Nov. 17, 2016
Let’s not let a good crisis in journalism go to waste. We can all beat ourselves up over how much time and energy was wasted on polling and predictions, but that noise drowns out what did not get enough time or energy, and what we can do to make it better next time.
By now, we’ve heard the big picture, including how the TV networks dropped their coverage of policy by 85 percent since the 2008 cycle. But, let’s look at the small picture, or more specifically, the constellation of small pictures that went dark this year. This election cycle revealed what journalism nerds have known for years: how little local reporting by local journalists working for local news organizations is being done in the United States, outside of the big, coastal cities. Can you name more than three reporters who don’t work for a news organization in a coastal state? Can you name even one?
As 2017 dawns, platforms (mainly Facebook) have proven adept at solving the short-term, but important, problems vexing journalism—namely, distribution and audience. But, they’ve done so largely at the expense of traditional forms of journalism. Leaders in the field should step back and work to solve the root difficulty of the civic information ecosystem and, in particular, the critical and difficult work of actual people asking tough questions of leadership.
The good news is there are solutions to this challenge. In fact, a few stellar operations have grown up in this environment, but sustained growth will require a change in attitude and capacity. We need to solve two riddles: finding sufficient demand for that kind of journalism and engaging the leadership to make it happen.
If you still think local news is fine, check out the great work being done by The American Press Institute’s Tom Rosenstiel (he wrote this paper on the state of news for Brookings), or the Pew Research Center or the Knight Foundation, among many others. You’ll see that local journalism has cratered. (Of course, this is less of a surprise if you’re among the Trump voters who’s been complaining that no one paid you any mind this year.)
So, that’s a journalism problem, but is it a democracy problem? Yes. Studies show the less journalism near you, the less likely you are to vote (check out this Pew Research Center study, released just before the election, along with slightly older studies here and here). Less bothersome for a Republican this cycle (low turnout mainly hurt Hillary Clinton last week), but, the trend on turnout is going in a bad direction, with less than 60% of eligible voters bothering—the lowest turnout since 2000.
Zooming further out, if you compare rankings of countries across various types of democratic freedoms, press freedom is a good corollary for a healthy civic ecosystem. Of course, look no further than Russia and Turkey for examples of how budding tyrants have “take out the free press” high on their to do list.
Journalism matters. Good, basic reporting matters. Sure, whiz-bang graphics and virtual reality are great, keep ‘em coming, but they’re not stopping a tyrant on their own).
So, what to do? Many well meaning organizations have stepped into this vacuum with ideas on how to help, but most, from the beginning, have been aimed at those short-term problems of distribution and audience. While those problems are profound and important to solve, these efforts evoke the image of a climber grabbing at stones while sliding down a rock face.
Further, recent study by the University of Texas suggests that the headline-grabbing rush to digital might have been a fool’s errand. Sticking to a tradition of filling a printed and delivered paper with good copy for its readers might have been the most profitable play all along. For more and more papers, including the freshly resurgent Washington Post, the main goal remains subscriptions, including print, that serve to deliver advertising to the driveways and stoops of their readership. I’m not suggesting we also take on the challenge of saving wood-based news products, just that the headlong rush to try new things can leave good ideas behind.
In fact, the headlong race into platforms, and the once romantic notion that this would put power in the hands of citizens to tell their own stories and craft their own media diets, has actually made public engagement worse. Facebook traffics in fake news (albeit unintentionally) and reinforces our cultural barriers by narrowing our social graph rather than the opposite. There’s no reason to accept a descent into a fully partisan news environment, with each publication and organ an echo of its tribes. We can turn things around, but it requires work.
It’s still clear that demand for this sort of journalism has declined since the industry’s glory days of the mid-20th century. In the past few years, many good players have tried to resolve this central challenge. Their success has been, uh, varied, but many have survived and, in this context of the industry’s disruption, could arguably be described as flourishing, such as the Texas Tribune, KYCir and Wisconsin Watch, among many others. They do great work and are finding success.
Fundamentally, the role of an experienced, well-trained reporter and storyteller, aiming to report his or her best effort to find the truth, is enormously important to the civic information ecosystem. This is the actor who has most left the stage, in particular in state capitals, but also statewide. What’s most dismaying, is that what few local entities remain are disproportionately located in communities that wealthier and less diverse, reinforcing the divide and sense of being left behind.
This role is relatively inexpensive. If you could actually gather a community’s civic leadership together, they’d realize their philanthropic dollars could most effectively spent here, as the budget of a decent journalism operation compares favorably to the symphony and the art museum. The barriers to raising those funds, however, are two-fold.
First, until recently, it was a function served by the free market, and potential funders have not been educated sufficiently to understand that it can’t be any longer, at least not solely (through a diverse set of advertising revenue would help insulate an operation from the influence of a single funder or too-small group of funders).
Second, the journalism operation, unlike the symphony, will likely irritate civic leadership in such a way that it would be tempted to pull funding, as would an advertiser or patron. The best way to solve this would be to engage the full community as to the need of journalism to provide sunlight to a system in a way that benefits all long-term. I admit I don’t have a silver bullet here, but some communities have pulled this off and we should learn those lessons and extend them to the rest of the country. It seems increasingly clear our democracy depends on it.