Knight Foundation’s Alberto Ibargüen on funding the future of journalism, new business models

Alberto Ibargüen wearing commencement regalia
Alberto Ibargüen is honored at the Northeastern University Undergraduate Commencement ceremony at Fenway Park. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

It’s no secret that journalism as an industry has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Steep revenue decline brought on by technological change—from the advent of the internet and social media, to the arrival of smartphones and now AI—has destabilized newspapers, leading to far less coverage of critical issues in communities across the U.S.

Alberto Ibargüen, who recently announced his retirement as president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has been at the forefront of the search for a workable business model to reinvent news. A visionary philanthropist, Ibargüen used the foundation’s multibillion-dollar endowment to reimagine daily journalism and the arts in the digital age.

Prior to his time at the Knight Foundation, Ibargüen served as publisher of the Knight Ridder newspapers in Miami. Under his direction, the Miami Herald earned three Pulitzer Prizes. Northeastern recognized his contributions over the weekend by awarding him with an honorary doctorate during commencement. 

Northeastern Global News sat down with Ibargüen to discuss the future of journalism. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

First of all, congrats on this great honor. Let’s talk journalism. A recent Muck Rack survey of journalists found that the biggest problem facing reporters these days is disinformation and lack of funding. Do you agree?

I think I agree. We’d have to discuss what lack of funding means. If lack of funding means a lack of a business model that sustains journalism, then I totally agree. And that’s what [The John S. and James L.] Knight Foundation has been focused on for the last dozen or so years. 

We have lost the ability to sustain local news operations. The only news operations that are really thriving are those that have a national product, and they’re easy enough to count because it only takes one hand! It’s the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, whose subject matter fits the nature of a technology that was once called the World Wide Web.

Bending that World Wide Web to local use has really been extraordinarily difficult. Meanwhile, the crowd has moved from reliance on the local paper to news as entertainment. The national shouting matches on cable news that we see nightly are talked about as if they were the same as investigative reports.

It does seem like many folks don’t trust traditional news and are turning to alternative, maybe dubious sources. Can you say more about why you think this is happening?

Let me put it this way. Democracy is geographically organized. We elect people by geographically defined districts. That’s what gerrymandering is all about—at least, it is a manifestation of this fact. You elect people by the city boundaries and you elect people by congressional districts. And up until maybe 20 years ago, we have had an entire history of American government where local information was coupled to the geography of the electorate. That was true for school boards, for local government, for national government. Now most of us get news on instruments and applications that are not geographically based. The work that used to be done to report on local activity is work that is simply not being done.

I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Just look at the tens of thousands of reporters who no longer have jobs. And frankly, as much as I feel for them because they are friends of mine and I’ve worked with them for decades—in terms of the democracy, the critical issue is not whether they have a job, but whether the work is being done; whether the information is being relayed. And, in many, many hundreds of American communities, that work is not being done. It’s documented in the work that we funded at UNC’s [Hussman School of Journalism and Media], now being done out of Northwestern. The number of news deserts started out in the dozens—and now there are hundreds. You end up with a train crash that’s begging to happen in this democracy. You end up with a situation where you get people like George Santos in Long Island.  

Back to your question: do I believe the crisis is financial, as in a crisis in the business—absolutely. It’s not simply a question of funding. It’s a question of a model that can sustain local news. That’s what we’re searching for.

What business models do you see working in the future?

We’re doing a lot of experimentation. We’ve directly or indirectly funded literally hundreds of experiments, mainly in not-for-profit local news which, if run right, has a lot of possibility. Because you take a really well run business, make it not about shareholders—because it doesn’t have to be about shareholders to be really well run—it can just simply be logically run as a business. And what you might have sent to the Knight family or the Chandlers or the Sulzbergers or whoever, you simply reinvest in the business. You do have the option and the opportunity of contributed revenue, which you don’t in a regular business. I mean some businesses have set up separate foundations, but really the business itself is still a for-profit. I think there’s a real opportunity there for a new revenue stream that will, to some extent, alleviate the drain that you have in subscription advertising and in regular advertising. In subscription revenue and advertising, there are still some questions in my mind about what ultimately we would have to have in order to get national advertising to play at the local level. But we’re working on it and doing experiments.

Many local newspapers are being bought up by companies that are laying off staff and cutting costs. Do you think they’re part of the problem?

Look, I’m not an expert on the internal workings of other people’s organizations. I do think there’s a difference between a company that has at least some mission purpose, like a Gannett, and a company that is a venture capitalist, where the model is: we’re going to buy this property and make a financial gain calculation. We’re going to buy it for X, and we’ll squeeze it and narrow the resources if necessary. If we need to make more money because our model requires a certain payback for the length of time that we will hold, then we’ll simply squeeze it. That to me is part of the problem.

I think the model of yesteryear had mission and commerce in balance. When it’s only mission, it will fail; it will last only as long as a charitable giver is willing to give that organization some money—and if it’s a for-profit, it isn’t likely to happen. And if it’s all commerce, I think it’s also likely to fail sooner or later because you’re going to be squeezing further and further and further so that in the end the consumer says, ‘Well, exactly why am I paying $300 per year to have the newspaper delivered to my door,’ first off, and secondly, if it’s online, it’s not going to be $300, but if it’s really hard to read the story because you’ve got so much crappy advertising and click bait—it’s not going to work. No, you’ve got to have these things in balance. And right now we don’t have them. And again I’ll say it: the publications that are all about mission are just as likely to fail, in my mind, as the ones that are all about commerce. When it’s all about commerce, let’s stop pretending that this is the future of journalism. This is just an investment play that has a calculated rate of return, and they will talk to their investors and decide what they’re willing to do. 

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

I think studying journalism is still a fantastic thing to do. You’re encouraged to be curious; you’re encouraged to be a nosy parker. There’s ethics involved that you need to learn, of course. There’s technology involved that I think is useful for any kind of communication. I think it gives you a phenomenal view of the world. It teaches you how to write; it teaches you how to use video; it teaches you how to do all manner of communication, so I think it’s a useful skill. But you really need to be prepared. It was easier 20 years ago to be an OK writer, and let other people worry about how to get the money and take the photos, and so forth. You do have to be more of a jack-of-all-trades today. If you’re an amazing writer, maybe you’re going to find another way. But until you get to be that amazing, you better have, I think, at least the willingness to do different parts of the business that you didn’t have to do before. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.