Not long ago, Kevin Murphy was simply the president of the Berks County Community Foundation in Reading, Pennsylvania, a city of about 80,000 an hour northwest of Philadelphia. Like most community foundations, Murphy’s manages a range of charitable funds for everything from scholarships to farmland preservation. And like most people in the philanthropy business, Murphy likes his projects to be well planned, predictable even.

Then, on December 30, 2008, Myrtle Quier, whose family owns the city’s 60,000-circulation daily newspaper, The Reading Eagle, died at age 101, and left the foundation a 27 percent stake in the Reading Eagle Company (it also owns a radio station), making the foundation not only the only nonfamily shareholder but the largest shareholder.

Just like that, Murphy was thrust into the frantic world of media ownership, circa 2009, where things are, to put it mildly, often not well planned and extremely unpredictable. “Everyone is throwing things against the wall to see what sticks,” Murphy says. “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

In fact, Murphy and his foundation colleagues were already at work meeting the county’s twenty-first-century information needs. In December 2008, they were awarded a $255,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to create an online information hub at BC-TV, a public-access station in Reading. The idea is to provide the citizens of Berks County with a reservoir of information about quality-of-life issues such as health care, the environment, education, the economy, public safety, etc. “In the old days,” says Murphy, “communities like this were run by a group of white men from the business world and maybe academia. They made decisions for the community. That environment doesn’t exist anymore. The public dialogue is much more broad-based. More people need more information and analysis that they can rely on.”

The hub will be run by a managing editor (yet to be hired), who will contract with freelance writers to produce in-depth reports. The editor will also train citizen-writers in communities around the county to cover how these issues are playing out locally.

Now the challenge for Murphy and his colleagues is to figure out how to connect their information hub (scheduled to go live in December) with the Eagle and its Web site, and the radio station, WEEU-AM. “The idea is to create some sort of partnership among all these outlets,” Murphy says. “It’s going to be an evolution.”

There is no template for how to do this—and no sense yet of how it will affect the Eagle’s mission—but similar efforts to create collaborative relationships among news outlets are under way in a handful of cities, such as Madison, Wisconsin, and San Diego.

On July 21, Murphy took his team to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., to get a better sense of the history of the world they are about to join. “We were genuinely humbled and in awe of the trust that has been thrust upon us,” he says. “We have come to understand, in ways we didn’t before, the importance of a free press to how a community works. The stakes are very high.”

 

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.