Rewriting the Story of Journalism

[Adapted from my remarks at “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond:  Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media” sponsored by Cambridge Community TV.] 

reporters notebook

In moments of profound change and transition we tend to reach back to old clichés and familiar metaphors to help make sense of the tumultuous world around us. Debates about the future of journalism are no different.

I’ve heard this moment described as trying to leap between two moving trains, as one slows down and the other one speeds away. This is journalism as a leap of faith.

I’ve heard this moment described as trying to move out of one house and into another, as the old house falls apart and the new one still isn’t finished being built. This is journalism as a fix-it upper.

And I’ve heard it described as the dying of an industry and the rebirth of a network. This is journalism as a Phoenix, rising from the ashes.

Each of these metaphors capture a piece of the incredible change we are witnessing in our media, but none quite does it for me. All of these descriptions portray the changes in journalism as something happening to us, a force outside our control – moving trains, collapsing houses, engulfing fire. We are left with no agency and no responsibility to create the future of media in these scenarios.

In Between Stories

When I think of our current moment I always come back around to a quote from cultural historian Thomas Berry, who wrote “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”

Longtime newsrooms, citizen journalists, investigative reporters, coders and hackers — we need to come together to write that new story, to debate and discuss, to test and imagine, to instigate and conspire. We have to embrace our agency and our responsibility to write journalism’s next story.

With that task ahead of us, here are a few things I think we need to consider. This list is not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination, but instead represents some overarching themes that we at times neglect, or take for granted.

The Public

I hope that the new story of journalism will be organized around the public – not institutions, not advertisers, not platforms or apps, but the public. I believe that whether your business model relies on pay walls or donors, journalism will rise and fall with its communities.

In her paper on “Open Journalism,” the longtime editor Melanie Sill argues that “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities” and that we should make journalism a collective endeavor, “transforming it from a product driven by factory processes to a service driven by audience needs.” In this case, of course, the public is not just people who depend on the news as consumers, but also people who are creating it as participants.

Diversity

To that end, we have to be attentive to whose stories are being told, and who has access to the tools to tell their story. Sometimes the gaps in news that our communities face are not about a simple lack of news, but a lack of voice in the news.

Right now women and people of color each own less than 8% of broadcast media in America and according to the American Society of News Editors the newsroom job cuts in recent years have hit journalists of color disproportionately. As my colleague Joe Torres has pointed out in his book News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media community media and alternative news outlets have been a critical counterweight to the mainstream media in terms of giving voice to communities of color. As we rewrite the story of journalism in America, we must create a media system that represents the diversity of our nation.

Press Freedom for All

The Internet and new technologies have put the tools of media making in the hands of more and more people. The authors of the recent report on “Post Industrial Journalism” put it this way: “If you wanted to sum up the past decade of the news ecosystem in a single phrase, it might be this: Everybody suddenly got a lot more freedom. The newsmakers, the advertisers, the startups, and, especially, the people formerly known as the audience have all been given new freedom to communicate.”

But with all that new freedom has come an array of new threats.

Both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders declared 2012 one of the most dangerous years for journalists on record. Around the globe and here in the U.S., we’ve seen a troubling spike in attacks on the press and citizen reporters. These attacks take the form of threats and intimidation as well as the slow and dangerous creep of surveillance and secrecy. This comes at a time, of course, when more and more media outlets rely on independent journalists and citizen reporters to cover critical events around the world.

So, as we rewrite the story of journalism we also have to think carefully about how we protect the storytellers. We need to engage the legal fights, and the policy battles, and develop the structures that will make all forms of journalism not just sustainable, but also resilient. As more people have access the tools of journalism we have to ensure that their freedom to use those tools is protected.

Trust

Stories help us make sense of the world around us, and one of the side effects of being in between stories is that we can lose our bearings, it becomes harder to know who to trust. As we rebuild journalism in our newsrooms and in our communities we have to emphasize building trust. Unfortunately, our track record thus far hasn’t been so great. There are plenty of examples we can point to from the events in and around Boston last month alone, but that’s just one moment amongst many lately when the rush to be first, trumped the drive to be right.

Trust is no simple thing, and rebuilding trust is even more complex. Thankfully, there are also great examples of journalists engaging their communities in new ways, forging mutual relationships with their audience, and developing trust. Grassroots and community media have a lot to teach others in this regard.

In a time of flux, trust should be the constant we hold fast to, the guiding star we steer towards. And if it is not part of our next story then we will end up adrift.

Make the Road by Walking

So here we are: Citizen journalists, community media, daily papers, broadcast stations, online investigative sites, journalism schools. We are in between stories, but we are in this together. That means we can – and we must – rethink not just what the story is, but how we tell it. This is not about choosing the road less taken, it is about making the road by walking.

The story of journalism is up to us to write, it is what we make of it.

6 thoughts on “Rewriting the Story of Journalism

  1. Anon says:

    ” it becomes harder to know who to trust. ”

    And, given that trust is the coin of the influence-on-public-opinion realm, there will be narrative wars, efforts to sway the story. Don’t get in the middle of one of those.

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