In my day to day work I get to talk with a lot of journalists about why they do what they do. As you might expect, the answers tend to share some similar themes: commitment to truth and facts, desire to hold leaders accountable, passion for amplifying the voice of people whose voice is often silenced, love of language and storytelling, the thrill of the hunt, an eagerness to help people understand the world around them.
These are motivations I understand and can relate to in my own work. But I’m not a journalist. I am fighting for the future of journalism at a structural level. I have long worked as a community organizer, concerned with how we can build better, stronger communities. While I have worked in conservation and environmental advocacy, education and national service, media and telecommunications reform, at the root of each of these issues has been a concern for the unique local civic infrastructure that I believe undergirds so much of our lives.
When I began working with Free Press I was coordinating the organizations StopBigMedia.com campaign which focused on media ownership and localism. The vocabulary of “localism” was new to me, but the idea behind it was not. Localism is simply how broadcasters are serving their local community. It’ll be no surprise to readers here that in most cases the media is failing in this regard.
In a recent article, media critic Dan Kennedy, drew a helpful connection between the growth of new local news startups and other local movements that are driving a renewed sense of community across the country. Kennedy writes, “There is a burgeoning localism movement in journalism that parallels such disparate phenomena as – I would argue – microbreweries, independent musicians, the movement for locally grown food and activists who fight against big-box national retailers.”
Kennedy points back to a book that had a profound impact on my thinking around community development and sense of place, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. In that book, Kennedy reminded me, Putnam points out that “people who are involved in the life of their community are those who are also most likely to read the local newspaper.” Thus, Kennedy argues, the challenge for new news sites emerging now (and I would add for those of us who are fighting for the future of journalism) is to “flip the Putnam rule on its head.” Journalists will be successful if “they are able to foster civic engagement and thus spark a rise in news consumption.”
This really struck home for me. This is why I do the work I do.
And, luckily, this lesson has struck home with others. Over at SaveTheNews.org we recently featured a guest blog post from Mark Katches, the executive editor of California Watch, in which he describes spending “an hour handing out fliers on a street corner about our latest California Watch story.” The blog post is a musing on how “fliering” – an activity that has mainly bee relegated to activists and ads – was helping California Watch reach new audiences. “It’s all about getting stories into the hands of people who are impacted by our journalism the most – one at a time, if need be,” wrote Katches.
On a larger scale we are seeing more and more new news organizations putting community and civic engagement and social change into their mission statements:
- California Watch defines it’s mission as doing reporting “so that those responsible can be held to account and so the public can be armed with the information needed to debate solutions and spark change.”
- The Texas Tribune talks about social change before it even mentions reporting. “Our mission is to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern.”
- ProPublica’s statement is buried further down in their “About Us” page, but is no less strong: “In the best traditions of American journalism in the public service, we seek to stimulate positive change.”
- Voice of San Diego claims that being a nonprofit lets them “measure our success by the impacts of our stories, not by our page counts.” But also state that their mission is “To increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.”
- Western Citizen seeks to “Combine accountability journalism with online tools to encourage direct citizen action and public deliberation on community issues across the Rocky Mountain states.”
- The San Francisco Public Press has launched a community engagement project, SFEngage, which they describe as “a citywide community engagement program blending face-to-face journalism outreach with new technology, with particular focus on neighborhoods and communities underserved by the commercial press.”
Other sites like the St. Louis Beacon, MinnPost and the New Haven Independent framed things in much broader terms such as fostering civic discourse and bolstering community dialogue. I also looked at a range of commercial newsrooms including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Houston Chronicle, Denver Post and Baltimore Sun and what was most telling in each at each of these newspapers was not their mission, but their lack of mission. Not one of these newsrooms had a place on their site where they talked about their mission or purpose. If they had an “About” page at all it consisted primarily of circulation numbers or subscription info.
An NPR reporter once said to me that one of the problems with commercial news organizations is that they never talk to the community about their value or their values. NPR fund drives may be obnoxious, but they are a dedicated time each year for the station to thank the community and remind local people about the role the station plays.
In the end localism is about trust and accountability. It is about being in and of the community, and about doing work that helps strengthen and improve that community.