04/12/2011 01:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

How Philanthropy Can Help Create Informed and Engaged Communities

In recent years, the decline in the capacity of the traditional media to cover local news has been swift and sharp, but new forms of local and regional journalism are beginning to show great promise with the help of philanthropists of all shapes and sizes. More funders who care about civic health in their communities can and should consider getting involved in this growing movement, and a new guide from the Knight and William Penn Foundations is helping to orient them to the new landscape.

Nationwide, daily newspapers have shed 15,000 journalism jobs in the past three years, according to the annual census of the American Society of News Editors. The digital age has brought "creative destruction" of traditional media economic models. At the local and regional levels, this has meant a significant decrease in public interest journalism.

In a speech last month, Steven Waldman, senior advisor to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, summed up a growing body of research on the decline of local and regional news by concluding that we've returned to pre-Watergate staffing levels in traditional newsrooms. To be sure, the casualties in the industry have been painful and severe. That's great if you're a public official on the take; less so for the rest of us.

On the plus side, however, the economic tumult has created space for a variety of fresh ideas and business models, bringing new voices into the process of creating high-quality news and information. The journalism produced through these new models is filling important coverage gaps, digging deeper on stories and trends, and becoming an increasingly relevant part of people's news and information diets at the local and regional levels.

Many of the most exciting new journalism efforts are the result of well-designed philanthropic investments by foundations of all types and sizes with a desire to strengthen democracy and civic life in their communities.

As more local and regional funders begin to think about the news and information needs of their communities, we felt it would be an especially opportune time to offer some practical advice about what we've learned from our experiences funding local and regional public interest media.

Our foundations have jointly released a free guide, Journalism and Media Grant Making: Five Things You Need To Know, Five Ways To Get Started to help philanthropists who want to get into supporting local journalism. The booklet - which will be discussed during a session at the Council on Foundations conference in Philadelphia on April 11 at 9:30 a.m. - offers practical ideas and advice from a wide range of funders who have already begun to invest in local news and information. Follow live coverage of the event here or follow #infoneeds on Twitter.

These are five things you need to know, as mentioned in the title of our guide:

1. This is everyone's issue. No matter what type of good you're trying to accomplish, it will benefit from better quality news coverage.

2. You can build on what you're already doing. It's not necessary to enter into a brand new subject area that has little connection to your existing work - you can have great impact by funding journalism that furthers your existing philanthropic goals.

3. You can start without a lot of money. Small investments in existing media projects are great ways to start at a manageable scale.

4. Good journalism requires independence. Resist the temptation to try to "participate" in the journalism you fund. There is great value in letting journalists do their work without interference from their funders.

5. Digital media must be targeted to produce impact. Know your audience and how they use media.

And these are five ways to get started:

1. Map your community's news ecosystem. It's important to understand where there are gaps in local news coverage. Some funders commission formal studies and research to document their local news landscape, but there are other, less intensive ways to get a sense of what's needed. And in many communities, it's already been done. In Philadelphia, the William Penn Foundation got started by commissioning research on the local news ecosystem by J-Lab, led by a Pulitzer-winning former Philadelphia journalist.

2. Run a contest to find new voices. An open competition is a great way to see who's ready to do good work while you simultaneously engage diverse perspectives. Minnesota Community Foundation's Minnesota Idea Open is finding new and different voices to generate great information about civic and community life.

3. Grow your own digital expertise. In the digital age, it's easy to tell your community's stories to the world - if you do it well. In Florida, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation for Palm Beach and Martin Counties both have "digital lieutenants" on staff to help cultivate and amplify new channels for news and information.

4. Partner with an existing news organization. While many traditional news organizations are struggling, don't underestimate their reach or capacity. They can be excellent partners. It's Our Money is an example of a great partnership between Philadelphia's local public radio station, WHYY and the Philadelphia Daily News, covering the city's finances and their impact on the lives of residents.

5. Help create a public interest news organization. This may be the biggest of the commitments a funder might undertake, but when the time comes, it can be a very powerful step. The Texas Tribune is an incredibly robust news operation covering state policy and politics, entirely new to the scene within the past two years. It is one of a handful of local news entities that has entered into a formal partnership with the New York Times.

The digital revolution has brought news and information to Clay Shirky's "Gutenberg Moment." For anyone employed in the for-profit media world, this undoubtedly a scary time. But many of us are excited about the possibilities for new and better ways of meeting the news and information needs of our communities during this period of creative reinvention. By sharing our experiences and advice, we hope to help more nonprofit funders to feel comfortable taking a chance and joining the party.