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. Continue reading


The Decisions Made in the Next Two Weeks Will Shape our Media for Years to Come

There are three huge decisions happening in the final weeks of 2010 that will reshape our media. Free Press is working hard on these issues and others (like defending public broadcasting from ongoing attacks from lawmakers who want to defund it). Here’s a quick rundown of what’s at stake between now and New Years. After you read this, I hope you’ll consider supporting our work. Here is the link to donate:

LPFM – a big win

When I started at Free Press my first job was organizing in-district meetings with local citizens and members of Congress around an issue I had never heard of before: low power FM radio (LPFM). That was almost four years ago. This weekend, that bill was finally voted through both the House and the Senate, and when President Obama signs it, the Local Community Radio Act will open the door to thousands of new nonprofit community radio stations around the country.

For years huge media conglomerates like Clear Channel have served as absentee landlords over the radio dial, piping generic top forty pop music and conservative talk radio into local communities throughout the US. This bill puts more of the public airwaves back in the hands of the people, will amplify local voices and will expand the opportunities for noncommercial radio. (Find out more about LPFM here: here: and here: Continue reading

Mediactive: a Handbook for Engaged Media Citizenship

It’s become trendy to compare Facebook – with its 500 million users – to a nation. This is a telling metaphor that I think suggests more about our relationship to our media than it says about Facebook itself. We are increasingly understanding our media as a place we inhabit. Think, for example, of the rise of the term “media ecosystem” or even the older idea of a “homepage.”

If we are living in a media nation, then Dan Gillmor’s new book, Mediactive, is a handbook for engaged media citizenship. We might summarize the premise behind Gillmor’s book as: Ask not what your media can do for you, ask what you can do for your media. The book was just released this week, but I have been reviewing it for the past few weeks (Disclosure: Dan is a friend and gave me a copy to review).

At its most basic Mediactive is a clear eyed examination of our rights and responsibilities in this new media nation. This is not another book about the future of media, it is a book about us. As Clay Shirky writes in the forward, “Dan doesn’t make upgrading the sources, or the gatekeepers, or the filters – or any other ‘them’ in the media ecosystem – his only or even primary goal. Dan wants to upgrade us, so we can do our own part. He wants us to encourage media to supply better information by helping us learn to demand better information. And he wants us to participate as creators.” Continue reading

Taking a Stand

Working in media policy and seeing the devastating impacts of bad media policy on local communities and on our media itself, I’ve often wondered why more journalists are not outraged. When it comes to the most vital media policy debates of our time where are the voices of journalists?

This is slowly shifting. While discussing media policy and the role of journalists as advocates for the future of journalism, a friend of mine said to me, “We cannot be objective about our right to exist.” This week the faculty at the Columbia University Journalism School took that sentiment to heart, writing a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Holder in defense of Wikileaks First Amendment rights. Continue reading

Anatomy of a Sunday Newspaper

There are many different yard sticks to measure the health and quality of a local news ecosystem. We track ad revenue and audience numbers. We count the number of news outlets and look at the number of newsroom job losses. We watch out for journalism innovators and interesting partnerships. But occasionally in all of these examinations we lose sight of the forest for the trees. Sometimes, it is best to examine the quality of the journalism itself.

Earlier this year Clay Shirky did a comprehensive “news biopsy” of his hometown newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune. After literally dissecting the paper and weighing its different pieces he found that:

  • The content created by Tribune staff made up less than a third of the total; over two-thirds was acquired from other sources, including especially the AP.
  • The paper was about one-third news and about two-thirds “Other.”
  • News reported by the paper’s staff was less than a sixth of the total content of the paper.

A week ago, I decided to do my own autopsy, dissecting the Providence Sunday Journal. Since the Sunday paper is often considered the flagship paper, I thought it would be a good specimen to investigate the health of the newsroom. The Providence Journal is the oldest, continuously-published daily newspaper in the U.S. Its owner, A.H. Belo, owns four daily newspapers and a number of related Web properties. Continue reading