Knight Foundation leader to retire, leaving powerful legacy

Mar 24, 2023, 1:28 PM

Alberto Ibargüen announced Friday that he was stepping down as the leader of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, ending a run as the grantmaker’s president that began in the George W. Bush administration. With about $3 billion in assets, Knight is among the 50 wealthiest foundations.

During his tenure, Ibargüen made his mark in the cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight operated their newspaper empire. In Detroit, Ibargüen helped orchestrate a $370 million foundation effort to keep the city’s finances from cratering. In Miami, he crusaded for the arts, helping the city become an international cultural destination. And as a former newspaper executive who saw the news industry being decimated all around him, Ibargüen made it a top priority at Knight to restore the credibility and viability of journalism in response to the upheaval caused by the internet.

Ibargüen, 79, was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in New Jersey. After serving in the Peace Corps and working as a legal-aid lawyer earlier in his career, he climbed the newspaper ranks. He served as publisher of the Miami Herald when it won three coveted Pulitzer Prizes and publisher of the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald in Miami.

Ibargüen’s career in newspapers helped set the way he ran the foundation. He expected his colleagues at Knight to scout out leads like reporters and be the foundation’s eyes and ears on the ground in the communities they serve. Those around him said he embraced the chaos of a newsroom environment and wasn’t afraid to slam the brakes on a project when something juicier presented itself.

“I don’t find it very useful to say, ‘We only do this,” or ‘We only do that,’” he says. “Setting rules up ahead of time never struck me as that creative.”

Ibargüen will depart when Knight finds a replacement. In the meantime, he is still busy trying to put together what he hopes is a mammoth fund to support journalism. Ibargüen isn’t certain how much the fund will gather from other foundations — although he said ”$1 billion is just an ante” for the work that needs to be done. It also is unclear whether the fund will touch on all areas of journalism, including First Amendment issues, technology development, supporting small news outlets, and helping people become more discerning readers and viewers of the news.

Ibargüen says several dozen foundations have said they are interested in joining in. Diversifying Knight’s board in terms of race, gender, and ideological perspective, Ibargüen says, was one of his biggest accomplishments. Upon realizing that a tiny percentage of Knight’s endowment was managed by investing firms owned by people of color, Ibargüen developed a survey of foundations and universities with a goal of diversifying endowment money managers.

At Knight, Ibargüen has managed to remain faithful to the wishes of the Knight brothers, while keeping the foundation’s work at the cutting edge, says John Palfrey, president of the MacArthur Foundation and a trustee on Knight’s board until December.

Ibargüen’s response in Detroit, where the Knights ran the Detroit Free Press, was both in line with the brothers’ commitment to the city but also represented a different kind of involvement in city finances than the Knights had envisioned, suggested Palfrey. Rather than supporting the arts or community programs, the money Knight contributed to the Grand Bargain went to pay the city’s pensioners, traditionally a municipal, not philanthropic, responsibility.

Similarly, Ibargüen showed that he was not bound to the past when he steered Knight away from endowing journalism professorships at universities. But he jumped at the chance to re-establish the practice when doing so was an attempt to promote equity, Palfrey says. The result, the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University, is led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Ibargüen worked to set up the center after Jones, who oversaw an extensive New York Times look at the legacy of slavery in the United States, the 1619 Project, when she was at first denied tenure at University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, another institution that has received support from Knight. Within weeks of the University of North Carolina decision, Knight, MacArthur, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor provided a total of $20 million for the new center at Howard.

One of the biggest injuries the media revolution has inflicted on the news business is the disconnection people feel between their geography — their city and neighborhood — and the news they consume online, which tends to be national in scope, Ibargüen says. As Knight struggled to support new ways to deliver the news by making grants to outlets across the country, Ibargüen also was obsessed with driving home a single story in his hometown: the arts matter.

“Art bridges language and bridges experience,” he says. “If Gloria Estefan is singing, your toes will tap, I guarantee it. And if Beethoven is playing, your soul soars.” Even more, a city where residents are connected through shared cultural offerings can be an essential part of a strong democracy in which political differences are recognized but not demonized, Ibargüen says.

Franklin Sirmans, who moved to Miami in 2015 to serve as director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, says Ibargüen’s strong leadership has been key to making Miami an arts scene.

“He has an incredibly persuasive, beautiful, and poetic way of talking about it. I hate to use Alberto’s own terms so closely, but over the past seven years, I have struggled to find my own words.”

The city has been transformed by the injection of arts fund, and today Miami is “committed to being a place that is open for dialogue,” Sirmans says. “It’s a place that doesn’t shy away from having difficult conversations. Rather, it is a place that is led by art, a place where art is the catalyst for every single thing that we do.”


This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alex Daniels is a senior reporter at the Chronicle. Email: alex.daniels@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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Knight Foundation leader to retire, leaving powerful legacy