The Biscayne Times

May 25th
Idea Man PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Dorschner, BT Contributor; Cover and Spread Photos by Silvia Ros   
January 2019

Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation, and the future of change

The Knight Foundation’s Alberto Ibargüen is on a mission -- to build communities, nourish the arts, spur innovation, and save American journalism

HCoverStory_CoverShote’s financed poems on biodegradable paper and vegetable ink dropped from a helicopter on a Miami concert crowd. He gave about $10,000 to convert a closed putt-putt course into a temporary sculpture park. He's also contributed $30 million in Knight money to help keep the impressive collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in town. And he spent another $30 million to create the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

That’s the job of Alberto Ibargüen, age 74, chief executive of the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with more than $2 billion in assets, giving away $120 million or so each year to support journalism and the 26 communities once served by newspapers owned by the Knight brothers. For this, he’s paid $794,889 in base salary and another $90,557 in benefits, according to the foundation’s financial statements.

His imprint has been astounding. One example: After he quit as publisher of the Miami Herald in 2005 to lead the foundation, he decided Knight could make a profound impact on Miami by investing in the arts. That has meant more than $165 million committed to Miami arts groups, including $37 million in grants announced last month -- everything from $3 million for the Miami City Ballet to $150,000 to create a play based on the writings of Little Haiti novelist Edwidge Danticat.

He’s also invested many millions more to foster an atmosphere for a new generation of tech entrepreneurs in Miami -- an ambition shared by many cities throughout the country in the quest to become the next Silicon Valley.

From a national perspective, Knight’s largest impact focuses on bolstering America’s news operations at this crucial, historic moment -- under severe attack by the “fake news” allegations of Donald Trump and friends while many entities, particularly regional newspapers and local TV news, struggle with dismal financials.

The major news in this article is that Knight is about to partner with others to make huge investments to bolster local news on the web throughout the United States. Details of those projects could be announced in February.

But he has a lot more to say -- about how most Americans are losing faith in the media, how high schoolers get more of their news from YouTube than from television, why he felt a growing disillusion with Knight Ridder before he left the Herald, how a blossoming arts scene can transform a community, and why he feels the foundation might change direction in the future.

His office scheduled an hour for the interview several weeks in advance. When the day came, he was sick. Rather than cancel, he asked Biscayne Times to come to his apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay. He ended up talking for three hours.

Disclosure: I was a staff writer at the Herald during Ibargüen’s time there. In 2007, the Knight Foundation paid me to do a report on its activities in Ohio.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability, and the sequence of some questions and answers has been rearranged for continuity.


BCoverStory_1_Leadiscayne Times: A Knight-sponsored Gallup poll recently showed that 69 percent of Americans say they have a declining trust in the media in the past decade. For Republicans, it’s 94 percent, independents 75 percent. Is this the media’s fault, or society’s?

I think it’s clearly a problem with society. When the institutions that we have trusted since the founding of the republic -- churches, certain governments and professions of one sort or another -- are all not believed.

But consider: the military and libraries are trusted. Why? I guess to some extent it’s ubiquity. To some extent it’s their nonpartisan aspect. Perhaps it’s that anyone consistently always has been able to access them. That they clearly provide a service that they said they would. But I guess mainly it’s that they have always stayed away from politics to some extent.

When you and I were younger, the military was clearly not trusted during the Vietnam era. I think frankly the way the military has conducted itself since -- men like Colin Powell -- are significantly responsible for the kind of re-igniting faith in the military.

As for libraries, we conducted a poll when Miami-Dade government was planning to cut I think it was 30 percent of the budget for libraries. Two-thirds of respondents wanted to preserve library funding without cuts, either by increasing property tax or by cutting other county services. So for a huge majority of Americans, it’s a service that is appreciated.

So is it the media’s or society’s fault? I think the answer is yes. As media, we are absolutely part of what’s happening in society -- and reflect it. I think media -- you can’t count the number of mistakes in media when you think back on it, with the benefit of hindsight.

But this drop in readership of newspapers where you and I used to work began not with the internet, not with cable, but it began when women started to leave the house in the ’60s to go to work, and that meant there was no one at home to receive that paper, and people stopped taking it.

So there’s been a drop since then, slow at first, but nevertheless the numbers I would see at Newsday when I was there in the late ’80s and ’90s, it was a significant concern for the business.

Then you had the rise of cable television. Many cable news shows are opinion treated as news. Their role and mission is to convince you of a point of view, not to tell you what happened.


WCoverStory_2hen you and I were growing up, there would be the same newspaper on everyone’s lawn and America watched Walter Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley at night. Now more and more people pick up their news from the cable news channel that agrees with them -- or from friends on platforms like Facebook. Is that trend reversible or are we now in the era where each of us will get only the news that we agree with?

Where’s the middle-of-the-road spectrum? In fact, newspapers did have opinions. Jack Knight won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial opinion during the Vietnam War. But there was a clear separation between news and opinion. It was

Back in the day, whether it was newspapers or Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, or MacNeil/Lehrer, they all tried to tell a fairly middle of the road.

Today I think the Wall Street Journal reporting is pretty straight up, though the opinion pages are very conservative. I’m highly prejudiced because I’m a friend of his and I admire so much the work that he does, but I think Marty Baron of the Washington Post is running the newspaper that tells the story, so I don’t think it’s impossible. [Ibargüen hired Baron as executive editor of the Miami Herald, and Baron now is on the Knight Foundation board.]

I don’t think that’s the place or way forward for the rest of us. I think local news is. Local news is where readers have a chance to test the story in their own real way. If a reporter writes about schools in Miami and doesn’t reflect your experiences as a parent, that is a really very practical checking that I think is a real key toward trust.

The biggest problem is that kind of reporting is being done less and less. Because the business model of newspapers simply does not allow for it. People moved away from reading the paper, moved toward digital and cable and television, and newspapers can’t afford [a lot of in-depth coverage]. At one point, the Herald had five reporters at county hall. That was a terrific model, as long as you could afford it.

But we can’t sit around and wring our hands and say geez, I wish for the days of newspapers. Yogi Berra once said, if the fans don’t want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them. And the fans decided not to come to the newspaper ballpark anymore.

But we still need to have that middle, that agreed-upon set of facts -- about who we are and what happened -- that creates community, and that’s what I think we ought to be trying to do, this time on digital.

So in a relatively short period of time, we at Knight will be announcing a major new initiative -- a series of initiatives that I’m not ready to tell you about today, but that will be focused on local news and on the rebuilding of local news operations.


MCoverStory_4any local newspapers insist some reporters do click-bait even if it’s not local -- like Oklahoma tiger eats woman at the zoo. So that means they’re leaving some local news uncovered.

I think that’s probably right. I’m out of that game, so anything I say to you is clearly secondhand and is said with the same affection for what we used to do. I think they’re doing it more to follow what seems to work rather than for doing what newspapers were valued for in the first place, which was telling that story straight up, creating that middle, where left and right could come and debate.

You have a blue sweater. That’s a good fact to report. Somebody from the left can say that’s a good thing, somebody from the right can say that’s a bad thing, but it’s not about whether it’s a blue sweater. Not whether we have failing schools, not whether we have water problems, air problems, environmental problems. I think those stories at the local level were the kinds of things that built a community.

Communities have to be served. And they have to be served in a way that readers can digest information. So what I want us to do -- us being Knight -- is embark on a fairly large initiative to focus on a resurgence of local news and local news operations on digital platforms.

Some will be purely experiments. Some will be training journalists for techniques we found that were useful on digital platforms. Some of it will be training for how to use the technology.

I don’t pretend that it’s not a hard slog and this isn’t the first time. Go all the way back to the crazy German, Gutenberg, who mechanized the Chinese printing press.

What is different now of course is that anything that happens, anywhere, has global implications. We have the capacity to hurt ourselves anywhere almost instantly. The dissemination of lies can be so quick and so thorough that it is difficult to come back from. That adds to the sense of urgency in finding the alternative.

This new initiative will have partners?

Yes. We’re trying to set up a series of relatively clear and commonsense initiatives that anybody who is interested in a particular phase of the work can plug into if they want. Before, I think part of the problem we had looking for partners is we were looking almost exclusively at foundations, which had their own mandates. And we were trying to convince them that we were right. And instead we’re just saying, here are the projects. If you’d like to join, it’s as easy as click the button.

Is a project like a subject -- say affordable housing -- or is it a platform for various things?

On the record, I’ll give you one effort. We’re going to be matching Gerry Lenfest’s $10 million -- for a $20 million pot -- for experiments in digital news delivered in the Philadelphia area. Gerry had bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News -- Jack and Jim Knight’s old papers -- and decided to put them in a trust and gives the trust to the community foundation. It allows the Inquirer and Daily News to keep functioning as regular newspapers and allow people to make contributions.

We are still so new at this. A professor at MIT told me on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a mature technology, this digital stuff is at a 2, maybe 3. We are just figuring it out. But that ultimately is what we will use as the core of the reporting for that middle we’re talking about.


HCoverStory_3ow much longer does print have? The average Herald daily print circulation is down to 53,000. I just got my renewal notice. For 2019, they want $957, which is more than three times what it was two years ago. Does that indicate they’ve given up on print?

I think print for a paper of general interest is probably limited, if not dead. Print for a niche publication can still be quite profitable, which is why I think generally magazines do better than newspapers. I don’t know the specifics of the

On the web, I can find Herald deals of $87 for half a year.

In a way, it’s a crazy policy, I guess, that says we are going to punish our most loyal subscribers. But it’s hard money to walk away from. I used to be on the board of AOL. You could get AOL for free for years. And yet there were original AOL subscribers who were still paying every month and didn’t want to change. And the reason AOL didn’t change that? It was hundreds of millions of dollars.


Are nonprofits the future for local news?

This is a really good question. Until we have viable nonprofits, we can’t begin to answer that question. What we know is that for-profits that deliver straight-up news have fallen out of favor with the market.

We have for-profits that deliver a perspective on the news that are very profitable. I don’t think Fox or CNN or MSNBC have ever made as much money as they enjoy today. That’s just the reality.

Whereas the evening news programs [on the main broadcast networks] have tended to stay roughly the same. I get the sense that they’re relatively stagnant.

So we’re trying to figure out what are the things people will respond to, things people can do consistently. Remember newspaper reading is so much about habit, about opening the door and finding the paper there.

That kind of thing hasn’t changed. I wake up and -- I confess -- I look at either my iPhone or my iPad and see what’s going on. That’s the way a lot of Americans start their day. And so I want to be part of that habit. I want people to come to publications that we support in the way they used to come to publications called newspapers.


Some years ago Knight funded some nonprofit news sites, giving them two years to become self-sustaining. There were interesting endeavors, like Health News Florida, but they didn’t become self-sustaining.

Some did. Some didn’t. We were an original funder of the Texas Tribune.

That’s in the black. We were early in support of Voice of San Diego. That’s going well. But I’m absolutely not saying that we have the key. What seems to be common is a clear focus on what they cover. In the case of the Texas Tribune, it’s Texas politics. But providing consistently reliable news is the bet we’re making.

There’s another way of thinking about this: Do we consider news to be essential in a democratic republic? Ask me: Absolutely! A democratic republic doesn’t work without an informed citizenry. It is just way too easy to manipulate and to divert into bad, if not actual evil.

I think we should consider whether a news organization should be a tax-exempt organization. I know it seems highly unlikely in these times. But consider whether some of the companies that we’ve had as for-profits should not be given some real incentive to become community-sustained organizations. We can sustain public radio. We can sustain public TV locally. Why can’t we sustain news? Why can’t we indirectly subsidize the news?


You’ve said that internet companies like Facebook and Google have been sucking up 90 percent of new digital revenue. That means that, as newspapers and television news move to the web, they may be getting more eyeballs, but not necessarily a lot of revenue.

Some portion of course does. But that’s correct.

Have these internet companies gotten too powerful?

Well, I think it’s ridiculous now having anti-trust questions about television and radio joining together. It made sense when, in the ’30s, you wanted to stop monopolies. But television and radio now are getting to be a blip on the scale compared to the news that people are getting from digital and social media, which are largely free of the same restrictions on other publications.

There was a famous case in the ’90s, I believe it was AOL put up a libel on its website and a television station in Colorado repeated it. The TV station was liable and had to settle the case. AOL walked away scott free. They could put up anything they wanted.

So at the beginning to encourage the birth of these organizations -- there was good public policy we’re going to give them a pass on these things. Today there is so much that they determine. Should they be completely or virtually unregulated? Should they be free from libel laws? What would happen if Google were subject to libel? Like the guy who read they were running a child pornography ring at the back of a restaurant and goes there armed. What if that guy had killed somebody? Does Google have no responsibility for that? I don’t think so.


CoverStory_5ld farts like me, when traveling, go to to see what’s happening locally, but the majority go the website only from places like Facebook, where they click on the news recommended by friends or the Facebook algorithms that guess what news interests them.

A recent Knight-Gallup survey showed that 54 percent thought it was a bad or very bad idea to get targeted news from a website like Facebook, but 51 percent were getting news via Facebook daily or a few times a week. Eighty percent said websites should show the same news to everyone, and 88 percent said websites should disclose how they select the news you see. But how do you regulate web platforms?

I think the major stumbling block here is that Americans trust Google and Facebook more than they trust Congress. I don’t know who else could begin to regulate. Unless it was a Justice Department that decided to take on anti-trust.

Trust-busting goes back to the Teddy Roosevelt era, because the big monopolies had too much power. Then you go to the 1960s and [economist] Milton Friedman -- this is an imperfect analysis -- but since that time you’ve been much more focused on “does it increase shareholder value?” And I’d say does it increase shareholder value to have these organizations have zero liability? Yes. Is that good for society? I think absolutely not.

The danger is that Congress doesn’t really understand how they run, so it could make some great mistakes, or lawmaking is slow and these organizations are really very fast.

I would favor something like the application of the libel laws. Would that cost them some money? Yeah, probably it will, so maybe instead of them being humongously profitable, they might be humongously-minus-one profitable, and as a shareholder of Google, I’m sorry about that, but I think it’s a price to pay for society.

What else should there be? I don’t know. How do you regulate? How do you apply an anti-trust regimen? You just have too much power when you own -- I don’t know what the exact percentage is -- when you own 85 percent of search. That’s just too much.

So we’ve got to find a way of splitting that up. What is that way? I don’t know.


A CoverStory_6Knight-sponsored Gallup survey last year showed that only 14 percent of high school students often watch local television news. Only 12 percent often watch cable news. The poll didn’t even ask about print news, but it did reveal that almost a third -- 31 percent -- often watch news clips on YouTube. What are we to make of that?

It’s a fascinating issue. It is undeniably true that more and more people prefer to watch the news than read it. That’s not surprising. Most Americans in the second half of the 20th century got their news from television, not from newspapers.

No question we’re naturally oral and visual human beings. Video has the capacity -- though not the guarantee -- of telling a detailed story easily and completely.

We created a partnership some years ago between YouTube and the Center for Investigative Reporting. They were trying to figure how to YouTube-ize investigative reporting. It didn’t quite work. It wasn’t really at the core of YouTube. It was a little far afield for the investigative reporters, but I think experiments like that are really worthwhile.

We can’t say, “Sorry, the only way that you can read this story is if you read my 1500 words.” That’s a conceit that newspapers used to be able to have, and don’t have anymore. So you need to find the audience where it is or resign yourself to the fact that that story is not going to get told.

But you and I both know, depending on where you take a photograph, you can either cause a small crowd to look small or you can take the photo from up close to make it look gigantic.

At Stanford University two years ago, I saw some digital programs where they had Donald Trump and Barack Obama saying exactly opposite things. And then they transposed the subject matter -- what Trump said in Obama’s voice and manner and cadence, and what Obama said in Trump’s voice. We’re just seeing the beginning of false advertising.


CCoverStory_7an fake news be controlled or are we entering a perpetual Wild West for readers/viewers?

I firmly believe that fake news is controllable when you have a strong middle. If you don’t have a strong middle -- a strong sense of who we are and what we are, and what is in our communities -- then I think any thing is possible to believe, or everything is viewed with great skepticism.

Trump has so polarized the discussion. Mainstream media now sometimes say that the president flatly lied about X -- a kind of statement that would be hard to imagine in previous administrations. How can the media find a middle road with such polarization in Washington?

Well, for one thing they might stop chasing click-bait. Might stop printing stuff that you believe to be a lie. Unless it has a consequence. When it’s simply lashing out, why cover it?

Except on TV it’s hot. It is hot and TV is a cool medium. And what works on TV is hot. That’s why Donald Trump is brilliant on TV and why Hillary was not. Hillary Clinton was cool on a cool medium. That tends to blend in. Hot on a cool medium tends to stand out and have an impact. And so you put out an outrageous tweet. TV covers it and so for that day you forget about the fact that they are dismantling the EPA. The next day it’s something else and you don’t pay attention about the appointing of judges.

I have to say that, as a tactic, it is absolutely brilliant, and the media is playing into his hands 100 percent. I think the president is a genius at managing media. People say how can he do that? He’s president of the United States. Well, he just has a different take on what it means. His agenda was to dismantle government, and he’s actually achieving it.

I heard Michael Lewis on television talking about his new book [The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy] and the dismantling of agencies. Is anybody paying attention? No. We’re following the fact that he sent out a nasty tweet about his former secretary of state being dumb as a rock. Well, is that unusual? Five years ago it would have been radical. Now I’m not sure. Is it the kind of thing we should spend all that air time on? I think not. So I think media need to be more disciplined. If media were more disciplined, they’d be more believable.

But I do think that if the president says X about crime and the FBI reports say no it’s not X, it’s Y, then I think media ought to say, the president said X, the facts are Y. I think that’s part of a watchdog role.

By the way, Trump is better than the others at manipulating the media, but he is not different from others about his disdain for the media. I know very few politicians who have respect for the press. When you hear a private conversation, everybody remembers the time somebody got a story wrong about them. I know Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have deep hurt about stuff that was written about them -- and deep suspicion about what you folks in the media are trying to do and “just do it to sell newspapers.”

A favorite phrase of mine: Listen, when I was a newspaper publisher, I would have killed for an editor who wanted to sell more newspapers. Instead, I just had editors who wanted to get the story. They weren’t trying to invent something. If it wasn’t true, we wouldn’t publish it, or at least we would go through all these levels that you remember with editors -- assignment editors and copy editors and senior editors and lawyers -- before you put it out. Today, probably there’s not much more than one level of review.


KCoverStory_8night has made a huge commitment to the arts in Miami, but one of your reports said that overall, measured by arts organizations per capita, Miami is near the bottom of major cities, down there with Detroit. We’ve just finished another busy Art Basel. Are we basically a once-a-year arts hub?

Absolutely not. In fact, go back to the beginning of Basel. There was a reason that Sam Keller, the guy from Basel, brought the show here. It’s a for-profit organization. It doesn’t take any money from us or from government. They make a deal with the convention center like any other convention, and they probably have more leverage now than they used to. They could have gone to New York. They could have gone to Chicago, L.A. This was back in 2002.

The reason he picked here was the north-south confluence. This isn’t the capital of anything. It is certainly not the capital of Latin America and it’s not even the capital of Florida. But it is the meeting place, the exchange place between north and south. It is where north and south feel comfortable. And it had to do with the time of year. He does Basel in June, and he wanted to it on the other part of the year. The weather here isn’t bad in December. And he wanted to come to a place where there was already an arts collecting community that was serious and world-class.

Specifically: Braman’s collection, the de la Cruz’s collection, Margulies. Rubell had just arrived or was arriving. Others were beginning collections that suggested how a young community was expressing art. We had an international film festival that was good. We had a book fair that was among the biggest in the United States. And so he rolled the dice.

I think the Miami Herald at the time helped. Jane Wooldridge and Elissa Vanaver put together a team that decided this is our county fair. So we had it on the front page for seven days running. I saw Sam on the Sunday of that first year, 2002. He said the attendance was three times above the outside guess of what we would get. And I think that traffic was entirely due to the Miami Herald because it made something that might have otherwise seemed so elite into a community event.

I remember that Sunday morning Susana [his wife] and I were there because we were trying to negotiate on a painting in a French gallery that we hoped it would not want to bring back to Paris unsold.

I remember two young women pushing their babies in strollers. And two guys who I swear looked like they were going to the county fair. And they just sort of got sidetracked and ended up at the art fair. I think they tapped into something that Miami was ready to respond to. And we got the painting, by the way.


How He Got Here

He was born in Puerto Rico, raised in New Jersey. “My father was Cuban,” says Alberto Ibargüen, “Republican, conservative, liked Barry Goldwater. Only spoke to us in English. My mother was Puerto Rican, liberal, Democrat, loved Adlai Stevenson, only talked to us in Spanish. I lived my life schizophrenically.”

He graduated from Wesleyan University and served in the Peace Corps -- in a remote Amazon area of Venezuela, then in Colombia. He got a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced law for a while before getting into the newspaper business with the Hartford Courant, then New York Newsday. He was hired as publisher of El Nuevo Herald in 1995 and became publisher of the Miami Herald in 1998.

When he arrived, he found El Nuevo was viewed as “a way of assimilating Cubans into the United States. I thought that option was gone. It wasn’t a question of speeding up the assimilation. The assimilation was going to happen generationally.

“In Miami, there was a different attitude, a different set of interests, a different sense of humor. Latin American news was really important. There were so many people here from other places. By the time I got here, there were significant pockets of Venezuelans, Colombians, Argentines.”

The English and Spanish editions had been sold together. He decided El Nuevo should be sold separately and aimed at appealing to Hispanics. He hired as editor Carlos Castañeda, a Cuban-born journalist who led the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia for almost three decades.

Ibargüen: “He was probably the most successful editor in Latin America at that time.” He told Castañeda: “I want you to create a newspaper that cannot be confused with the Miami Herald. If you do that, you can do whatever you want.”

During the BT interview, Ibargüen confided: “You know why I could do that? Because the folks at Knight Ridder didn’t speak any Spanish.

“I trusted this guy. He created a different paper. It all came to a head one Saturday morning with Elian Gonzalez. The Miami Herald won a Pulitzer for its coverage, a cool telling of a hot subject. That’s what a great newspaper does. El Nuevo Herald was the voice of a different community and the headline was ¡Que Vergüenza! Shame on you!”

Another high point: The Herald investigative series on Miami International Airport was “one of my proudest moments,” exposing the way contractors paid lobbyists who donated to county commissioners, who kept the status quo despite huge problems at MIA.

A low spot came when he had a confrontation with Steve Rossi, president of the Knight Ridder newspaper division. Rossi told Ibargüen about Knight Ridder’s desires for the next year’s Herald budget: “Here’s your revenue number and here’s your expense number. How do you feel about that?”

Ibargüen: “To be honest, I’d already begun discussions with Knight Foundation. I’d always intended to be a university president or a foundation president.

“I said, ‘Well, Steve, I can make that number. Because I’m the only publisher you’ve got that has exceeded every budget -- except for 9/11 -- and I came within $50,000 of doing that one. So as a practical matter, you tell me a number. I’ll make it.

“‘But you cannot continue to squeeze this thing. Forget the long term. You can’t expect that in the mid term people will keep coming back, because you’re charging more and giving them less. So my question to you is, when I exceed this number, can I have your understanding that I can invest the overage in Miami?’

“He hemmed and hawed, and since I had already decided I’m quitting, I pushed him -- because you didn’t push people at Knight Ridder. It’s not done.

“I said, ‘You haven’t answered my question. It’s actually a yes or no question. Can I have your word that I can use the overage in Miami?’ He said no.

“I thought to myself: I'm done. A month later I took the job at the Knight Foundation. It was not planned that way.”

Ibargüen’s foundation job is going so well that he hasn’t thought of leaving: “I do not have a retirement schedule.”

-- John Dorschner


A recent Knight-financed study reports that Knight’s spending on the arts in Miami has had a synergistic effect in sparking other giving and activity. Over a ten-year period, attendance at cultural events climbed 27 percent -- much faster than population growth. Overall arts spending increased over 150 percent. And over five years, the number of creative jobs was up 21 percent. How did you decide that Knight should start backing the arts?

When I moved from the paper to Knight, I viewed Miami as a brilliant teenager: young enough to do stunning and amazing things. And then every once in a while we’d do something so bone-headed that you really couldn’t believe. Three-quarters of us are from somewhere else, one-half of us from a foreign country -- we need to find common denominators in order to make a community.

One of the first things we did after I went to Knight was a Gallup study of the 26 Knight communities in the United States over three years -- the same study repeated three times, 400,000 or so Americans were interviewed. What we found consistently was that personal relations and culture were the things that most clearly bound people to place.

So if you’re interested in building community, culture can be a way. I knew if we threw the entire endowment at it, we would not have enough to make an impact, unless we did something with a trend that was already going, that we could leverage or accelerate.

Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point? He basically says that you have these things -- fashion and technology and social, and then they come together and create something entirely new that could not have been planned. And that’s the tipping point. So the mistake people make is looking for the tipping point. I think the point of the book was you need to look at what the trends were before.

Look at Miami in the ’50s and the ’60s: Air conditioning made Miami livable year around. Jet propulsion made Miami really close. And Cuba changed Miami culturally. All in a relatively short period of time. That created a tipping point from what had been a winter vacation spot. So my search was something we could leverage or accelerate, and I thought about sports, the environment, public education. And I thought about the arts.

In sports, I didn’t think the board would let me buy the Marlins. In environment, I talked with many editors at the Herald about how you made that story compelling. It’s really tough to talk about long-term effects. I didn’t see anything there. I talked to Rudy Crew [Miami-Dade school superintendent from 2004-2008] about public education and he gave me some good advice. He said, “Listen, on your scale, I could swallow your endowment in a couple of years, and we wouldn’t even notice it.” He suggested funding an international study about what high school should be in the 21st century. I rather liked that. But then he got fired, and that never went anyplace. And so we landed on art.

We had a really simple theory. We’re going to channel this in a relatively small area. We’re going to be the second or third largest funder of institutions. We’re going to be the main funder of grass roots. We’re going to go crazy.

That includes the Pérez and the Miami City Ballet. One of my absolute favorites was a guy who lived near a putt-putt golf course that had closed, and he said the owner of the course told him that, until he decided what to do with the property, he was willing to let him have it to display his and his friends’ sculptures. And he needed $10,000 to $15,000 to clean it up and keep it mowed.

We’ve also dropped poems from helicopters written on biodegradable paper with vegetable ink onto music crowds below. I think we helped stabilize PAMM. We were the second or third biggest donor at PAMM. At ICA. At Frost. At New World Symphony.

So that gives the continuity. If you needed further proof, look at the fact -- what other city in the United States has built three music halls: the Knight, Ziff Opera House, and the New World Symphony. We have a brand-new science museum. We have three basically new art museums, and a slew of other significant art galleries.

More than that, you have Borscht [a Miami nonprofit making local movies and running and a film festival]. The kid [Lucas Leyva] -- I didn’t even know him. He came to an awards ceremony. He got some small award. And he had a barber shop shave his head so that he had KF on the side of his temple. I went up to him and said, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re my guy.”

And two years later, because of our funding, they had moved from a really small venue to the Ziff Opera House and filled it -- with 300 people outside waiting to get in -- for their film festival. They’ve had 17 films accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. That is astonishing. It’s absolutely amazing. They were the ones who helped bring down the people who did Moonlight. These are things you can’t possibly plan for, but if you fertilize the stuff that’s already germinating, I think that’s the kind of stuff you can expect.


In places like Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, the wealthy people got together and donated their collections to a central museum. Here it’s all spread out -- Pérez, de la Cruz, Rubell. Is that a negative in the long run for Miami?

Absolutely not. You tell Mr. Frick or Mrs. Whitney that you can’t have your museum in New York. Who are we kidding? We just happen to be 100 years later in our community maturation. This is our moment. Who is to tell Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz that they have to put their art collection in the same place as Jorge Pérez?

What’s been the best Knight’s grant on your watch? The worst?

I think the biggest mistake was early in my tenure when when we went with personal connections with people we worked with in a particular town. I won’t say which town. The work was possibly interesting but prior to our setting a real strategy.

Setting a strategy not only gives you direction, it also allows you to measure and to develop an expertise to see. After that experience, there was no way our staff would have done that grant again. Not even small. It was big. And by the way, we put Jack Knight’s name on it. Which made it all the more embarrassing. Because we had to take it off.

Best grant? I could say the series of arts grants is certainly going to be a part of the legacy of the Knight Foundation.

I think the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is a legacy grant. [Knight contributed $30 million, its largest journalism grant ever. Columbia matched it.] I don’t know if that will ever pay off, but I believe the hostility to the First Amendment is such that it ebbs and flows and it needs disinterested champions at the moment when you least expect it. That was done well before Trump, by the way, so we’re not talking about anything to do with a particular politician.

The Detroit bankruptcy -- buying the Detroit Institute of the Arts -- was a huge one. [The government threatened to sell the art collection to pay city pensions.] Our role was catalytic, jumping on literally from day one and we were the first ones to make a major commitment. Ours was $30 million. Others came in bigger subsequently, but ours was the first.


For a recent Knight-sponsored Gallup survey, high school students were read the statement: “Print newspapers should be allowed to publish any story without the government having the ability to block or censor them.” The response: 40 percent said they either mildly or strongly disagreed with that statement, or they didn’t know. Should that frighten us?

Of course it should. We’ve done that survey now eight times -- every two years. Two years after 9/11 there was a spike in the number of students who said that there’s a role for government in censoring news. In that same survey, students were asked is there a role for government in censoring the lyrics of the songs you listen to. The answer was no blankety-blank way.

So my view is we need to figure out how to reconnect people with their First Amendment, with their free speech. We’re considering a campaign about what free speech means. Can you imagine Barack Obama and Donald Trump answering that question -- in less than a tweet. Or John Doe or Mary Smith answering it. It’s not an original idea. I saw prototype of it years ago at the Newseum. It never went any place. I think this might be the time.


In Knight’s Open Table conversations, with people discussing what’s important to their communities, the Miami participants said their three biggest issues were equality/social inclusion, transportation, and the economy. How do you view Miami’s biggest problems?

Let me just preface my comments by saying that as a private foundation, seeking impact, we don’t consider it our brief to attack everything. We’re not the county commission.

But how can you live here and not understand sea level rise and the environment are major issues? How can you live here and not understand the squeezing of the middle class as a major issue? These are important issues that should and must be dealt with.

When Janet Reno came back after eight years away as attorney general, I remember we asked her what had been the biggest change while she’d been away. She said something like 300,000 more inhabitants without a single improvement in transportation, in water, in the infrastructure of the greater South Florida area.

I would add to that: I don’t think our structure of government is particularly helpful. I happen be on the board of American Airlines, so I want to be absolutely clear that this is a personal opinion, not an American Airlines opinion, but I think it’s insane that we don’t have a coordinated airport authority that deals with what MIA, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach are doing.


There’s a lot of talk about overwhelming traffic problems, much of it caused by lack of affordable housing in areas where most people work. What are your thoughts on that?

We actually have some modest experiments in utilization of self-driving cars. I happen to think that [Miami-Dade County] Mayor Gimenez was right to balk at the gazillion-dollar investment he was asked to make in a rail transportation hub. You know, if it had been 20 years ago, that might have been a great thing to do. But today I think he’s right -- other stuff seems to be on the horizon.

We’ve commissioned five experiments -- in Miami, Detroit, Pittsburgh, San José, and Long Beach. We’re trying to do citizen engagement about the choices of what to test. In San José, I suppose you could test Ubers or self-driving cars for taking people to their offices, for professionals, which is the most likely use of those things. Or modified, personalized public transportation for those who can’t afford it.

In Miami, the really interesting thing would be if you could make the north-south rail line more usable. I remember when I first came to Miami, I thought, ‘Oh great. I’ve got a stop right next to the Herald. I’ll just get on the train.’ And the first time, I was drenched in sweat by the time I made it back to my house. Imagine if there was a self-driving vehicle I could call, that’s reliable, that’s cheap. So there are experiments we are playing with.

Our thought about smart cities is it’s the next wave of sets of applications. We’re not trying to invent apps or to create new technology. We’re interested in the application of existing technology for better delivery of city services to the citizens.


One criticism of the Knight Foundation came from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, which said in 2015 that Knight was chasing “#ShinyBrightObjects” that focused on appealing to the “cool kids in the cafeteria.” Overall, that report cited positives about the Knight endeavors as “a breath of fresh air in philanthropy” and a “clear commitment to innovation,” but it said it lacked “well-articulated long-term goals and strategies.” What did you think of that report?

When you’re funding entrepreneurship in community, journalism, or the arts, it can be frustratingly difficult to tell the difference between a shiny object and a new idea.

On the media scene, there’s no doubt we moved away from traditional funding of endowed chairs and standard training programs. Instead, we funded hundreds (probably thousands) of experiments in using digital media to deliver news and information to communities. We are about to make some very big investments, as a result of what we’ve learned and organizations we’ve helped develop. Stay tuned for February announcements.

In arts, if you look at something like that at any particular point (a snapshot in time), you might well think we were just funding shiny things. A decade later in Miami, however, I would argue that that seemingly random funding has had a deep and sustainable impact in the city’s sense of itself and its view of itself as a place of art and culture.

We’ve been consistent in our theory of development as a private foundation at Knight’s scale: (1) Respect donor intent. (2) Greatest impact will come from funding to leverage or accelerate trends naturally occurring in our communities or fields of interest. (3) Look for the group of characteristics in your grantees that virtually always exist in successful social transformation -- discovery, vision, courage, skill, and tenacity.


Knight has spent quite a bit on technology, in Miami and elsewhere. But when you look around the country, practically every major city is trying to be the next Silicon Valley. Is this running to stay in place?


When I hired Matt Haggman [in 2011, as Knight’s Miami program director], I asked him to talk to people, find out what’s on their minds, and then come back and tell me what’s the trend.

He comes back months later and says “tech.” I say you’ve got to be kidding. We’re a nonprofit. We don’t invest. He said there are so many people in this town who are entrepreneurial by instinct, by family, the kind of person who immigrates without a job, and they’re finding digital possibilities, and we can help create a community of these people because they in the main don’t know that the others exist.

I thought about the Skoll Foundation -- Jeff was the first employee of eBay. His mantra is to change the world for the better by investing, connecting, and celebrating the work of social entrepreneurs. And I thought, oh yeah. we’ve got a chance to do the same thing. So I said, well, knock yourself out.

Matt built that program, doing things like funding the first big co-working space [LAB Miami, in Wynwood] and bringing people like Endeavor into Miami. [Endeavor Global, which started in Chile and Argentina, builds “communities of high-impact entrepreneurs and innovators.” It received a $2 million Knight grant in 2013 and another $2 million in September. It supports 23 companies and 42 entrepreneurs in South Florida who have generated $150 million revenue and 1800 jobs.]

That’s created a sense of community that I think has been healthy and has led to the rise of a not-quite-prominent but still a serious rise in a class of people in Miami who will take on all the leadership positions coming next.


Last fall you told a Herald reporter: “Not now, but at some point, I think Knight probably leaves, I don’t know which -- art or tech entrepreneurship -- and moves on to something else.” Did that make waves throughout Miami?

Boy, did that! I meant exactly what I said. Just after that, we announced an additional $37 million in arts funding, but at some point it’s just a reality that organizations like ours might well have a different perspective and might decide that it’s time to deal with education and sea level rise, or transportation. I don’t know. I think people should ... [long hesitation] ... My experience in the newspaper business is, Anybody who thinks they are entitled to forever is just wrong.

Feedback: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Art and Culture

ArtFeature_1Diaspora Vibe struggles to help its artists and stay afloat


Art Listings

Events Calendar


bigstock-Coronavirus-prevention-medical-353725838Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible


Picture Story

Pix_PictureStory_5-20A view of our past from the archives of HistoryMiami