An information-age conference for the ages

Thank you to the Knight Foundation for the priceless experience of attending your annual Media Learning Seminar.

I am thankful because Knight generously holds this annual conference for free (attendees pay for travel expenses to their headquarters town of Miami). No, not hazard duty in February, but somebody’s got to go! It’s priceless because of the exposure to best practices and thought leadership and for the hundreds of ideas churning in my head.

How can I distill the experience of drinking from a fire hydrant?

I am going through my notes and looking in the margins at all of the stars, exclamation points and arrows: to “JTW” (our CEO and my boss); to “Patrick” (NCCF IT Manager); “Sally” (Community Leadership Director) and “Affiliates” (our network of 60 foundation partners throughout the state and the regional associates who help to lead them).

That group’s potential reach is not just a cast of thousands. Is there anyone who isn’t touched by the need for information?

It’s what drives Knight: information as it relates to freedom and communities and democracy. If that’s not a mission that will set your hair on fire, I can’t think of one that would.

Information and our sector’s access to information is what set us in the community foundation world apart from commercial funds and others who share our philanthropic space. What differentiates us is our sense of place and knowledge of community and its corresponding needs and opportunities.

That knowledge comes with a big responsibility — to share and use that information and knowledge for the common good. This Knight conference was all about inspiring us to think about this responsibility in new ways, while continuing to use the old strategies that work.

As a former print journalist cum PR/marketing guru, I was fascinated by all the new people spinning new concepts and dropping new terms:

Phone journalism: not just a way to reach younger generations but also those often classified as “disenfranchised.” Even those who can’t afford computers and monthly internet hook-up usually own at least a mid-level “smart” phone that allows connection, instantly. Twitter uprisings don’t even need to be defined anymore.

Ironically, however, it’s easier to get news from your phone about what’s happening in Syria than it is to find out what’s going on in your local community, spawning another new concept:

Media 3.0: it’s about access, not distribution. With the local newspaper undergoing a metamorphosis, redefining itself in the digital age and a bad economy, community foundations in many locations throughout the country are stepping up and partnering with other institutions (libraries, universities, places of worship, formalized groups of displaced reporters — the list goes on) to help make local information accessible.

While a Knight event is of course heavy on “new” – technologies, social media, digital concepts, it was so refreshing to hear many speakers get up and talk about the “old.”

The head of MIT’s Civic Media program reminded us not to forget about the importance of  paper. If your audience doesn’t have access to a computer or a smart phone or a local library (also sadly closing in droves in this economy), finding out where and how they access info is tantamount to your message delivery.

One research project discovered that the residents of an underserved neighborhood got most of their info at the grocery store. Placing paper news inserts into grocery bags provided access to information that residents needed and weren’t getting.

“Youth journalism” is a trend that allows local partnerships with a generation keen to produce content and tell their stories. Ironically, research shows that young people nationwide like to see their articles, poems and artwork in print. Maybe growing up as digital natives makes digital distribution passé on some levels.

Does that make everything old new again? It certainly keeps some old concepts relevant:

While those of us utilizing social media outlets constantly analyze who we are hearing from, is the more pointed question: Who aren’t we hearing from?

And we really need to stop aggregating all social media as though it were one outlet. Facebook demographics are aging and female. LinkedIn is mostly male. Twitter is one-quarter African American, with a high percentage of educated Hispanic female. Pinterest is largely female in the U.S., but interestingly enough, not in the U.K.

While social media outlets have certainly proven invaluable in the communications toolbox, they are just that – a set of tools, a few channels out of many, that we need to continually employ to tell our story — and more importantly, to open up the conversation.

The days of top-down communication are over. Information exchange, creating spaces for dialogues and truly engaging with communities on their needs and their futures are keys to our value as community foundations.

That really boils it all down to the most useful, civil and oldest of communications concepts: listening.