Is Your Local News a Supermarket or a Farmers Market?

In a recent post, John Robinson, the former editor of the News and Record in North Carolina, compared newspapers to grocery stores. He writes:

Newspapers once proudly said they were like a supermarket — they offered aisles upon aisles of choices. […] Rather than a grocery store, the paper should be more like one of those specialty shops with fewer choices but only the finest items that you’re not going to find elsewhere.

I’ve long been interested in the parallels between the rise of the local food movement and the debates about the future of local news. There are important lessons to be learned for how advocates for local food have built new infrastructure and economies around local products.

Robinson’s comparison got me thinking – what is the right analogy for news? If the metaphors we use help shape our understanding of what is possible, then how might models and metaphors from food production and distribution help us understand what’s working, or not working, in the news?

Below are some initial thoughts: Continue reading

Hearts and Fists: A Parent on Loving, Fighting and Gun Control

Bill Maher is wrong. It’s as simple as that.

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In a Facebook post hours after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the often provocative talk show host wrote, “Sorry but prayers and giving your kids hugs fix nothing: only having the balls to stand up to our insane selfish gun culture will.”

And Maher wasn’t alone. In the hours that followed the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary I saw that sentiment echoed across the web. “Stop being sentimental and starting fighting,” people seemed to be saying.

I’m a parent of young children, one of which is almost in elementary school himself. My first response when I heard about the shooting was to hold my family close and tight. In that moment I never wanted to let go.

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Networks Versus Institutions: Lessons from Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross

In the title of her post at Slate Katherine Goldstein asks “Is Occupy Wall Street Outperforming the Red Cross in Hurricane Relief?” It’s a provocative question, but the article doesn’t really go very far in answering it. While it provides a glimpse of the tremendous effort and coordination behind Occupy Sandy, it doesn’t really provide any evidence with which to compare Occupy’s effort to the Red Cross’s work.

I’m not on the ground in New York so I’m in no position to assess the tactics or impact of either group, and as Andrew Katz argued on Twitter, it may be “Unfair to pit Red Cross against Occupy in a ‘who’s helping more’ debate. Similar priorities, diff abilities.” However, I’ve watched as many of my friends have headed out to help with Occupy Sandy and connected to other self-organized grassroots relief efforts around the city. What Goldstein’s post raises, and what I have witnessed online, is how fundamentally the way we respond to disasters is changing. Continue reading

What Journalists Can Learn from Apple’s Map Mishap

I was at a digital journalism conference when Apple released iOS6 and set off a firestorm of criticism over their custom built mapping application, so perhaps it was inevitable that I would connect these things. In fact, I have written before about how journalists can be the “information cartographers” of the digital age, mapping the ecosystem of news and helping us find our way. However, as I have been reading up on how Apple built its maps I think there are some important lessons for journalists who are thinking about data and community in important new ways. Continue reading

Has Your Local News Been Outsourced? 10 Tools to Identify and Support Truly Local Journalism

Who produces the local news you read, see and hear? Has it been outsourced to people in another state, or maybe even another country? How can you tell?

On this week’s episode of This American Life, Ira Glass and the team explore what happens when U.S. media corporations outsource local journalism to workers around the world. Most troubling, perhaps, is the way these companies are trying to hide what they are doing. Can someone sitting at a computer in the Philippines really cover the South Side of Chicago, and do Chicago residents have a right to know who is writing these stories?

Similarly Free Press has tracked and revealed how more than 100 local TV stations have outsourced their local journalism to their competitors, so that in some cities only one newsroom is producing the news for three stations. And just last week Steve Myers at Poynter reflected on what makes a paper local in light of cuts backs and consolidation at Advance Publications papers in Alabama and New Orleans.

We are at a moment where these companies are radically changing how the news is made. However, we are also seeing new hyperlocal and nonprofit news organizations emerging, public radio and TV are investing in local journalism and some newspapers are remaining fiercely local and committed to public service journalism.

The question is, how do you tell the difference between something that’s produced locally and something that’s been outsourced? Here are 10 resources that will help you identify and support truly local journalism. Continue reading

Putting People at the Center of Journalism

I saw a tweet last night that went something like: “People must love biased news because CNN is doing so poorly while the other networks are doing great.” This was inspired by new reports of CNN’s second quarter ratings, which New York Times reports, “plunged by 40 percent from a year ago,” for its prime-time shows. We can all debate about definitions of doing well and doing poorly, but in general I think a lot of people agree with this sentiment that bias drives views.

I don’t.

CNN isn’t plummeting in the rankings because people love “biased news.” However, what MSNBC and FOX News understand, that I think CNN doesn’t, is that people want to see themselves in the stories they consume. This is as true of novels they choose as it is of the news they decide to watch.

This aspect of the debate over objectivity has received too little attention, but it is fundamental to how stories function. For a long time objectivity was a source of trust – (i.e. “You can trust me because I don’t have a dog in this race”) – but it also had a cost. The cost was journalists’ relationship with their audience and their communities.  Continue reading

Three Resources for Newsrooms Measuring Community Engagement

The recent history of journalism in America is full of tectonic shifts, brought on by changes in technology and society. For too long, many of those changes happened outside of newsrooms, but increasingly we are seeing fundamental cultural shifts in news organizations that are changing how, and to sometimes why, journalism is done.

One of those shifts has been the emphasis on community engagement. The media landscape is shifting and becoming more participatory, and our communities want to do more than just read the news. They want to be co-creators, collaborators, distributors and they want to put the news to work, to improve their lives and communities. At the same time, financial challenges have forced news organizations to build new networks of support with their audience and community.

While newsrooms have invested in various forms of community engagement – from mobilizing local bloggers into coordinated networks, to robust social media strategies and community events – there is still a lot we don’t know about how to assess and measure the impact of community engagement. Continue reading

Civic Health and Public Journalism

The annual Pew State of the News Media report is like a yearly physical exam for journalism in America. This year the prognosis is mixed, at best. Newspapers are still raking in double-digit operating margins, but after years of consolidation they are over-leveraged with debt that is cutting into their profits. There are more hours of news on local TV, but much of it consists of rebroadcasts, meaning there is actually less original reporting. Tablets and mobile devices are driving significant new traffic to news sites, but monetizing that traffic is still difficult.

A Stress Test for Civic Health

Underneath all the numbers is a troubling narrative that has spanned the last few Pew reports and continues through this year’s study. Everyone agrees that we are in a tumultuous time for journalism in America, with both enormous opportunity and profound challenges — the numbers confirm that. But what is harder to quantify is the impact this unevenness and uncertainty is having on local communities. The authors of the Pew report provide some hints.

“The civic implications of the decline in newspapers are … becoming clearer,” the authors write. “[M]ore evidence emerged that newspapers (whether accessed in print or digitally) are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. If these operations continue to shrivel or disappear, it is unclear where, or whether, that information would be reported.”

While a growing cadre of reporting projects and journalism sites is contributing in critical ways to expanding news in many communities, most still come nowhere near the size of traditional newsrooms, and many are struggling to transition from startup to sustainability. Some of those startups are being developed by committed journalists who have left newspapers. Pew estimates that 1,000 newsgathering jobs were lost in 2010, which is a small number compared to the years prior, but still significant. Continue reading

A “Flying Seminar” on Solutions Journalism

In today’s New York Times there is a piece by David Bornstein entitled “Why ‘Solutions Journalism’ Matters, Too.” Here is a clip:

“Journalism is a feedback mechanism to help society self-correct. We know from behavioral science that information about a problem alone is rarely sufficient to generate corrective action. People need to know what they can do ― and how. That doesn’t mean including a little “good news” now and them, but regularly presenting people with innovative ideas and realistic pathways and possibilities that remain outside their view frame. In this sense, solutions journalism needs to be interwoven with traditional journalism ― it rounds out the story, so to speak.”

There are a lot of reasons I think this idea is important, which I get into more below, but in general I think it’s vital that those of us who are working to remake journalism are able to describe the kind of diverse news ecosystem we want to create. As Bornstein points out, it is not enough to simply describe the challenges and problems facing journalism, we need to also be exploring and experimenting with the solutions.

A few years back Jay Rosen published a “flying seminar on the future of news,” a short round-up of one conversation from one month in March 2009. Today, I want to offer my own flying seminar on “Solutions Journalism.” Consider it a reading list for those who want to dive deep into this idea and continue the conversation in the new year. There are quotes from each post below, but be sure to read each post in full and add your voice to the conversation.

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Journalism as a Service, Not a Product

I came to journalism through community organizing, so for me, news and information has always been important in the context of our communities. That’s perhaps why I was so struck by the way Melanie Sill, executive in residence at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, puts community at the center of her new report “The Case for Open Journalism Now.”

Like many journalism reports released in the last five years, her report begins by asserting that journalism is a “public good.” However, where other authors have used that frame to explore business models or argue for new funding streams (including my own 2009 report), Sill is more interested in how the journalism itself needs to change.

“We need a new orienting idea for journalism,” she writes. If journalism is a public good, she asks, how must it change and adapt to the new digital public sphere and the demands of newly connected (and disconnected) communities. “To bring real change,” Sill argues, “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.”

Sill sums up this shift under the idea of “open journalism,” a term that doesn’t immediately explain itself. Here is Sill’s definition:

“Open journalism’s core principles are transparency, responsiveness, participation, collaboration and connection. … It’s an idea for making quality journalism a collective endeavor and transforming it from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.”

In this way, open journalism brings together the democratic needs of communities with the increasingly networked technological shifts in media and information. Part argument, part case study, and part handbook for newsrooms, her paper offers a wide range of concrete examples drawn from a diverse set of journalism organizations across the country. As such the paper reads as a study of an emerging movement, one which is gaining steam but still facing very real challenges.

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We Are In Between Stories

Last week I was invited to spend a day at Skidmore College, speaking to a number of classes and giving a campus lecture on the intersection of civic engagement, media reform and sustainability. For me, the common thread that weaves these issues together is storytelling. If our culture is a function of the stories we tell each other, then real change demands that we begin telling a new story. I believe that is starting to happen, but debates about the future of journalism and media reform also have to account for whose stories are being told and who is being edited out.

What follows are snippets of my lecture, woven together with a few quotes, organized around some key themes. This may be best described as some of the raw materials I was mulling over when I planned my talk. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Widening Gulf Between Local Communities and National Policy

Last night, Orion Magazine invited me to speak to their monthly “Green Drinks” event in Great Barrington, MA. This summer Orion published a piece by me on grassroots media and democracy and in my talk I wanted to explore one key theme, that I was only able to touch on briefly in the article itself. Recently I have been mulling over the ways in which technology has put more and more media in the hands of the people, while the media policies that shape everything we watch, read, and hear are putting more and more media control in the hands of corporations. What are the implications of this tension?

Here is what I said last night, but it just scratches the service or this much larger question: Continue reading