this job title. What are you trying to create with this and why is it a need for your foundation?

Alberto: Well, we’re — it seems to me that everything that I’ve just talked about is an acknowledgment that the future is participatory. We’re going to — the day of the website that says, here is what I am or who I am and you come — there is a value in being able to come to the Knight Foundation’s website and finding out what we did in the past. But it isn’t really going to tell you what we might be thinking about or what we might be developing for the future. It certainly isn’t — it certainly doesn’t do — speaking, really, very selfishly, it doesn’t do anything for me to have a website, it just costs me money. What I really want is a place that fits the way people are thinking about information these days. A place where we might fund you or somebody else to write something that will provoke a debate or will pull it from someplace else. That will suggest a way of attacking a particular either social problem or interesting problem in journalism or interesting problem in philanthropy.

And I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that you can simply post and hope that other people will have comments for. If you look at most of the newspaper stories these days that will allow readers to post a comment afterward, it’s really pretty static and the responses are, “cool story,” “I hate this story”, “why didn’t you also…” The responses are sort of one-liners if you will. And they’re not structured as a discussion. They are not structured even as a debate. But just as sort of throw away lines.

In order to have a real, live ongoing discussion, I think — and Mark Fest, who has worked with me on this, we really believe that you’ve got to have somebody who is not simply of the web. Who is not simply digitally natural but is also somebody who is curious about the issues that we deal in, who is concerned about the questions that effect philanthropy, who is concerned about the questions of information in the 21st Century. And somebody who is going to be doing as much reading and provoking discussion as he or she is going to be hosting discussion. That’s the platform we want, we are preparing for this person. But the platform itself is kind of an inanimate object. You’ve really got to have a human being who is really going to drive and make that place exciting. And what would thrill me more than anything is to have that become the place where people go to debate issues that matter to them.

Sean: So it seems to me that most foundations have been extremely hesitant to do much of anything online. And just since this last fall, for whatever reason, I’ve seen more and more people from foundations, at Packard and Kellogg and where ever, interacting on my blog and interacting on some other blogs. I kind of have the sense that institutional sized foundations will have to, over time, become involved in the digital community. It’s not just a choice that they make, but it’s something that they will essentially have to do. Do you think that the online community manager roll is unique to the Knight Foundation or do you imagine that over time many, many large foundations will have similar type rolls you know managing the foundation’s interaction in the digital world?

Alberto: Well, first I sense the same thing as you that there is more and more interest in engaging the web. There’s more and more interest in foundations and engaging the web. I will tell you my one personal, deep disappointment in all of this is that Jonathan Fanton who is president of the MacArthur Foundation got an avatar on Second Life sooner than I did. I’m really ticked off about that. But separate from that, I really think you’ve got — if you are going to engage people, you can’t wait for them to come to you. And I don’t see how you do our work; I don’t see how you do our business in philanthropy without engaging the community, without engaging the people that you’re trying to work with.

I think anybody who has that worldview simply then will look at, what are the ways you do it? You can do it by wading into a crowd in physical space or you can do it by wading into a crowd in virtual space. Either way works. I think we ought to be doing both. And I think people will be doing both.

Sean: Well, Alberto I really appreciate your time today.

Alberto: My pleasure. Thank you very much for your interest in what we are doing and stay in touch.

Sean: This has been the Tactical Philanthropy podcast you can visit us at tacticalphilanthropy.com. You can learn more about Alberto and the Knight Foundation at the knightfoundation.org. Thank you so much for listening.


  1. phil says:

    Alberto, thank you for joining the blog conversation, even without our Second Life Avatar. Your hiring a person to drive conversation online is a milestone in not only internet history but the history of foundations. When the person is designated many of us will join with Sean in welcoming your person to the online conversation of giving.

  2. Joseph Shenton says:

    A year late and still short(viz.me). Congratulations to Colombia High School’s most esteemed graduate. I’m living on the Northwestern campus, puttering around The Spirituality of Imperfection.