Co-authored by Josh Stearns and Tracy VanSlyke
If 2009 was a year of study and debate about the future of journalism, 2010 must be a year of action. We must come together around a core set of ideas to create a better ecosystem for sustainable and high-impact journalism. Based on the various reports and conferences from the past year, we’ve compiled the five most important areas that journalism organizations (and those invested in the future of journalism) must tackle in 2010—and suggest some initial steps to begin moving forward.
“If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” wrote Clay Shirky in early 2009. “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments … No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”
Journalism organizations and individual producers need to carve out the time and people power in areas of journalism, community building and business models. The Media Consortium’s report The Big Thaw: Charting a New Course for Journalism emphasized the importance of experimentation. “By bringing together technologists, entrepreneurs and media-makers to increase experimentation, leverage their collective power and build audiences as communities, independent media can not only rise with technological tide, but also achieve the goals of inclusivity and fairness they espouse.”
In May, Free Press released Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy, (a precursor to its current SaveTheNews.org campaign). A key recommendation was a federally funded research; development fund for journalism. Based on models like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Free Press argued that, “Just as government invests in medical research to heal the ails of the body, we need government to invest in experimentation with news models to heal the democratic ails of the body politic.”
The Knight News Challenge is one of the only funding mechanisms for new kinds of experimentation. But it is one foundation with limited resources. In the coming year we need a more coordinated funding approach, that brings significant new resources to the table to support journalism innovation and experimentation for both new and existing journalism projects on a local and national level.
Roughly 15 minutes into nearly every public future of journalism event held this year, the same thing happened. Someone, somewhere commented (or tweeted) a variation of, “Where are the women and people of color? If the future of journalism is white dudes over 50, we’re screwed.” The repeated lack of diversity at these events is an illustration of the serious disconnect that many media makers still have to their own organizations’ future.
At a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) workshop, Bryan Monroe, former editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, argued that new media looks too much like the old media:
“I am going to talk about how white the Web is, and the threat that reality represents to journalism for our increasingly diverse nation,” he said. “Journalism is not dead. Not by a long shot. It is, however, in the process of painfully shedding its old skin for a new one. But, in the battle for its soul between old media and new media, something important is being lost: we are now living in a new America… If our newsrooms lack the broad ranges of culture, backgrounds and life experiences reflective of our society at large, how can we even hope to know what to cover and what appeals to a rapidly diversified marketplace?”
One of the key voices missing from many events and reports this year was that of ethnic media. These media outlets have important lessons to teach regarding the future of journalism. In general, these newsrooms have built strong ties to their audience by giving local people a voice and covering issues that mainstream media consistently overlooks. In his FTC testimony, Monroe points to a recent poll by New America Media that argued “Local, community-based Asian and Spanish language newspapers are also growing — up 16 percent in a recent study — as they cover immigrant and ethnic communities.”
If we are going to build a more diverse media and support new models in ethnic media, we must include diverse (women and people of color) voices at the table when we discuss the future of journalism. We must also engage more strategically with ethnic media and integrate a more diverse set of journalists and bloggers into our journalism endeavors.
Creating engaged communities
Evan Smith, editor of the newly launched Texas Tribune, describes the project’s ultimate goal as “civic engagement” and has said that he wants their readers to do more than just read; he wants them to get involved. Western Citizen – which launched the same week as the Texas Tribune – seeks to, “Combine investigative reporting with online tools to empower citizens to discover their own opportunities for direct action and to publicly deliberate on finding solutions to community problems.”
Today’s audiences are not only media consumers. They are active media producers that recommend, share, watchdog, create and more. But there’s a lot of disagreement and confusion about how to genuinely bring audiences into a journalism organization’s DNA.
As The Big Thaw notes, “Traditional journalists often do not like to mix community organizing with journalism because it can contaminate the credibility of the reporting. However, as the competitive landscape shifts from scarcity to abundance of information and voices, the ability to “cover” the news objectively is no longer the most valuable key competency. Building active communities among users is exponentially growing in value.”
“The Young Turks”, an online television show, demonstrates the power of engaging their audiences in distribution. The Young Turks anoint their audience as “Web Soldiers,” asking for help in strategically distributing the show through social networking sites from Facebook, to Twitter, to Digg.
Last, but not least, the great irony for many journalism organizations is that while they employ expert reporters, rarely do they turn the focus on themselves. Journalism producers must get comfortable with actively sharing their impact with their community. One former Rocky Mountain News reporter said it best: “Journalists cannot be objective about our right to exist.”
In late November, Time Inc., Condé Nast and Hearst announced a groundbreaking new partnership that would jointly move the companies’ 50-odd publications across multiple digital platforms. Historically, journalism outlets have fiercely protected their own editorial and business turf (even the idea of linking to other sites was an anathema a few years ago). But with the exponential impact of the online revolution, the insurgence of new voices and journalism projects online, and the crashing economy, the journalism organizations have been forced to reevaluate their opinion.
It’s important to recognize that there is a fine line between collaboration and consolidation. Over the past year, some local television broadcasters have been quietly pooling news production, and in some cases completely merging news staff and operations. This points out the need for clearer guidelines and oversight of these deals to help foster innovation and collaboration that protects the public interest and supports accountability journalism.
Fear of losing editorial independence and the scoop or being targeted for spreading “talking points” are all prevailing concerns. But editorial collaborations can be done a number of ways. For example, Publish 2 recently described one such example “..a group of journalists from Mother Jones, The Nation, Grist, The UpTake, TreeHugger, and other news organizations have applied the collaborative newswire model to a major international news story, forming the Copenhagen News Collaborative to curate the best coverage from their own reporters, editors, and analysts covering the event.” Projects like this allow publishers to cross-pollinate their audiences and reach new audiences they might not have had access to before.
Overall, editorial or business collaborations should allow organizations to share on costs, resources, and information. Editorial collaboration among practitioners can also lead to ground-breaking experimentation, new forms of journalism production, expanded audiences and overall increased impact. In 2010, journalism organizations need to develop lessons to help streamline future collaborations while funders and investors should promote positive and creative collaborations through targeted financial support.
Make media mobile
Nieman Journalism Lab recently profiled the New York Times’ R&D department’s experiment with moving content delivery and communication among users and platforms. “The R&D group is obsessed with the ability to seamlessly transition among web-enabled gadgets. They’re not convinced that the future will land on a single, multipurpose contraption,” writes Zachary Seward. “Instead, they predict consumers will connect to the Internet through their cars, on their televisions, over mobile networks, and in traditional browsers, while expecting those devices to interact and sync with each other.”
Nowadays, many journalism producers understand that news and information will increasingly be an “anytime, anywhere, anyone” industry standard. But how content is transferred across platforms, who’s accessing it (and communicating through it) and how much it will impact both the bottom line, is still in play. In fact, moving into mobile must integrate the four previous concepts laid out above: experimentation, diversity, community engagement and collaboration.
Journalism organizations need to experiment with new forms of content production, delivery and interaction to fully embody a news industry that reflects our 21st century environment. They must recognize that diverse communities use and access content on different platforms. And through mobile, producers have an amazing opportunity to not only foster deep interaction with the community, but also interaction among community members, an increasingly important value for users. Teaming up with other journalism organizations, technologists, nonprofits and innovators will be key to ensuring that organizations will be able to move forward in this important arena.
This roadmap for the year ahead is nowhere near complete; we are at a critical fork in the road. It’s going to take new models, and new ways of thinking about the old models. It’s going to take policy changes, and the political will to make them. It’ll take new voices, and a willingness to listen to them. In 2010 we need to move beyond talking points and begin taking action. The future of journalism is bright, but it is also what we make of it.
Top 10 Journalism Resolutions for 2010
Journalism producers in 2010 must:
- Use in-person meetings and online spaces to facilitate sharing results of experiments and the how-to’s of collaborations.
- Create hubs where journalists and technologists can build new solutions together, just like massive groups of people contribute to open source software.
- Include more women and diverse voices at the table discussing the future of journalism.
- Foster deeper working relationships with ethnic media and a diversity of journalists/bloggers. Support initiatives like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Parity Project.
- Fight for the reinstatement of the minority media tax certificate program and update it for the digital era.
- Develop and share best practices and models for community engagement
- Invest in telling journalism’s story of impact and the creation of impact definitions.
- Develop resources to help streamline collaborations and criteria to evaluate their impact on the public interest.
- Fight for policies that create a level playing field for nonprofit and commercial journalism organizations.
- Work with funders and investors to coordinate and increase support for experimentation and strategic collaborations.
Add your resolutions to this list in the comments section or on Twitter with the tag #JRes2010.