Why I’m Optimistic About The Future of Local Media

In a recent radio interview I was asked about my optimism regarding the local media movement – an umbrella under which I have been including vibrant local community TV and radio outlets and emerging nonprofit journalism websites and blogs as well as media literacy projects, digital justice coalitions and media reform groups. The interviewer pressed me to offer concrete examples of the impact these outlets were having (how were they shaping the national debate, moving key issues forward, changing the lives of local people and communities).

I had a few examples to offer, but in general, I noted that what we are seeing is the seeds of change – seeds, I argue, that need to be tended and nurtured. Our current media system did not emerge overnight, and while it seems like the media landscape is changing dramatically almost every day, the truth is that these changes have been happening for quite some time. I like to say that we are climbing mountains not turning corners. We have to be in it for the long haul, but it is better to be creating, participating, experimenting now, than to be simply standing still as the media landscape shifts around us.

As I have been mulling over all these ideas, I have been going back and re-reading a number of old articles by Rebecca Solnit and in her prose I’ve found a number of useful anchor points to help me further explore these issues. While Solnit is almost always writing about environmental change and social justice, there are deeply important lessons here for those thinking about the future of media.

In her article “Revolutions Per Minute” Solnit writes, “The fantasy of a revolution is that it will make everything different… but the making of differences in everyday practices is a more protracted and incremental and ultimately more revolutionary process.” And she continues later in the article, “the process of changing imagination and culture is plodding, incremental, frustrating, comes complete with backlashes … and is wildly exciting if you slow down enough to see the broad spans of time across which change occurs.” Finally, she concludes, “So it is a revolution in perception and daily practice… It may never be finished, but the time to join it is now.”

The time to join is now. This spirit captures a key piece of the energy and passion that animates many of the new journalism and community media projects I’ve had the good fortune to work with. In fact, it was just that spirit that made a certain commencement address go viral in journalism circles this spring. In Robert Krulwich’s speech to Berkley’s journalism school he said, “There are some people, who don’t wait. I don’t know exactly what going on inside them; but they have this… hunger. It’s almost like an ache. Something inside you says I can’t wait to be asked I just have to jump in and do it.”

Both Solnit and Krulwich locate the center of change within us, as individuals, as neighbors, and as communities. Solnit is attentive to the intricacies of our daily practice – and journalism is very much a practice, a craft, a process – and Krulwich layers on the need for passion. Solnit, in the earlier article, quotes the longtime community organizer Grace Lee Boggs, who said “In the first half of this century people never thought revolution involved transforming ourselves, that it required a two-sided transformation. They thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”

When I hear people talking about finding a new business model for journalism, I think of it as transforming the system. This is of course necessary, but not sufficient. In a separate article, “The Limits of Landscape” Solnit discusses how people view landscapes in a way that I think resonates with the how many people view media. She writes, “Landscape as a way of describing what’s out there tends to reduce it to vegetation and form, and in so doing it misses or at least de-emphasizes the forces, processes, beings, and energies coursing through it on every scale from the microscopic to the galactic.” Too often, in our search for the future of journalism we reduce media business models and cheap buzzwords and this obscures the fact that media – like landscape – has “forces, processes, beings, and energies coursing through it.”

This is where the work of people like Dan Gillmor are so vital. In an interview about his newest book Mediactive, Gillmor wrote “In a world with almost infinite choices, we all have amazing opportunities but also some responsibilities. We have to understand ourselves as participants in media, not just distant observers — and our participation at various levels, if we do it right, will help create an ecosystem of information we can trust. The alternatives aren’t pretty.”

I’m not blindly optimistic. I’m intensely concerned with the ways in which technology has put more and more media in the hands of people, just as media policies put more and more media control in the hands of corporations. My hope is not utopian, it’s pragmatic. It’s inspired not by fancy new experiments so much as the passion and hard work that amazing people have put into making those experiments possible. My optimism about the future of local media is inspired by the fact that it is being led by people who believe that we can change ourselves so we can change our media so we can change the world.

2 comments

  1. My father used to run a local paper, which is probably why I’ve followed the issue of local journalism for a while now, even though it’s not something I’d say I’m any sort of expert on. My sense is that we may need to shift the way we think about citizen engagement in the production and distribution of local news. I see the way that users curate (or “network”) information on Twitter and think there are lessons there for local news.

    Some thoughts on this here: http://www.alchemyofchange.net/local-news-networks/

  2. Reading more Solnit and am thinking more about these issues. See her piece here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/211/

    Quoted below:

    “On January 18, 1915, six months into the first world war, the first terrible war in the modern sense—slaughter by the hundreds of thousands, poison gas, men living and dying in the open graves of trench warfare, tanks, barbed wire, machine guns, airplanes—Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. People imagine the end of the world is nigh because the future is unimaginable. Who twenty years ago would have pictured a world without the USSR and with the Internet? We talk about “what we hope for” in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it’s a more powerful and more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swathe of the north back to its indigenous people, or that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa?”

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