Michelle Ferrier moderates session at media Spark Camp

The program was held at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University from July 20-22, 2012.


Associate Professor Michelle Ferrier of the School of Communications was a guest at the invitation-only Spark Camp held at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University from July 20-22.

The event, cast as a “dinner party” among friends, brought together digiterati from various media outlets, venture and angel investors and higher education to discuss the elephant in the room: money.

Participants included people like Richard Gingras of Google News, Esther Dyson of EDVenture Holdings, Latoya Peterson of Racialicious, Cyndi Stivers of Columbia Journalism Review, Matt Thompson of NPR, author Jenny 8 Lee and nearly 40 others interested in legacy and emerging media who wanted to learn and share regarding current and emerging models for financing news and information.

Kelly Virella, a media entrepreneur of national site Dominion of New York, valued the relationships she built during the weekend.

“At Spark Camp conversations about media aren’t pessimistic or pie-in-the sky,” Virella said. “They are visionary and grounded in practice. It’s one of the few places in America – possibly the only place – where you can go sit with dozens of smart media entrepreneurs and executives and think about how to prepare for your company’s future.”

The camp uses an unconference-style approach to surface burning topics. Ferrier pitched and moderated a session on funding news and information in underserved communities where there is no perceived marketplace value for the audience.

“Legacy media has a history of marginalizing the content and reach to low-income and minority populations because of the perceived value of these communities as an audience to advertisers. With the erosion of advertising as a primary revenue stream, however, even communities with discretionary income are finding themselves without fresh news and information,” she said.

Ferrier said the session was designed to surface ideas for funding a basic level of news and information for communities that deal with safety, health, transportation and community services. This model of news and information may take the form of a utility, Ferrier said, that is supported by device or state/municipal taxes as is the case in the UK and other countries.

“We’re developing an age of information haves and have-nots,” she said. “It’s access – part of the digital divide question, it’s content – providing news about communities that reflect those communities, and it’s about funding – that if we use a market-model where we think of audience as consumer, we lose a part of our ability to perform our democratic functions as a press…to create an informed citizenry.”

Ernest Sotomayor, dean of student affairs at Columbia Journalism School, said that he feels there’s a role for colleges and universities in filling that need.

“In rural areas in particular, we can consider the role that colleges should play in reporting events, news and features around their communities,” he said. “Columbia uses New York City as a laboratory for our students. There is a lot that gets written by journalism students like in Michigan and Chicago. if there is a way to expand the scope of what they are doing,…it expands the student experience and serves community needs.”

Ferrier is using GIS and media circulation and reach data to identify “media deserts” – communities that lack access to fresh news and information. The end goal is to inform policy and direct resources to communities that need it the most.

“I think it’s critical that we strip away the illusion that we are serving everyone with our current media and devices and help communities create specific interventions,” Ferrier said.