I met Keith Hammonds at Fast Company Real Time Philadelphia in 2001. At the time he was Executive Editor for the magazine. Like many of the journalists and editors involved with the magazine, Keith struck me as very inquisitive. Someone interested in the social aspects of business - those intended (and unintended) consequences of commerce that could and at time do change lives.
Recently, Keith joined Ashoka's new Social Entrepreneurs in Journalism program as team leader. He graduated at Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School. Keith worked in London and Johannesburg as a freelance journalist, and consulted with New Nation, a weekly newspaper in South Africa, on publishing strategy. He also co-founded a drought relief food distribution network in Namibia.
In this series of conversations I like to explore how new media is changing journalism. Given Keith's work, I thought it would be appropriate to discover how journalism is having an impact in communities around the world. What follows is an email exchange I had with Keith.
How did you get involved with Ashoka? What made it a choice for you?
Keith: While an editor at Fast Company, I helped to create the Fast Company/Monitor Group Social Capitalist Awards—a program intended to identify, assess, and honor the leading social entrepreneurs in America. In that realm, Ashoka is the Big Kahuna: its founder, Bill Drayton, literally came up with the term “social entrepreneur” to describe people who pursue innovation for large scale social impact, and it has named over 2000 Ashoka Fellows around the world. In fact, I wrote about Drayton and Ashoka in 2005.
Late last year, Ashoka received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create a program aimed at identifying, supporting, and connecting social entrepreneurs in knowledge and news. The idea was to use Ashoka’s existing global network to find innovators using journalistic strategies to create transformative social change—and to create a sort of incubator whose leading-edge ideas would, in turn, inform the future of the news field.
What do you like most about your job? Why?
Keith: First, I’m thrilled by the sheer ambition and fearlessness of the social entrepreneurs we work with. To be in the same room with these people is to confront our capacity as humans for audacity: They see staggering social problems—and rather than throwing up their hands, they devise ingenious responses and then marshal the resources to make change happen. They not only believe in the possibility of change, they believe that they—and everyone, really, but especially them—must be the ones to make change happen. Second, I’m excited by the potential leverage of this work.
The fields of news and knowledge are foundational to vital democratic society. People who enjoy access to free, fair, and high-quality news media per se become more effective citizens: they understand more about how their community works, and they’re more likely to participate in making the decisions that shape their lives.
Confronted by that sort of transparency, government, business, and other institutions necessarily become more accountable for what they do. The free flow of knowledge makes possible other forms of social change—advances in health care, wealth distribution, environmental policy. The upside is incredible.
You talk about journalism as an field with transformative social impact. What does social entrepreneurship have to do with journalism?
Keith: Journalism’s potential for social impact is clear and profound, as I’ve discussed. We believe that a free, fair, and high-quality news media is, per se, transformative; without it, society is simply less effective on all levels. If you buy that, then you recognize the huge opportunity for entrepreneurs to create impact through innovative and effective journalism strategies.
Just look at Nordine Nabili whose BondyBlog engages young Muslim immigrants in some of France’s poorest neighborhoods to blog about what’s happening in their communities. Instantly, an important dynamic has changed: Rather than being isolated and alienated from the mainstream of French society, these young people are helping to inform the mainstream about their world, breaking down historic barriers.
Or take Gregor Hackmack: His Parliament Watch site has fostered new transparency for German politics and government, not least by creating direct connections between citizens and public officials. Want to understand how your government works? Ask the government! Gregor has opened up the dialogue on German government in very powerful ways.
Do you make use of new media and social networks at Ashoka?
Keith: Yes and yes. The effect of these new technologies has been no less powerful for non-profit entrepreneurs than it has been in other realms. They have, obviously, dramatically lowered barriers to entry for news providers, so pretty much anyone can throw up a blog, or write a Wikipedia entry, or SMS text. They also are making that content accessible to many more people—on the Web, but also via mobile phones and radio. This dynamic has subverted the traditional economics of the knowledge and news fields, allowing entrepreneurs to compete head-to-head with much larger media entities or to subvert state-controlled news monopolies.
In Sri Lanka, for example, our new Fellow Sanjana Hattotuwa is using pretty much every medium at his disposal—the Internet, cell phones, texting—to create a safe space for citizen journals where people write exhaustively and passionately about war, peace, human rights, and social justice. You have ordinary people texting each other news of what’s happening around them. This at a time when traditional media in Sri Lanka faces severe censorship. It just wouldn’t have been imaginable a decade ago. And Fabrice Florin’s NewsTrust.org allows anyone to go online and rate any news story from any source—a community-rated news service, basically.
So, yes: New media and social networking, in the hands of social entrepreneurs, are enormously powerful levers of change.
Quality and journalism, can they still go together?
Keith: I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it were possible. For every bit of evidence that hints at the demise of quality journalism, there’s another that speaks to the promise that new technologies, new business models, and new participants will make journalism even better—more inclusive, more transparent, and of higher quality.
It’s appropriate to worry about the demise of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as we know them—and there’s going to be a lot more pain at the institutions that we’ve historically considered the standard-bearers for the field. But there is enormous energy in the realm of knowledge and news—in mature markets like the US and in emerging democracies around the globe.
We’re witnessing historic opportunities to invent new strategies that, by exploding traditional thinking, more effectively inform, engage,and connect people as active, change-making citizens. It’s just incredibly exciting to watch.