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Pocantico Signals New Networked Future for "Watchdog" News Sites

Pocantico once served as one of the Rockefellers’ family estates. Stately, 45 minutes north of Manhattan, it speaks to the wealth of an earlier industrial era. The Rockefellers, of course, built their fortunes on oil, but their brethren, like the Hearsts and the Pulitzers built them on paper and ink. The kinship is palpable as we move into the era of digital publishing and renewable energy.

Indeed, renewing energy is a part of what will be happening at Pocantico next Monday and Tuesday.  Spurred on by the foundations that are starting to pour money into them, a group of some 30 pixel-stained wretches will meet to plot a new course and a new network. 

"Creating the Investigative News Network" is the objective, and the session's goals and participants are clearly laid out at watchdogsatpocantico. Pocantico only sleeps 30, and that determined the number of participants. Those participants range from top national and regional investigative organizations to city start-ups (Saint Louis Beacon, MinnPost, Voice of San Diego) to newspapers (Sacramento Bee) to public broadcasting (NPR, WNET) to phenomenon of the year, Huffington Post. Expect more players to join the action after the initial conference.

The conclave is unprecedented, and its goals ambitious. I could also say timely, but that is obvious. Enough people have been screaming "Press Emergency!" that some people with money have listened.

Earlier this month, the J-Lab, Jan Schaffer’s Knight Foundation-funded project computed how much money has flowed into journalism from foundations. The total was surprising: $128 million in grants have been awarded to at least 115 news projects in 17 states and the District of Columbia, from the beginning of 2005 through mid-2009.  Its searchable database, which allows you to drill down into funders and grant recipients, is accessible.

A few high points from that survey give us the context for the Pocantico conference:

    * Of the 115 projects getting funding, 102 of them went to organizations that have launched within the last four years.

    * The largest share, $65 million, went to “investigative” projects. Of that amount, $56 million went to the “big 3'' investigative organizations, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica, all of whom are key Pocantico players.

Two of the those three, the East Coast-based Center for Public Integrity and the West Coast-based Center for Investigative Report (NYSE:CIR), did most of the organizaing of the meeting.

"Foundations want us to collaborate and cooperate," Robert Rosenthal, late of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle, and now head of the OaklandBerkeley-based CIR told me. Certainly, many of the participants know each other and do cooperate, sharing tips, resources and databases. They haven't, though, organized themselves into an ongoing sharing network, one that can multiply the value of that widening foundation pipeline. One of the first pieces moving into place came with last week's announcement that AP will distribute the work of four of these investigative groups throughout its network. That's a first step in the six-month experimental distribution. What must follow, I believe, is solid monetization of this high-quality content, and that means testing sponsorship, ad and syndication models -- so that foundation funding isn't the only source of revenue going forward.

The potential Pocantico outcomes, according to the organizers: "Syndication, collaboration, cooperation, our own website." Rockefeller Brothers Fund's Ben Shute helped convince the organizations it was time to take their work to a new level. Rockefeller, the Surdna Foundation and the William Penn Foundation funded the meeting.

Co-organizer Bill Buzenberg, now director of the Washington, D.C.-based, Center for Public Integrity, brings a lot of relevant and unique experience to the group. He's a public radio guy who has both NPR and American Public Media experience. APM is a master syndicator, and NPR has endured the travails of national/local networking, still looking for a suitable model. 

$128 million is a significant number – but it may be just a drop in the bucket of what’s to come.

So take the Pocantico gathering as an indication that foundations will play a major role in the next chapter of American journalism.

Sources tell me that major foundations – some that have previously considered “news and information” to be fairly far afield from their philanthropic mandates – are now talking about the large sums of money that may be needed to fill the gaps left by cratering dailies in big metro markets.

Yes, it’s hard for civic supporters not to notice the cave-ins and the emerging impact it’s having on the civic conversation. In the Bay Area, Hearst threatened to close the Chronicle and the MediaNews’ 30 papers have seen their staffs and papers drastically, all to stave off the bankruptcy woes that have afflicted six other news companies recently.  In Chicago, both the big dailies are in bankruptcy.  In Philadelphia, the two dailies, owned by one bankrupt owner, paw for a future.

So, yes, it’s becoming clear to foundations that “news and information “ – don’t call it journalism – may no longer be a market-sustaining product, but one, like the arts, health and education, needing foundation support.

These big foundations are meeting and beginning to ask the important questions. How do we support and enable larger-scale newsgathering and distribution – in the dozens, if not hundreds, of staffers?  The Voices, MinnPosts, Beacons and others have proven out smaller propositions, organizations of six to 12 staffers, editor-heavy with stipend-paid reporters, bloggers and columnists. Good stuff, and a tonic as the big table has been emptied of sustenance. But, small stuff, compared to what’s being lost in newsgathering and reporting. You can’t empty newsrooms of hundreds of people and expect these small start-ups to fill the void. The entrepreneurs running these sites are the first to tell you that.

So Pocantico marks another step into terra incognita. The foundations are properly concerned that the start-ups are heavy on journalistic fervor and light on business modeling and networking skills.  How to work better work together, learn together and grow together, is, accordingly, a key goal of the conference -- and must to-do coming out of it. Cooperativeness is good; high-level business savvy must be a next step.

It's no longer a matter of just doing good work. This is "replacement journalism." Half the foundation money has gone to the "watchdogs," and indeed they need to be fed. We know, though, that good, old-fashioned local reporting -- call it investigative or call it "beat" -- needs to replaced. Pocantico is a step in that replacement, as experimentation grows into significant and sustainable news operations able to replace what's been lost, and, of course, able to harness the multimedia tools of the day.

It’s ferment all around these days. The watchdogs meet at Pocantico. Newspaper CEOs fly into for a Chicago airport conclave. AP and others try to up the ante in their Google negotiations. “Paid content” advocates put on their own roadshows to sign up beleaguered publishers for new initiatives and platforms.

It’s a hell of a news summer, a summer of living on the edge.