The foundation's history in the arena of public service media has been twofold: 1) educating funders and nonprofits about the potential of new technologies and media to address and influence issues of civic and cultural importance and 2) stimulating innovative uses of the technologies by example. Publishing - both print and electronic - and convening have been our trademark strategies in enabling communities and nonprofits to produce diverse and locally responsive media content.
In the early 80s, we produced a primer in print and video on new technologies helping nonprofits effectively embrace the "information revolution." Ten year later, the information revolution morphed in a strategic communications imperative for nonprofits, and we commissioned a series of media guides for nonprofit leaders. In the mid-90s, we incubated several web portals -- Connect for Kids, Debate America, Destination Democracy, Open Studio: the Arts Online, Digital Divide Network, and OneWorld US -- as demonstration projects to deliver content more effectively to new audiences and engage them in solutions. The last two continue to thrive and operate independently.
A project we launched in 1996 with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has recently drawn to a close after providing the field with profound lessons in local alliances between community health groups and public broadcasters. Sound Partners for Community Health amplified local discussion and decision making around health care issues and helped shape a new relationship between community and media built on trust, respect, and risk-taking. As a result, we have undertaken a variety of activities to explore, strengthen, and expand "community media."
In 2000, we had a vision of "connecting communities" through local communications alliances and a digital, broadband, interactive, multi-media community platform.
Current Community Media Initiatives
Community Media Scan
Our vision for community media is coming to pass. Communities across the country are taking control of media, adapting new technologies to the social, economic, educational, cultural, and information needs of their residents. Benton has produced a "scan" of effective and emerging community media practices across media platforms that increase citizen participation in media production, governance, and policy. Conducted in collaboration with the Community Media and Technology Program of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, the scan includes information gleaned from a series of roundtable discussions with community media practitioners in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon.
New Routes to Community Health
The success of Sound Partners inspired the foundation to take a deeper look at collaboration opportunities and the potential for media whose mission is to serve and transform the communities within which they operate. In 2007, Benton launched a new project, with support again from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called New Routes to Community Health. New Routes is anchored in local partnerships and poised to increase the health of new immigrants and refugees by involving a range of local media and civic institutions in tackling this community's complex problems and giving voice to its vulnerable new residents.
To bring together the lessons learned through these projects and practitioners in the Midwest, the Benton Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, and the Chicago Media Workshop co-sponsored the first Community Media Summit June 14 and 15, 2007. At the summit, we gathered to understand and examine the voices and content that make up community media and to imagine and explore the potentials of community media for serving basic human and community needs.