Re-Imagining Journalism: Local News for a Networked World
The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy reached a stark conclusion: The financial challenges facing private news media could pose a crisis for democracy.
When the Commission issued its report in October 2009, news media companies had suffered several years of falling revenues. The nation’s economic meltdown and a structural shift of advertising from traditional mass media to the Internet, forced print and broadcast news organizations to cut staffs and coverage. There was growing concern that the loss of traditional media at the local level would lessen citizens’ ability to have the information they need for their personal lives and for civic engagement, as well as their ability to hold government accountable.
Yet, the Commission said, this is a moment of journalistic opportunity. The same digital network technology that is disrupting the business model for American journalism “can lead to a new ecology of journalism in which reporters and their publics intermix in new ways.”
Technology is opening amazing possibilities to give people convenient access to both civic and life-enhancing information, without regard to income or social status, the Commission said. What is needed, it added, is “fresh thinking and new approaches to the gathering and sharing of news and information.”
From the standpoint of public need, the Commission said, the challenge is not to preserve any particular medium, but to promote the traditional public service functions of journalism. The question to be answered, the Commission said, is this:
How can we advance quality, skilled journalism that contributes to healthy information ecologies in local communities?
The Commission’s definition of journalism broadly encompasses “the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”
This paper offers strategies and action ideas to strengthen local journalism. The paper focuses on journalism supported by marketplace incentives, including both for-profit and not-for-profit models. (Public media is examined in a separate Aspen Institute white paper entitled, “Rethinking Public Media: More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive,” by Barbara Cochran.)
Journalism traditionally has involved a mostly one-way communication from producers to consumers. Journalists gathered and edited news, then distributed it to people who consumed it rather passively. Journalism operated that way because information was scarce, gathering and distributing it was expensive and technology was a limiting factor.
The Internet and digital communication technologies are remarkably changing what is possible. Information is moving from scarcity to over-abundance; distribution from expensive to cheap, and news consumption from passive to interactive. People now have unprecedented ability to be their own reporters, editors and distributors of information.
Examples of this dramatic shift abound, but none is more powerful than the “Facebook Revolution” in Egypt. The social network enabled protestors to organize, coordinate and act. They could instantaneously communicate, not just to each other, but to the world. Almost unimaginably, they ended the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak stepped down, Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing manager who became a leader of the revolt, was asked where the next uprising would be. His answer: “Watch Facebook.”
That statement has profound implications for the future of journalism, including the local journalism that has been so vital to American democracy.
This paper rests on a fundamental premise: If journalism did not exist today, it would not be created in the form that it has been practiced for the past century. The values, functions and purposes of journalism are as important as ever, but journalism must be re-invented as an interactive endeavor if it is to remain relevant and accountable. Journalism education must play a key transformative role.
The key elements of that re-imagining are: experimentation, collaboration and engagement. Because one cannot know what ideas might work in a time of technological disruption, this paper offers five strategic areas that are broad and structural. They are not intended to be exhaustive, but they can be catalysts for thinking about possibilities.
I. For-profit media organizations must re-invent themselves to extend the role and values of journalism in interactive ways
Despite their economic challenges, traditional for-profit news organizations continue to play a central role in providing local news and information. The paper offers ideas for how they can transform themselves more rapidly and contribute more effectively to healthy information ecologies in local communities through greater collaboration and a renewed emphasis on diversity.
II. Not-for-profit and non-traditional media must be important sources of local journalism
Digital technology is enabling many new forms of local media, but there are not yet clear pathways to how these efforts can be financially sustainable. The paper offers ideas for how these emerging efforts can best serve local community information needs. It suggests their chances of success will be greater if these efforts are targeted at meeting specific information needs of communities, if results are measured and if capacity is built through networking and shared resources.
III. Higher education, community and non-profit institutions can be hubs of journalistic activity and other information-sharing for local communities
The paper applauds ways in which many schools of journalism are embarking on new endeavors to teach and create journalism. But it suggests the need for a systematic re-examination of journalism curriculum. Because journalism education is not bound to any particular media platform or industry, it can play a lead role in re-inventing journalism for the networked world. This includes training nontraditional journalists to contribute to the flow of local news and information. The paper also identifies ways in which community institutions such as libraries can create journalistic activities.
IV. Greater urgency must be placed on relevance, research and revenues to support local journalism
The paper asserts that traditional and emerging media—for-profit and nonprofit—need to better understand how to create information value in the interactive world. It suggests that content creators and technology service providers develop shared principles and mechanisms to appropriately compensate creators for the value of their work. It calls for improved audience metrics and research as part of re-inventing potential revenue streams.
V. Government at all levels should support policies that create an environment for sustainable, quality local journalism
The paper starts from a view that government likely will not fund journalism, directly or indirectly, in the near term. This is because of strained budgets at all levels and political polarization. Nonetheless, the paper identifies ways in which government can facilitate new ownership and collaboration models, encourage competition and stimulate public awareness of the importance of local journalism to community health.
In conclusion, the paper asserts that everyone has a role in advancing quality, skilled journalism that serves local communities. In an interactive world, journalism must be a trusting partnership between journalists and the public. Building that partnership will require enlightened leadership within news organizations and deep public engagement with the news media.
The Internet is giving journalism a fresh start. A chance to recreate itself in the way it should have been originally, if the technology had allowed.
It is also a fresh start for the public. For all the bad things people say about news media, they understand its importance in their personal and civic lives. They now have a genuine opportunity to help shape the future of journalism, and a responsibility to do it.