Leonard Witt

Leonard Witt.jpg

Leonard Witt is the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication, eminent scholar and…

Georgia (Aug 5, 2009) — Leonard Witt is the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication, eminent scholar and associate professor at Kennesaw State. Witt recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Harnisch Foundation to create the Center for Sustainable Journalism. The center is working to design alternative approaches to distributing news and improving its quality.

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For almost 20 years, Leonard Witt has stayed one step ahead of the ethical and financial dilemmas facing the news industry. A veteran journalist, he escaped the “if it bleeds, it leads” tendencies that dominate newsrooms to join the ranks of thinkers trying to help journalism up its game. 

    Now the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication, eminent scholar and associate professor at Kennesaw State, Witt is on the vanguard of efforts to generate new models for producing and distributing news.

    An early proponent of involving citizens in news decision-making, the former newspaper reporter is now steering the industry through experiments with its conceptual kin – “community-supported journalism” – in which the public assumes more financial responsibility for producing news they need. Witt is the founder of the Public Journalism Network, an online nexus of citizens, journalists and academics trying to reinvent the way journalism is practiced.

    In February, Witt received a $1.5 million grant, spread over five years, from the Harnisch Foundation to create the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State. The center is working to design novel approaches to distributing news and improving its quality.

    Community-supported journalism is a response to the news media’s rapidly declining fortunes. As BusinessWeek recently reported, the news business is in disarray, with thousands of journalists left jobless by deep cuts at media giants like Time Inc., Gannett and Viacom. Many publications have reduced printing schedules, closed bureaus, cut back print editions or shut down completely. 

    “We are living in an era when old journalism models are failing,” Witt said. “The Harnisch Foundation’s solution-oriented funding comes at a critical time and with it we can start to build new models that will ensure journalism continues to play its vital role in society.” 

    In Witt’s view, the compass for the future of journalism points toward a confluence of the power of digital media to define and deliver new, smaller, more targeted markets for news and a remaking of audiences as citizens armed with information they can use to make better decisions. Even though his ideas are evolving, he has not strayed far from his public journalism roots. 

    During the 1980s and 1990s, Witt was editor of Minnesota Monthly, the Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday Magazine and the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call’s a.m. Magazine.

    By the mid-1990s he was looking for new ways to involve citizens in providing solutions to the major issues of the time. Witt led the Minnesota Public Radio Civic Journalism Initiative to demonstrate the power of citizens to help define the issues and set the agenda for the public good. “My first public journalism project was a Minnesota action plan to end gun violence, and we took the approach to let the people tell the story, not to just rely on journalists and experts,” he said. “We produced a special 36-page section in Minnesota Monthly magazine that really illuminated the issues. It changed the way we did business.”

    In 2002, Kennesaw State tapped Witt for the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair. The following year, he brought leading thinkers in the field of “public journalism” together for a conference at Kennesaw State. “We wanted more citizen involvement, but were unsure how to make it happen,” Witt said. “But then came the era of blogs and citizens as publishers and again everything changed.”

    At pjnet.org, Witt tries to make sense of this new citizen publishing movement, while trying to help journalism as a whole reinvent itself for this new digital era. 

    Witt started blogging on pjnet.org in 2003 about critical issues in journalism, communication technology and public affairs. The site now has about 4,000 unique visitors each month. “Bloggers are playing an increasingly important role in getting journalists to listen to people,” Witt said. 

    In Witt’s experimental project on “Locally Grown,” a Northfield, Minn.-based citizen blog, a professional journalist was hired as a fellow to report local news for the blog’s audience. The pilot project, including the fulltime fellowship, was funded by a previous $60,000 grant from the Harnisch Foundation. Most recently the project rolled out a plan for the community to support its own journalists at Locally Grown.

    “We may be learning that a better model might be to use the community’s freelancers – people known to the community and people the community knows will be around for more than one year – to produce a greater variety of stories, rather than a full-time paid journalist,” Witt said.

    The Internet and digital communication tools such as blogs, iPods, podcasts, PDAs and the like are disruptive technologies that have supplanted the old, sustained models, Witt pointed out. With them, news is cheaper to produce and distribute and easier to access. “The challenge is to come up with workable ways to sustain high-quality journalism using all we know about digital technology,” he said.

    The essential questions Witt and his colleagues are pondering will steer the new Center for Sustainable Journalism in developing new models for journalism.

    “For example: Who’s going to pay for journalists? How can we sustain it? If people aren’t willing to pay for it, why do we keep doing it?” Witt asked. “After the ads, buildings and bloated news operations disappear, what’s going to happen to journalism – when only the journalism is left? What will the news look like then, and what will the impact be on democracy?”

 

Read more about community-supported journalism In Witt's blog at: http://pjnet.org

 



A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers more than 150 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 35,000 students. With 13 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia and the third-largest university in the state. The university's vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the region and from 92 countries across the globe. A Carnegie-designated doctoral institution, it is one of the 50 largest public institutions in the country. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.

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