A few days ago I wrote a post about some emerging projects that I thought offered hopeful signs for addressing some of the problems facing journalism.
Of course, I’m not the only one commenting on the state of journalism as we enter a new calendar year, so here is a roundup of some other good ones I have seen.
Rosen: ‘Winter is Coming,’ Pts 1 & 2
Jay Rosen posted a well-received and widely shared two-post series on his PressThink blog, focusing first on the problems facing the field and then on some ideas for mitigating those problems. He cites 17 specific developments that he says are weakening journalism just at the time when we need it most to counter an incoming presidential administration that is openly hostile to journalists because of their coverage of candidate (and now president-elect) Trump.
All 17 items are important, as is the mutual reinforcement among them (which Rosen emphasizes). But two strike me as especially awful, namely nos. 4 and 16 from the list:
An organized movement on the political right to discredit mainstream journalism, which stretches from Steve Bannon in the White House to Trump’s army of online trolls, with Breitbart, Drudge Report, talk radio and Fox opinion hosts mediating between the two, while the “alt reality” fringe feels newly emboldened. Its latest tactic is to shout down as “fake news” any work of reporting that conflicts with its worldview, leaving the term useless as a fraud alert.
A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made.
These are the two developments that most powerfully undermine an idea from Alexander Meiklejohn expressed in my part-one blog post that democracy works only when citizens are informed well enough to participate effectively in self-governance. The trends Rosen mentions in these two items, taken to their logical conclusion, mean effective self governance becomes essentially impossible.
In his part 2, Rosen mentions a dozen measures worth taking — which, he emphasizes, are not solutions that fully resolve the problems. But summarizing them he says journalists need to engage in more and better listening to the publics they cover.
Nieman Lab’s prognosticators
Ideas for improved listening by journalists are among the prospects I also have noted recently as some of my “flowers in the snow.” But here are a few other posts and ideas expressing similar thoughts, starting with one that Rosen also cited and linked from Andrew Haeg. It came from the Nieman Lab’s annual collection of New Year predictions from leading journalism thinkers. In his entry, Haeg wrote:
“To rebuild trust as the pillar of our brands, a few key newsrooms this year will make a journalistic and business argument for listening … They’ll do it because they know that building loyalty and trust requires tuning into the concerns and voices of the whole community.”
What might it look like? Haeg imagines journalists who ” hold town hall forums, set open office hours at local coffee shops and diners, and form key partnerships with community organizations to invite underserved communities into the conversation.” The result? “They build a community of hundreds who ask questions and vote on which ones get answered, get texts with updates on the newsgathering progress and ongoing opportunities to share their concerns and stories. The community feed that develops is rich, authentic, and often shockingly prescient.”
Haeg wasn’t the only Nieman contributor plowing this particular field.
Ernst Jan Pfauth advised journalists to “Work together with your audience. The best way to rebuild trust is to work together, so let’s involve our audience in our reporting. Every reader is an expert at something, either through their job, education, or life experience. Together they form the greatest untapped source of knowledge in the history of journalism. ”
In similar fashion Annemarie Dooling said journalists “should never forget that there are millions of people outside of our newsrooms who are more of an expert in whatever we’re writing about — any topic, on any given day — than we will ever be. … By rolling these reader experiences into our work, we open up our newsrooms to new ways of thinking, more authentic conversations with our audience which builds more trust and loyalty, and more accurate reporting for the long term ”
Building community connections
Ultimately, these ideas are meant to connect journalists better with their communities, an idea also expressed by Nieman contributor Andrew Ramsammy who wrote: “News is not journalism if what’s being reported is only meant to extract value from communities as opposed to creating value within them.” Indeed, research shows the connection between strong communities and effective journalism.
This focus on local projects and community building (as described by Damian Radcliffe) is another way to guard against the coming winter. It is the idea behind the Knight Foundation’s matching-grant program benefiting 60 news organizations that range from the national (e.g. PBS NewsHour) to the state level (Iowa Watch) to the hyperlocal (e.g. New Haven Independent). The projects Knight is pledging to assist can be seen as more flowers in the snow. Winter indeed is coming; we must gird ourselves to survive it and be ready for the arrival of spring beyond it.