A Shared Goal of Informing the Public

  • June 15, 2018

Knight Foundation and Pew have long believed that an informed electorate is essential to a strong democracy.

Pew's Philanthropic Partnership Group

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Commuters read the news on paper and digital devices during their commute in New York City.

With the decline in newspapers and the rise of digital information sharing, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation was interested in learning how Americans were getting their news and how these changes might influence how well-informed and civically active the national electorate is—or isn’t.

It was a natural path of inquiry for Knight, whose founders built one of the United States’ most successful newspaper companies: Knight Newspapers, which later became Knight-Ridder Inc., with 32 dailies in cities from Philadelphia—which happens to be Pew’s hometown—to San Jose.

It also was a natural path of inquiry for the Pew Research Center, which has conducted survey research and analysis of journalism and the media business for more than two decades. A subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Washington-based center is a self-described nonpartisan “fact tank,” whose mission is to generate data that enrich public dialogue and support sound decision-making.

Building on these shared interests, a partnership between Knight and Pew resulted in a series of five reports in 2016 and 2017 that documented the dramatic changes in how the public receives, digests, and engages in the news in the modern day. The “Digital Age” reports received widespread attention in the media itself, with extensive coverage of the findings in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Agence France-Press, The Atlantic, and many other major outlets. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted about the findings, as did The Washington Post’s media columnist, and researchers at American University presented the findings to visiting Chinese journalists.

“We know that the morning paper that everyone got on their doorstep and was part of their day, which included a host of expert local writers, is gone,” says Sam Gill, Knight’s vice president of communities and impact and a senior adviser to the foundation’s president. “There’s a lot of discussion going on about what that relationship is between journalism and people’s sense of attachment and advocacy to their community—the Digital Age work was important because it began to unpack some of those questions.”

One report examined the news habits of civically engaged people and found that a connection to one’s community and always voting in local elections is closely associated with strong ties to local news: Nearly 60 percent of those highly attached to their community follow local news closely, about twice the share of those less attached.

Another report, “The Modern News Consumer,” documented the significant shakeup in news consumption habits, with mobile phones now rivaling desktop or laptop computers as people’s primary pathway to digital news. And while TV remains the dominant—and favorite—news source among the public overall, that is driven by the news habits of those age 50 and older, while digital sources dominate for those under 50.

The reports reflected the center’s research expertise and ability to dive deeply into subjects. One study of the public’s reading habits analyzed 117 million anonymous smartphone interactions with 74,840 news articles from 30 news websites. It found that, even on a smartphone, people spend significantly more time with long-form news articles than short-form. That finding, based on real readership data, prompted the president of the prestigious Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and training center, to comment on Twitter that “even in the mobile news era, Pew Research Center finds readers will still consume long-form journalism.”

The center’s thorough research was a major attraction in spurring Knight’s interest for a partnership.

“Knight has been delighted to partner with Pew on a number of projects through the years, but this set of research questions was particularly suited to exploiting the talents of an institute that combines depth, quality, and rigor of research with unparalleled expertise that enables that depth and rigor, that is authoritative and open to the kind of changes the research sought to explore,” says Gill.

Knight is based in Miami, where its founders once owned the Miami Herald. And it has long been interested in journalism and its impact on communities. The foundation previously supported a 2015 study by the center called “Local News in a Digital Age,” which examined how residents of disparate metro areas—Denver; Macon, Georgia; and Sioux City, Iowa—received local information. The center employed multiple types of quantitative research in each place, including cataloging all of the news providers, a content analysis of the news produced in one week, a public opinion survey of residents focused on their local news habits and civic engagement, and an examination of Facebook and Twitter posts in each area.

The report concluded that “whether in a tech-savvy metropolis or a city where the town square is still the communication hub, local news matters deeply to the lives of residents.”

The center’s journalism and internet research dovetails neatly with Knight’s mission. “Knight Foundation exists to promote democracy in the United States, and we do that by supporting programs that inform and engage citizens in their communities,” says Alberto Ibargüen, the foundation’s president. “Understanding how people acquire, engage with, and disseminate information in the digital age is core to that mission. The Pew Research Center is the gold standard of collecting and analyzing this type of data, which is why we have fruitfully and repeatedly partnered with them on research—and plan to continue to do so.”

And for his part, center President Michael Dimock welcomes like-minded philanthropic partners for collaborations.

“Knight is among the leading funders of media research in the country, and dedicated to the idea that informed and engaged communities are the bedrock of democracy—much in the way Pew believes in the power of knowledge to inform the public and invigorate civic life,” he says. “Knight was the ideal partner to help us explore how people are consuming and connecting with news in the digital information era, both for their expertise and their willingness to invest in innovative research approaches.”

Knight is also active promoting arts and community projects in every city where the chain once operated newspapers—just as The Pew Charitable Trusts is committed to its home city of Philadelphia, where Knight used to own The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

Gill says the two organizations share a sense of public spiritedness that goes beyond partnerships like the Pew Research Center reports.

In Philadelphia, Pew and Knight have both supported new landscaping for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, one of the city’s most majestic thoroughfares. And the two organizations were instrumental in helping with the relocation of the Barnes Foundation and its world-renowned art collection from its original home on Philadelphia’s Main Line to a new home, lauded by critics as an architectural achievement, near Center City.

More recently Knight and Pew were part of a consortium that helped create Bartram’s Mile, a 1.1-mile greenway along the banks of the Schuylkill River that connects the oldest botanic garden in North America—and also the only park in Southwest Philadelphia—with the surrounding community. Since Bartram’s Mile opened in April of last year, it has changed the landscape for its surrounding community, reconnecting it not only to Bartram’s Garden but also providing it easy access to the Schuylkill.

“The longtime relationship between Knight and Pew has resulted in many benefits for the communities we care about,” says Gill. “And we look forward to more shared interests and more collaboration on the future of digital information and democracy.”

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6525 or sobrien@pewtrusts.org.