Imagined Communities and the Future of News

There’s a great blog post from Chris O’Brien over at Next Newsroom on the role of passion and community in the future of news.

In his post “How Passion For Newspapers Points To A Way Forward” O’Brien taps into a vital aspect of the work we are all doing in media reform and the future of journalism. Like so many current social movements we get bogged down in the stats, figures, and data and lose sight of the role of emotion in the fights we wage. It doesn’t just matter how people read the news or where advertisers spend their money – we also need to be concerned with how people feel about news organizations and why people read the news.

“Too often, we boil a newspaper down to the idea that it’s just about journalism. In fact, at their peak, a printed newspaper provided about 50 different services to readers, one of which was journalism. Taken together, these things created not just a product, but also an experience. This is where the emotional component kicks in.”

While it is easy to talk about the vital role of journalism in democracy, and we have to keep doing so. By focusing on such huge abstract issues, we risking missing the more local direct way that people experience the news and the immediate role journalism plays in our lives. As O’Brien notes, this role is not just about providing news and information. And its not just about creating a local marketplace. The sum is greater than its parts here. News orgs are vital civic orgs – they organize information (or help people organize information) and in so doing they help organize people themselves. This is the community building power of the media – that has for the most part been forgotten (or abandoned). This is what the best community newspapers, community radio stations, and community access TV still do.

However, as O’Brien notes – increasingly, we need to get outside the media silos of the past. (This is one of the reasons I am particularly interested in the new Texas Tribune project). We need to be thinking across platforms and be presenting information on multiple outlets. This resonated with what educators have been saying for year about people’s diverse learning styles. As people’s relation to media on and offline is shifting, their relationship to each other and their locale is also shifting. Chris rightly points out – this is an opportunity not a threat.

Here is how O’Brien puts it at the end of his essay:

“At their peak, a newspaper did two things: They created community (as you mention above). And their business was providing the local marketplace for goods and services (the classifieds). The reason they are in trouble today is because they have lost on both of these fronts. Classifieds have evaporated. And as the audience has splintered, the newspaper no longer serves as community hub, creating a shared base of knowledge and conversation. In both cases, the opportunity remains. The question we, at newspapers, need to ask is NOT: How do we reinvent journalism? Opportunity abounds here. More people read my journalism than ever.

The real questions are: How do create local community on the Web (because geography does still matter)? And how do we reinvent the local marketplace? Solve those two challenges, and the business will begin to grow in a manner that will support smart, multi-platform newsrooms. These newsrooms won’t be dominant, as they were in the past. They’ll exist as part of local news ecosystem.

But create community, help people succeed in business, and you’ll find a way back to re-igniting the passion for your newsroom.”

Reading this I couldn’t help but think of Benedict Anderson’s meditations on newspapers and “imagined community.” I’ve written about the value of Anderson’s ideas in our digital era before (here and here):

“Benedict Anderson equates our collective identity to an “imagined community,” one that is woven together through the media we consume. At the time Anderson was most concerned with newspapers, but I wonder how his ideas hold up in our digital era. Anderson’s assertion was that no country or nation could ever be anything but imagined because there would never be a way for each of the inhabitants to meet and know each other truly as a community. Instead, we imagine ourselves as a community through our shared experiences of shared cultural artifacts – like the newspaper.”

For Anderson, this was less than ideal as he saw it as a key tool in nationalism. But, taken in the light of O’Brien’s post, and in thinking about smaller, less dominant news organizations – perhaps structured as nonprofits dedicated to the public interest – I believe this idea is key to the future of journalism and community.

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