Thinking about Philanthropy - and the News

I had lunch the other day with someone who used the phrase “civic information system.” I told her I had never heard that phrase before, and she said she had made it up.

I’m not sure the phrase will ever trip off people’s tongues, but I like what it is trying to convey — that there is news and information we need in common, not to mention stories and metaphors and big ideas, if we are going to function in a reasonable way as members of communities large and small.

For a long time, newspapers have been important players in our “civic information systems,” but the conventional wisdom these days is that they are on their way out as commercial ventures. In fact, I have heard repeated predictions in recent months that we are rapidly heading towards a world without daily newspapers. Not finding The Star-Ledger or The New York Times on our doorstep would not leave us without information — far from it, as we all know. But it might leave us without information in common, as people increasingly choose among news sources that occupy clear places along an ideological spectrum, on their cable networks or radio dials, or in cyberspace.

I wonder if it is not newspapers that need to change, but their business model. Could a daily newspaper for a City or a State be set up as a nonprofit venture and thrive? Could we imagine a newspaper governed by a Board adhering to a nonpartisan civic mission, able to raise money from individuals and foundations that believe that responsible civic discourse needs common information and reasoned arguments?

All of us at Dodge would appreciate knowing your thoughts about this matter. Maybe a “civic information system” is too important an idea to be left to “what sells.”