50th Annual Meeting Speaker Highlight: Alberto Ibargüen

Earlier this week the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a major investment in research that will help us better understand how technology is transforming American democracy and the way we receive and engage with information.

The $50 million initiative will support cross-disciplinary research at 11 universities and research institutions. This will include $5 million for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics to help the public, journalists, and policymakers understand digital media’s influence on national dialogue and opinion, and to develop sound solutions to disinformation. 

Spearheading this work is the Knight Foundation’s president, Alberto Ibargüen, who will also kick off a plenary discussion at the 50th Annual Meeting that asks a crucial question: Can Philanthropy Preserve the Pillars of Democracy?

For Ibargüen, the answer to that question is an emphatic “yes.”

“We’re living the most profound change in how we communicate with each other since Gutenberg invented the printing press,” Ibargüen said in announcing Knight’s latest initiative. “The internet has changed our lives and is changing our democracy. We have to take a step back and a step forward. To understand what is actually happening, we need independent research and insights based on data, not emotion and invective. To go forward, citizens must be engaged, and including university communities in the debate is a step in that direction.”

Efforts like these have become a signature of the Knight Foundation’s work since Ibargüen became president in 2005. The foundation’s roots – its founders made their fortune as newspaper publishers – continue to be reflected in its focus on the flow of information, particularly through quality journalism and media innovation, and its emphasis on the importance of free-flowing information to a healthy democracy.

“I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but our goal is not to give away Jack Knight’s money,” Ibargüen told the Miami Herald in 2018. “It’s to cause good, to cause impact, to create better communities in the way that the two brothers intended, through informing community so citizens can be armed as they can become engaged and decide their true interests.”

Like the foundation’s previous leaders, Ibargüen has a strong background in newspapers. He previously was the publisher of the Herald and its Spanish-language counterpart, El Nuevo Herald. Ibargüen said both journalism and philanthropy sometimes lack the patience required for long-term change.

“It’s really tempting to say, when you come from a newspaper background, or news background of any sort, to say, OK, you guys have been doing this for 37 minutes, why isn’t the problem fixed?” he said. “And it’s the same in foundations. I’m making a grant, at the end of three years you’d better have solved the problem. Well that’s not the way human beings and communities work.”

At the Annual Meeting plenary session Ibargüen will introduce, much of the discussion will focus on philanthropy’s ability to support quality journalism by investing in nonprofit media such as Mississippi Today and the Texas Tribune. The goal of this work is not to support journalism for its own sake, but to help communities and their people remain vibrant and informed.

“Our goal is engagement,” Ibargüen said. “Our goal is a functioning democracy through engagement by informed people. So we look to see what’s going on, and what we can leverage and what we can accelerate.”


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