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A lingering idea from Al Gore’s Information Superhighway is using grant money to jumpstart online (and wireless) community services and involvement. One year, as a judge for the U.S. Department of Commerce, I even helped dole out some of the Fed money.

Since then, we’ve probably reached a tipping point for technology and penetration, and the federal program has rightfully died out. Most of the new breed of deserving community projects, like WestportNow and Pegasus News, stand a reasonable chance (1:25?) of fending for themselves. Still, some community projects, especially in poor, underserved communities, could use a boost (and I don’t mean all the “Me Media” things that job-avoiding bloggers plot to get grants for).

To separate the wheat from the chaff, and get things going, the Knight Foundation teamed with the University of Maryland’s J-Lab to support “New Voices” grants. This is the program’s third year, and it has just announced 10 $12,000 grants. If the recipients’ play their cards right, they can get a $5k follow-up grant next year.

Some of my favorite grantees include:

  • A weekly newscast from 40 often-isolated community, college and independent radio stations in the Pacific Northwest.
  • A map-based journalism project mapping how climate change is affecting Vermont’s economy, from fall foliage and maple syrup to skiing.
  • A news and information portal for Fulton Hill, a low income Richmond, Virginia, neighborhood. The portal will include stories, photos, audio, video and a Wiki.
  • A bulletin board and Web site in New York to keep residents alerted about real estate developments that affect their neighborhoods  sort of like Barry Parr’s Coastsider in Half Moon Bay.

But the “underserved” aren’t always paramount here. The Friends of the Chappaqua Library, for instance, managed to land a grant to create “The New Castle News Forum,” an online information hub. Chappaqua, the Westchester, New York, home of the Clintons and where I grew up, on Hardscrabble Road, is now one of the most affluent communities in the U.S.

A Chappaqua site isn’t necessarily going to fill an information hole either. Chappaqua is served by Gannett’s Patent Trader and is one of the core communities for American Town Networks, although that site has been struggling.

New Voices Project Director Jan Schaffer says giving a grant to the likes of Chappaqua is certainly a dilemma, given UMD’s aspiration to reach out to underserved communities. “You’d think they could just write a check,” she acknowledges. But the Friends of the Library are extremely well plugged-in, and know everyone in the community. They can tap someone on the back and ask them to contribute content. The hope is that once you get past the political incorrectness of giving money to a rich community, they can build a model that can be utilized in less affluent communities, she says.

I buy that. It’s not as if winning models in community journalism have become widespread.

In general, Schaffer notes that the “strong proposals were very strong” this year. The best ones were volunteer efforts that could lead to economic and editorial sustainability in their own communities, and integrated different segments of the community. “They weren’t just local school kids.” They also utilize different media, not just Web sites. A technology like low-power radio has been effective.

But UMD also ended up reviewing a bunch of proposals where the applicants stretched the definition of citizen media to news media literacy to fix that problem. Making at-risk kids more media literate is not what citizen media is about, she suggests.

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