Are Small News Outlets Doomed? Not if the Knight Foundation Can Help It

Full disclosure. Some of us at IP have never been big fans of the term "creative destruction." Coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter in the early 1940s, it proposes that an integral part of capitalism is the process by which a new mechanism or product destroys an old one. Think of the DVD destroying the poor VCR tape.

"Creative destruction" is a fact of life—especially in the Internet age. That being said, we find the concept a bit too nihilistic for our tastes. Destruction brings, well, destruction—bankrupt companies, laid-off workers, and hundreds of mothballed Blockbuster Video stores. So sad.

Our squeamishness begets the naive question: Can't industries innovate without, you know, destroying stuff?

The answer, at least according to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in its efforts to retrofit legacy newsrooms for the digital age, is, "Yeah, sometimes." We'll take it.

The term in question in this case is "digital disruption," and while it still makes us a bit woozy, it's a far more optimistic phrase. "Digital disruption," of course, alludes to the effect technology has on newsrooms, particularly small-market news sites that lack the resources to keep up with the New York Times and Wall Street Journals of the world. If you live in a small town, odds are that your local daily newspaper is struggling mightily to stay relevant and solvent. And if you live in a small town and are a betting man or woman, it's not a stretch to say your local daily newspaper may not exist in a few years. Which is where the Knight Foundation comes into play.

The foundation and the University of North Carolina are collaborating on a $4 million effort to generate new digital media ideas that deal with "digital disruption" for local news sites. Knight is throwing in $3 million while UNC's Provost's Office will contribute $1 million.

Central to this effort is launching a new research center led by John Clark, executive director of UNC's Reese News Lab. The effort will experiment with and test new media tools inside North Carolina newsrooms, identify and prop up local communities that run the risk of becoming "news deserts," and hosting conversations with academic and industry leaders around best practices.

It's yet another example of Knight partnering with universities to shape their journalism curricula to meet a very specific and acute challenge—helping small, regional outlets not only to stay in business, but to thrive in a highly disruptive (but hopefully not destructive) digital age.