Searching for Sustainable Habits in Journalism

Is the search for a sustainable business model for journalism unsustainable in and of itself? Our media system has gone through a number of fundamental shifts and changes in the last decade alone, but I think to some extent we are still just at the beginning. If that’s true, and if the media landscape will be tumultuous and uncertain for years to come, then business models will continue to be elusive and the target will always be shifting. One week it’s social networking and paywalls, the next it’s apps and tablets, the next its niche publications and side events. Most of these things aren’t bad ideas, in and of themselves, but they tend to be about the structures and systems surround journalism, not about the journalism itself. Too often, this can amount to chasing trends.

Instead of searching for sustainable business models, what if we were searching for sustainable practices. Consider the difference between searching for a new technology to make our consumer culture more green, versus changing our consumer culture. It’s time to dedicate some time and energy to thinking through how we change the culture of news itself. There is not going to be one business model, the future of news will be diverse and multifaceted, but there will be some core practices and habits that should infuse what we do. I believe these new news habits can help create a more sustainable journalism.

In her book Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen suggests that in terms of national identity, we should replace the metaphor of “oneness” with a metaphor of “wholeness.” While “oneness” is totalizing, she writes, “the metaphor of wholeness can guide us into a conversation about how to develop habits of citizenship that can help democracy bring trustful coherence out of division without erasing or suppressing difference.” Business models suggest oneness. I believe we need to focus more on the habits and practices that can help make independent media and journalism successful in the future. Habits are hard to change, but when they do, they have profound implications.

What are some of the habits we should seek to invest in and develop over the coming year? This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope it will start a discussion – please add your own in the comment section.

  1. Experimentation – Clay Shirky probably said it best, in his blog post that echoed around the web last year: “Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments.” Let’s be clear, experimentation is risky, but so is not experimenting. The question we need to grapple with is how to foster a culture of experimentation? The past year holds a few promising examples: the rise of Hacks and Hackers, PubMedia Camps, and other gatherings that create an encouraging space for people to test out new ideas. I hope that in the coming year these efforts expand inside and outside newsrooms.
  2. Collaboration – The rise of collaboration in newsrooms has, without a doubt, been a cultural shift. Over the past year a number of key institutions have served as instigators and facilitators, encouraging the practice of collaboration throughout journalism. Associations like The Media Consortium and the Investigative News Network have been bringing newsrooms together around joint editorial projects, while organizations and funders like Knight and J-Lab have been funneling support to these collaborative efforts. It’s taking root, but there is more to do in 2011.
  3. Making Media Flow – Henry Jenkins prefers the word “spreadable,” but I think of it as “flow.” Rather than chasing the next new shiny tech trend, we need to be thinking about how we help make media flow through people’s lives. Every media organization will think about this differently based on their work and their audience, but increasingly, we need independent media that moves with people as well as moves people. This means not just figuring out how to get content onto the newest gadget, but also understanding how a piece of content will be read, shared, commented on, and remixed across the many platforms where people now encounter and engage their media.
  4. Mentoring – Over the last three years I have seen a remarkable number of new news organizations, both traditional and innovative, close their doors. The failures came in all shapes and sizes but they all shared a lack of connection, a feeling of isolation. This is starting to change. Scott Lewis of Voice of San Diego has invested a huge amount of time in creating a hub for start-up advice and information and the Block by Block conference was great example of peer mentoring in action. However, we still need more regular ways for new journalism organizations to support each other, mentor new leaders, and share best practices.
  5. Community Engagement – Along with collaboration, community engagement was the journalism buzz word for 2010. And while all the buzz has produced a lot of good debate, we are still far away from building a habit of community engagement broadly into newsrooms. Newsrooms like TBD.com and California Watch, magazines like Mother Jones, the Nation, and Orion Magazine and organizations like Spot.us and MediaBugs are leading the way. However, to move beyond individual organizations to changing broader habits we’ll need more efforts like the Report an Error Alliance that aim to organize and catalyze a movement to change how we think, act, and engage our audience.
  6. Context – The web rewards the fast and reporting online can too often suffer under the constant demand for new content and more eyeballs. One of the great challenges (and opportunities) for journalism in the coming year is to develop new habits and practices that provide context. It’s not just about reporting the news, it’s about helping communities understand the news. This year’s SXSW discussion with Matt Thompson, Jay Rosen, Tristan Harris and Staci Kramer helped shine a spotlight on this issue early in 2010. However, a lot of the debate since has been more about tools and techniques and less about habits and practices.

What else should be on this list? Fact checking? Transparency? The view from nowhere? Others? What do you think were the key debates and developments over the past year and what are the habits we need to encourage in 2011 and beyond?

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6 thoughts on “Searching for Sustainable Habits in Journalism

  1. Great start to the list, Josh.
    I would add ‘learning’ to the list. With the environment in a constant state of flux, it’s imperative that we all continue to learn and perfect the newest elements of our craft.
    Think of those who joined the journalism business two or three decades ago. While they’ve surely kept pace with basic computer skills, the smart ones have also embraced photo manipulation programs, digital photography, videography, etc. And with the pace of technology, it becomes essential that every one of us keep our eyes and minds open.
    Again…great start. Anxious to see what others add.

    • Ah yes, “Learning” should have been on the list. We could all probably benefit from learning more, but with all the changes facing journalism, being open to learning and re-learning is key. Thanks for the addition. Can you think of any key writing on this topic from the past year?

  2. Your point about context resonates most, because it forces attention on the end user — the person for whom journalists ostensibly do what they do. Experimentation isn’t valuable in and of itself. It’s only valuable if it’s helping you get closer to figuring out what you do that users need, and want.

    Yes, getting your media in front of people is important (‘making media flow’), but if your media is crappy, then it can flow the length of the River Nile and you’ll still be wasting your time. Experimentation is great, but only if you’re focused on honing your approach to serving the end user better — versus keeping up with the Joneses, or chasing a trend.

    The way we learn is changing, as the complexity of our lives continues to thicken (and as generations that grew up with the Internet enter adulthood). This is where context comes in. The story that breaks through the noise to help people truly understand a critical issue (think Planet Money) — is GOLD.

    Start there.

    • Well said – it does seem like there are two levels of habits to be aware of. Some are related to how we do journalism while others, maybe, are closer to why we do journalism. Your distinction above is helpful. What else might we put in that category.

      How about “Listening”

  3. Pingback: Hábitos sustentáveis no jornalismo : Ponto Media

  4. Pingback: Groundswell | Searching for Sustainable Habits in Journalism ::focusing on practice rather than structure:: « Newsplexer

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