Last week, Oct. 17-19, I had the pleasure of attending the Media Impact Funders Journalism Funders Gathering. The event provides an opportunity to strengthen connections among journalism funders, and for funders to discuss their work and share ideas with one another.

Andrew Ramsammy

This was the first time since the pandemic that the group gathered in person — in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center. This place celebrates the most significant vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution. Coincidence?

Journalism funded by philanthropy has been an essential focus for Local Media Association. It’s one of our strategic pillars. LMA provides the Lab for Journalism Funding, headed by colleague Frank Mungeam, and other programs we manage, such as Word In Black, benefit from this focus.

I was invited to speak about the work with Word In Black, our groundbreaking collaboration of the nation’s leading Black publishers to build a digital-first national newsroom that reports and fosters solutions to racial inequities in America. I took the stage on the first day of the event to share what we’ve learned in incubating a first-of-its-kind startup. If you’d like to see what I presented, check out this excellent tweet thread by the “Man With The Hat,” Mr. Mungeam. Frank also tweeted most everything else from the gathering as well.

A photo of the first gathering of Media Impact Funders 20 years ago.

But one tweet near the beginning of the event was posted by Eric Newton, former Knight Foundation grantor, now writer and consultant. Newton showed photos from the initial gathering of the conference 20 years ago. The photos, in black-and-white, had that “Mad Men” feel. The picture in this article shows that the outcome of that meeting focused on three things: More funding, more diversity and more press freedom.

Later in the day, during a breakout session, Duc Luu, director of sustainability/journalism initiatives at the Knight Foundation, asked the question I had pondered the moment I saw that photo from two decades ago: Twenty years later, how are we still talking about the same thing?

The question wasn’t born out of frustration, rather of a fear that we might be here 20 years from now talking about the same things, and, given what we’ve all been through these past few years, that journalists and media might repeat sins of the past.

Or was there another way to look at what that photo represented?

Something magical happens when you put the smartest people in the room. During the pandemic we lost the ability to do that, and it’s possible we’ve lost something in the process. This isn’t me advocating for returning to offices by any means, but when you’ve got a big problem to solve, getting in the room means something.

So when Eric Newton, Jon Funabiki, with the Ford Foundation at that time, and Vince Stehle, then with the Surdna Foundation, gathered in that room to discuss the issues of the day— mind you, it was 2002 — the calendar could have said 1992, 1982 … heck, even 1972.

The reason why we’re talking about the same things 20 years later is that the issues they raised then are the fundamental issues of our industry and will never go away. The good news is we have made progress, although, depending on the day, parts of press freedom feel more singed. But the same can be said of funding and diversity. And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge bias: the conversation then was led by three men per the photos that were shown (I could see what appeared to be the back of only one woman).

It’s a moment when everyone in the room can agree these are the issues that will never go away. Because no matter how hard you try, the closer you zoom in, the bigger the cracks appear. But in those cracks is evidence that some areas appear to be filling in.

The conference had more funders in attendance than ever, and the most diverse group of attendees anyone there could remember. We gathered knowing the threat of press freedom is real here at home and abroad, but more people are working to keep journalism protected from almost every angle imaginable.

Are there still problems? Absolutely. The room was still predominantly white, and still had plenty of empty seats. Too few in the room knew about press freedom only from recent events, not historical oppression going back to America’s inception.

Twenty years later, why are we still talking about the same thing? Because the things we’re talking about still matter.

So the question should be: what are we going to do about it?