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Think you've got journalism's next big idea? Get to know Elspeth Revere, the MacArthur Foundation's media maven

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The most important woman in Chicago journalism attended the landmark Chicago Journalism Town Hall in early 2009 and sat quietly in back. Few people knew she was there or who she was, but the noisy room would have gone stone silent in an instant if she'd stood and said something like, "Many of you have some very interesting ideas, but this is what the MacArthur Foundation is willing to pay for."

Consider the Chicago News Cooperative, which launched a few months after the Town Hall. I was among the luminaries on the Town Hall panel, and my enthusiasm for the CNC would have left founder James O'Shea two bucks shy of a cup of coffee. The interest of Elspeth Revere, conversely, has led to grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation totaling $1 million. Without them the CNC wouldn't exist.

Revere is the MacArthur Foundation's vice president for media, culture, and special initiatives. Her job is to put serious money in serious hands, and here's where some of the foundation's money has gone on her watch: To support investigative journalism: $600,000 to the Center for Investigative Reporting, $750,000 to the Center for Public Integrity, $500,000 to ProPublica. To support public radio and television: $1.2 million to Public Radio International, $1 million to PBS's NewsHour, $300,000 to the Third Coast International Audio Festival. To support documentary film: $1.5 million to P.O.V., $290,000 to Chicago's Kartemquin Films, $1.1 million to the Bay Area Video Coalition. To support new media and technology: $430,000 to a University of Michigan research project "on credibility assessment in the participatory Web environment," $450,000 to a Tribeca Film Institute project "to aggregate, digitize, curate and make available independent media content for online distribution."

Then there's the ongoing $1 million a year grant to Frontline, the long-running documentary series from WGBH in Boston that touches all the bases. Revere admires it "not only because of the kind of investigative reporting that they do but also because they were eager to take on the challenges of the digital age and use digital media to build new audiences." At the moment, what impresses Revere most about Frontline "is not so much digital but that they're really collaborating with other organizations. They have a producer located at ProPublica, a producer at the Center for Public Integrity. They're coproducing stories with NPR and really kind of looking through the TV/radio divide to find common ground."

Collaboration is the premise and promise of the Chicago News Cooperative, which received a start-up grant of $500,000 from MacArthur and an equal grant a year later. "She's tough, I'll tell you that," says O'Shea. "She's very businesslike, and she's very direct with her questions, her comments, and her observations. Basically, you have to deliver for her. You can't just think, 'Well, I'm OK because she's given me one grant.' She'll actually make you walk the walk. I have an enormous amount of respect for her."

The Third Coast Festival turned to Revere after WBEZ stopped underwriting it. Executive director Johanna Zorn tells me, "She's been superimportant. So many organizations talk about talking to her. There are a lot of organizations that would be in harm's way of not existing without her."

Time Out Chicago blogger Robert Feder recently announced his list of the 21 "most powerful women in Chicago journalism" and Revere wasn't on it. The omission of Revere was forgivable—Revere doesn't think of herself as a journalist. But it was a failure to recognize that in the turbulent world of contemporary media by far the most important power is the power to create the future.

"One of the concerns is how journalism is going to be funded in the future now that it's been unbundled from classified advertising and weather and movie reviews and sports scores and all those things you used to have to go to newspapers for," says Revere. "And when possibly promising projects come along, if they're either national or local, we're interested. Everybody's trying to figure this out and nobody's quite got the answer."

Revere tells me MacArthur's interest in journalism evolved from its support of independent documentary filmmakers, which goes back some 30 years (or a decade before she joined the foundation), when "it was very hard to get points of view other than the very few then on TV." The MacArthur Foundation was also an early funder of National Public Radio, and its news programs also "led us very slowly, bit by bit, into journalism," she says. If she'd been asked as recently as three or four years ago if MacArthur funded journalism per se, she'd have said no. But the sea change in traditional media that troubled her as a news consumer lured her as a donor. "As commercial news organizations continue to reduce their investigative reporting staffs in particular and the world gets no less complicated, one could conclude there will continue to be both a growing need and opportunity to make good grants."

Two years ago the Chicago Community Trust, publisher of the Chicago Reporter and Catalyst, launched its Community News Matters initiative to support new forms of local neighborhood journalism. MacArthur is too big and too national in scope to feel comfortable dealing directly with the grassroots, but it helped the CCT along with $100,000. Says Revere, "We wouldn't have been in a position to go through dozens of local reporting projects and fund them with small grants, so we were happy to make a grant to the trust to do that."

But Revere's role wasn't so arm's-length as this makes it sound. Ngoan Le, vice president of programs at CCT, tells me that when the trust was setting up Community News Matters it asked the MacArthur Foundation to share its expertise. Says Le, "MacArthur [in the persons of Revere and staffer Kathy Im] asked very tough questions when we came to them. Initially we thought that what the community really needed was another news site, a public square. And they really challenged that concept. They said there are already too many sites attempting to do similar things, and it would be better for us to think about what would be an appropriate role for us to play, such as helping new innovators."

CCT awarded 12 grants in the first year of Community News Matters, and the second year—with another $100,000 from MacArthur —it issued 31. Now Le is helping Revere set up a national conference in Chicago this summer of the foundations that fund journalism. "She's the key organizer," says Le. "We're at the table to help plan it."

E-mail Michael Miner at mminer@chicagoreader.com.

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