Maurice Jones

Social enterprise leader urges local media to embrace the role of educator, anchor institution

Maurice Jones says running the Virginian-Pilot was one of the most fun jobs he’s ever had.

That was years before the newspaper was sold to TRONC which was sold to Tribune Publishing which barely thwarted a takeover by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, known for buying and pillaging local newspapers.

Jones left the Pilot in 2012 to become second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He was then hired to head up Virginia’s Department of Trade and Commerce.

These days he runs the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, one of the country’s largest social enterprises connecting underinvested places and people with funding, technical expertise and infrastructure.

In 2018, LISC announced a goal of having 50 percent of annual investments go to fuel inclusive economic development in underinvested communities across America. In recent weeks, the national nonprofit has become a lifeline for businesses devastated by Covid-19, securing more than $100 million from Lowe’s, Netflix, Wells Fargo, Verizon, and others to support women- and minority-owned small businesses and nonprofits in economically disconnected communities.

I spoke with Jones last month about the role of local media in building more equitable, resilient economies — and the role of local economies in building more equitable and resilient local media.

Although a robust, free, independent and diverse press is essential to a strong economy and democracy, Jones says economic development officials do not connect the health of local media with the health of the local economy, which is too bad.

If you’re in the local media business, he says, you’re in the business of helping to grow the local economy.

“For the most part, these are strong corporate citizens. They are a source of jobs. They’re a source of intelligence. They are a source of talent. And we need to make sure communities are thinking of them in that way moving forward.”

RJI: Sure, but we’ve also seen a lot of contraction and consolidation in the news media in both TV, radio and newspapers. Local media isn’t so local anymore. How are the changes in media ownership affecting the ability of local journalism to be part of the economic development conversation?

MJ: That contraction and that consolidation, the combination of those things, has been deleterious when it comes to helping folks to understand the local context of economic development. No question about it.

I don’t know how many people are in the Pilot newsroom now but I can guarantee you that it’s less than half of what I had when I was there. And the loss of local ownership of local media changes the entire culture of the enterprise.

When I was at the Pilot, the owner lived 15 minutes away from me. Now the owner company is in Chicago. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still running a journalism operation but they don’t have relationships with local business owners and the local school board like I did. That’s one reason they aren’t part of the economic development conversation.

RJI: Ownership issues aside, what would it take to change that?

MJ: Local media need to be considered anchor institutions in every community, because they are. They depend on the community for their strength, just like the local hospital, just like the community college.

But we also need the chief executive officers of local media to embrace the role of anchor institution. That means you use your hiring and your procurement and your promotion and your other resources to strengthen your community. You get involved in local boards. You get involved in philanthropic efforts and you get involved in raising money for the good causes. You leverage the power of your organization to do good in the community.

RJI: How does media come up in the context of the work you do now at LISC?

MJ: The first context is narrative change: How do we change the narrative with respect to low- and moderate-income communities and the people therein?

Second, how do we show people the power of this work? How do we reach a wider audience? How can we interest the media in coming to places where we’re not cutting ribbons but places where we think miraculous work is going on and get the word out, and hopefully by getting the word out, persuade people of the efficacy of this work and convert people to invest in it?

The third way is, how do we actually get people from the media industry to join the work?Whether they are joining advisory boards, or boards of nonprofits, given the power of the industry, how can we build closer relationships and get their talent involved in the work?

RJI: And how’s that going?

MJ: I still consider myself one who really loves the media and the journalism world. So, I’m not going to beat up on the media. However, I’m disappointed the media has not played the educational role that I think it could play. There is a whole world that is invisible to people in America and journalism could do a better job of making them more visible, covering places that are low- and moderate-income communities and helping us better understand the people there, the assets there, the history of those places, and that they got that way in large part by intentional design with race behind it. These are all things that people today don’t even know, and the press and the media could play a role in correcting that, and they just haven’t.

RJI: Maybe one problem is that journalists themselves don’t know the context, don’t know the history, don’t know that we are a country whose entire economy is built on white supremacy.

MJ: You’re right. Most journalists don’t know this stuff but that’s their job. The best journalists are the ones with the most curiosity, so they should be the ones doing their homework, having aha moments and sharing this stuff.

People will tell you readers aren’t interested, but I don’t believe that. The essence of great journalism is how well you are able to tell a story. We need more journalists to take up this cause to tell this story in a more sustained fashion than is happening now.

RJI: What would that take to tell a more inclusive story about the economy?

MJ: The narrative that journalists are missing is the narrative about the system. Journalists like to tell stories and stories are powerful and usually those stories are about some individual overcoming X, Y and Z. The real story is the system that people are working and living and playing and recreating in, and getting people to better understand the system. That’s the piece that journalists have an incredible opportunity to educate us on and they’re not.

They also need to provide more context. For instance, in the Twin Cities and other cities, highways were built through the middle of thriving Black communities, highways that ended up changing the entire economic and social trajectory of those Black communities over time. That is a huge factor in why those communities now are under-resourced. We’re also missing the context about how banks redlined communities, literally drew them up on a map and said we will not lend there.

The public doesn’t know about these things, and in the absence of that context, people fill in other narratives. And those other narratives are almost always less than complimentary of the folks living there.

Linda Miller is the manager of RJI’s Inclusive Economies and Media Project.

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