The need for increased news literacy is obvious to anybody who scrolls through Facebook and finds a friend who has posted a story like “Death Row Inmate Dies of Natural Causes 3 Days into Execution” and thinks the account is real. "Why News Matters," a Robert R. McCormick Foundation program that's now in its third and final year, has aimed to boost news literacy at a time when many Americans are having a hard time separating fact from fiction, or news from opinion. The program has been making grants out of an original $6 million pot to encourage news literacy, training an audience in refining “information skills for the 21st century." The McCormick Foundation, built on a publishing fortune, is one of the largest foundations in the United States, with $1.4 billion in assets.
The Why News Matters Program has had a number of goals, starting with "increasing youth engagement with the news." It's aimed to get news literacy included in the Common Core state standards as well as to engage educators and policymakers in news literacy efforts at many different levels.
So where have grants from the Why News Matters program been going? Much of the funding has been for grantees based in Chicago and Illinois, reflecting McCormick's strong focus on its home region. But funds have also gone to some national outfits.
One big grantee has been the City Colleges of Chicago for "support for an intergenerational news and information literacy curriculum. Columbia College in Chicago has also gotten money for "youth journalism program and town halls on news literacy."
Another notable grantee has been Street-Level Youth Media, which got a $150,000 grant over two years to establish an online news literacy hub and support a multimedia journalism program. Relying on donated computers and software in a store front, Street-Level became one of the country’s first nonprofit organizations to offer technology access and media arts instruction to inner city youth. It sees its mission as training “Chicago's urban youth in media arts and emerging technologies for use in self-expression, communication, and social change.”
Today, Street-Level Youth Media offer courses including audio and video production, digital photography, graphic arts, and new media both at its center and in partnerships around the city. It provides mentorship in not just art and technology, but professionalism, manners, scholarship and critical thinking—these last two vital for getting the McCormick grant. Training is also made available to educators.
True Star Foundation was likewise awarded $150,000 over two years for youth journalism and news literacy training. True Star is a nonprofit organization that has, for more than a decade, offered minority Chicagoland youth (12-24) literary and professional development through a creative outlet during after-school and summer programs that culminate in paid apprenticeships.
True Star places a premium on news literacy, saying, "Knowing how to distinguish fact from fiction and sort through today’s complex news landscape is essential to every student’s future.” The foundation offers a wealth of tools that educators can draw upon to teach news literacy developed in Why News Matters programs across Chicago.
True Star is directly applying its McCormick grant to assemble a team of youth marketers in a program called "This News Matters Too" to develop “a communication strategy, impactful messaging and culturally relevant creative marketing materials using all of the True Star media platforms, including print, radio, online, social media [and street team ambassador reps]… that articulates in their vernacular the value of news and credible information.”
To support its local grantees, McCormick has given funds to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University of Stony Brook, NY, and the News Literacy Project in Bethesda, MD. A few other national outfits have also pulled in some grants.
It will be interesting to see where this work goes next. In September 2014, the McCormick Foundation announced it was merging two of its key programs on civics and journalism. It plans to launch a new combined program this year. We'll be watching.