68 years later, ‘We’re still experimenting,’ Knight Foundation president says

Alberto Ibarguen, right, talks with Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, at the Endeavor Miami ScaleUp conference Sept. 21 in Wynwood.
Alberto Ibarguen, right, talks with Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square, at the Endeavor Miami ScaleUp conference Sept. 21 in Wynwood. Endeavor Miami

When Alberto Ibargüen was appointed president of the Knight Foundation, America’s most prominent journalism non-profit, in 2005, the news industry in the U.S. was at a crossroads. Newspapers were still profitable, but new competition from online upstarts and Craigslist had begun destabilizing the industry.

Thirteen years later, stability still seems just out of reach, as the industry continues to fight through layoffs and ownership turnover. Partly as a result, the Knight Foundation’s mission has evolved considerably. It is now known as much for its work with cities as it is the news organizations that cover them. It has also put new focus on technology, like artificial intelligence and automated vehicles, and finding ways to make sure communities are prepared for the changes that come with their arrival.

After presenting a $2 million grant to Endeavor Miami, the local chapter of a worldwide mentoring and networking group for fast-growing startups, at the first Endeavor Miami ScaleUp conference last week, Ibargüen, a former Miami Herald publisher, discussed the state of his foundation. Knight sits on plenty of cash — its most recent annual report lists assets at more than $2 billion — but it is now throwing it at rapidly moving targets as cities, technology and journalism undergo unprecedented transformations.

Whatever it does next, as the foundation approaches its 68th year, will have a direct impact on Knight’s hometown, Miami.

“Not now, but at some point ... I think Knight probably leaves, I don’t know which, art or tech entrepreneurship, and moves on to something else,” Ibargüen said.

Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen Miami Herald file photo

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The economy and technology, which are increasingly intertwined, seem to be changing at an accelerated rate. How will the Knight Foundation decide what to spend money on over the next 5-10 years?

Our approach to any of the areas where we fund — journalism, community engagement, the arts — has evolved to be quite similar. It’s about identifying the trends that are going on in the community, and figuring out how to accelerate or leverage [them] for the purpose we’re interested in.

One of the things I did at Knight at the beginning was to insist, although we are formally a charity, that we don’t act like charity. Our goal is not [subsistence]. I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but our goal is not to give away Jack Knight’s money. 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.

So fast forward to today, we look, whether it’s in the arts or entrepreneurship, or in artificial intelligence, we look to see what’s going on. Our goal is engagement. 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.

What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Let’s ask the neighbors, let’s engage the neighbors. It’s really, really labor intensive. It’s not something most municipal governments are really structured for. They’re structured to follow the rules set by the county commission, and God bless ‘em they’ll do it.

Knight is focused on cities. But in the U.S., city demographics are also rapidly changing, with a wealthier but younger and often more transient population coming in. At the same time, many cities, especially coastal ones, face threats from climate change. How is the Knight Foundation responding to these changes?

If you’re thinking about the future of Miami, you must not avoid questions of racism, questions of wealth inequality, of sea level rise and environmental issues, questions of transportation. You have to pick your battles in terms of specific programs. Just speaking as a citizen, not necessarily as the president of the foundation, it’s impossible not to notice the incredible rise in population, rise in density, and rise in sea level all happening at the same time. This is a train crash wanting to happen. And it’s not just the bay, it’s also the Everglades. It’s deceptive for those of us who are merely human beings who live in a little spit of dry land between Biscayne Bay and the Everglades. And it’s (easy) for those of us lucky enough to be reasonably well off to forget that only blocks away, in almost any part of Miami, you can find people living in poverty, or living in situations that are significantly distressed.

SEA LEVEL RISE, commissioned by Miami-Dade Art in Public Places and the John & James L. Knight Foundation, provides opportunities for selected artists to create temporary, site-specific artworks that explore this climate change crisis during 2017-

This is where government should be focused ... figuring out how to bridge those divides, how to address, to the extent a municipality can, the issues of sea level rise. I don’t think there’s a developer in town who isn’t concerned about these issues, because it’s their business. On the other hand, I also don’t see government stopping or even frankly influencing the development of tall buildings that are literally just feet from the edge of the water.

Does Knight ever work with developers, who are increasingly the principal actors deciding how cities are evolving?

We have never engaged with developers. In part because of (Knight’s) specific focus. We work in 26 cities, and journalism. In the cities we work in community engagement and the arts. After you finish dividing by all that, you end up with a nice chunk of cash to make investments, but you really do have to be selective about what you invest in.

At some point, it isn’t now, but at some point, I think Knight moves away. I think Knight probably leaves, I don’t know which, art or tech entrepreneurship, and moves on to something else, maybe it’s public spaces, maybe that’s how we get to the issue of development. I think these things happen only over a period of time.

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? 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.

Artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars. How far away is all this new technology we keep hearing about?

I think it’s just such a no-brainer that I can’t believe it’s not around the corner. I’m a total techno-optimist. I really believe it will make our lives better. I believe it will be safer. I believe that the stop-and-go of city traffic is maybe a while away. The highway traffic — I just don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be focusing on that as something that happens within the next short period of years.

To go from where to where — that’s the question that we’re funding in San Jose, in Miami, in Long Beach, in Detroit, and in Pittsburgh, trying to figure out what it is that would really help citizens, help neighbors. A service that goes from downtown to downtown? Maybe that’s the right thing, but maybe the service that goes from the neighborhood to work, or the neighborhood to schools, or the neighborhood to places where you can actually buy fresh food, that can be an even bigger surface. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re focusing on.

The news landscape is now financially challenged, fragmented, and, to some, credibility-challenged. How does Knight plan to address these challenges?

We’ve been at this for the past 13 years. It struck me that, we, Knight, were funding endowed chairs for the best teachers at the best universities for jobs that weren’t going to exist. And that’s not a criticism of the wonderful people who at the time were Knight Chairs— but they knew 1975 ink on paper, and it was mainly newspaper, not even broadcast. So we decided to switch, to change the focus of the program and ask the crowd: We’ve got some money, you may have some ideas, let’s get together. It’s really as simple as that. We’re the Knight Foundation … and we don’t have a clue, so let’s experiment. And we’re still experimenting.

What’s different now, fast forward to today, and a whole bunch of people are now engaged, they’re now coming up with their own genius ideas ... It is the most exciting moment for experimentation, and it could all go belly up, because we don’t really have much time, and we have enemies of free expression and frankly of verification journalism who are real, whose interest is in maintaining confusion, so we really don’t have much time. But this is a moment of really wonderful experimentation.

Knight Foundation's George Abbott and Realize Bradenton's Johnette Isham talk about how big funding from the Knight Foundation can change a city.