It is a great privilege to be with you today to honor the memory of Robert W. Ruhl. As the editor and publisher of the Medford Mail Tribune, Ruhl worked at the nexus of community journalism. It was a moment in time when newspapers had the opportunity to bring community together – not only to impart a sense of the news but to build a sense of place as well.
A sense of place will be an important thread in my remarks today. I want to use this occasion to talk about journalism ethics in the context of the new media ecosystem that is emerging all around us. It’s an ecosytem populated by many newcomers – news aggregators, bloggers, videographers, nonprofit reporters, and hyperlocal citizen media makers, to name just a few. It’s important to understand that these media newcomers use media not so much as an act of journalism, but as an act of political or civic participation. Yet, an increasing amount of what they produce carries a lot of journalistic DNA.
These media newcomers use media not so much as an act of journalism, but as an act of political or civic participation. Yet, an increasing amount of what they produce carries a lot of journalistic DNA.
How dare they, you ask? Is that ethical? Well, they would assert that they have ethics, too.
What I offer today is a list of some new questions, questions like that one. And they are questions because we don’t have all the answers yet. But we do have a lot of clues.
Some of you will applaud these questions; some will denounce them. But I believe, as journalists, we need to follow the clues that are surfacing and figure out how to solve the challenges of lost readers, lack of credibility, and yes, even journalism that is not serving the public as well as it could. For all of these carry an ethical component.
Where to start? I think it’s best to think of approaching this new media ecosystem as though you were reporting a major trend story.
Here’s a snapshot of where I’m coming from. After working for 20 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I spent 10 years on the frontlines of civic journalism. We funded 120 pilot projects that tried to figure out how we could do our journalism so that it could better help citizens do their jobs as citizens: To be informed, figure out solutions to problems, be an active participant in a self-governing society. What might that journalism look like? We came up with many successful paradigms, all with elements of participation and interactivity that have become the backbone of much of new media today.
Most recently, I have spent the last six years moving that knowledge into the digital arenas. My center, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism has been on the frontlines both of rewarding new kinds of content with the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism and also funding new kinds of content with our New Voices grants.
We need to follow the clues that are surfacing and figure out how to solve the challenges of lost readers, lack of credibility, and yes, even journalism that is not serving the public as well as it could.
Last year, for the first time in the history of the Knight-Batten Awards, the winner of the $10,000 top prize was not a mainstream news organization or journalist but rather a nontraditional, nonprofit newcomer. The Grand Prize went to the Personal Democracy Forum, which created TechPresident.com and several other news ideas. Did we squirm? Yes, but only for a second. Because it was a slam dunk as far as our judges were concerned. This was a site where Republican and Democratic bloggers both weighed in and which skimmed from the Internet the online metrics of the presidential campaign – the number of photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, blog mentions on Technorati. For us, it was a clue that we needed to pay attention to news generated by non-profit groups. We needed to see where soft advocacy – in this case advocating for political participation – serves the needs of citizens.
Next week, we will announce the next 10 winners of our New Voices grants. To date, we will have funded 40 community news startups and tracked what they are doing, why and how. Here’s what we’ve learned with some observations into how it intertwines with journalism ethics.
What types of people want to start up a hyperlocal news site in their community? Do they have some kind of personal agenda, or, worse, some vendettas?
We find that they tend to be literate, passionate about their town, and very much yearning for a sense of place. They’re the ones who are paying attention in their communities. They either have little available media or media that is unsatisfactory. They generally have had journalism done to them, often by reporters parachuting in to cover an episodic tragedy or crime.
They are people like Maureen Mann, a former schoolteacher and friend of the Deerfield Library, who was one of our first grantees in 2005. She and a group of about a dozen people found they had no idea who was running for local office. The town didn’t send them the information until mid-February. The deadline for signing up to be a candidate was the end of January.
This group of Deerfield volunteers, underdog Democrats in a mostly Republican town, could have been considered troublemakers. Instead, they have gone on to fulfill their aspiration of creating a local newspaper. They now publish 37 original stories a week, get local ads, have some 200 contributors in a community of only 7,000 households. They read everything that comes in before posting it online. Voter turnout has gone up, even before Barack and Hillary came on the scene, and the number of empty ballot positions went down.
The site has had more than a million page views and counting.
Now here’s the ethical twist: The site has achieved so much credibility, that earlier this spring, Maureen Mann was asked to run for state rep. She won.
She’s not the only one. In Westport, Connecticut, Gordon Joseloff, a former CBS newsman who retired and founded WestportNow because the town got little mainstream coverage, was elected the equivalent of mayor.
How dare they, you ask? Journalists don’t hold public office.
In a time when mainstream news organizations are losing credibility, what are the ethics of a publishing a site that gains such credibility in a community that citizens tap the site founders to represent them in public office as well?
What is giving them that credibility? And can we drink some of that juice?
Many mainstream journalists are now being asked to blog as well as cover their beats. And they are being asked to develop their “voice” in their blogs.
Let’s look at “voice” in the world of citizen media. And let’s go to Hillary Clinton’s current hometown to do it: Chappaqua, New York. Schools are the master narrative of this bedroom community of New York City. And here is where three women, perpetual volunteers and one the former PTA president, decided the town also needed a sense of place. About six months ago, they launched NewCastleNOW.org with a New Voices grant.
They are learning to navigate the tricky terrain of being citizen journalists who cover the place where they live and the issues that they have been involved in and have opinions about.
How dare they, you ask? That is a conflict of interest. They must recuse themselves.
Well, of course, in the world of citizen media, there rarely are understudies. Our Chappaqua crew tries to cover those issues fairly, but they have an intriguing concept of what value they can add: “We believe that the advantage to us of knowing the issues from very close up – even from inside – is greater than the difficulty of remaining balanced in our coverage,” said one of the co-founders.
“And we’re pretty confident that what people want is not just straight coverage of all news, but for us to pick and choose what’s important and present it to them in an interesting way.” Recently the local Board of Education took the time to weigh in on the site with a lengthy letter explaining why they were imposing school scheduling changes.
We as traditional journalists have been trained to leave our local knowledge at the door and cover stories from a totally dispassionate, uninvolved point of view. Are we adding all the value we could? We as traditional journalists have been trained to leave our local knowledge at the door and cover stories from a totally dispassionate, uninvolved point of view. Are we adding all the value we could? Ethically, what would fair, value-added coverage look like? Would it look like Chappaqua’s?
We as traditional journalists have been trained to leave our local knowledge at the door and cover stories from a totally dispassionate, uninvolved point of view. Are we adding all the value we could?
It is here – on these hyperlocal sites – that the systemic conventions of inverted pyramids and fair and “balanced” stories seem to be increasingly out of sync with information conveyed amid a keen caring about community.
Veteran journalist Suzanne McBride, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago and co-founded the hyperlocal site CreatingCommunityConnections.org (recently renamed ChicagoTalks), is used to doing journalism on automatic pilot. She’s had to rethink some of her reflexes. “These are not multiple-source stories,” she told a Citizen Media Summit last fall of some of the postings on her site “It took me a while to say, ‘That’s okay; it’s not libeling anyone.’ I had to change my thinking about that.”
How dare she, you ask? Isn’t that sloppy journalism?
Increasingly, we are finding that some of these hyperlocal news sites are so valuable that local municipalities are requesting coverage.
When the Route 7 Report first launched as a free newspaper in Coolsville and Tuppers Plains, Ohio, officials in the local townships were not very excited about having citizen reporters covering their meetings. “But after a few months of matter-of-fact coverage, trustees of the neighboring Troy Township actually called and asked if we could do the same for them,” said Bill Reader, an Ohio University professor who helped local residents launch the paper.
If mainstream news organizations are faltering in covering minority communities well, would it not be more ethical to empower those communities to speak for themselves?
How does this square with the usual journalistic ethos of: “Well, if we made them mad, we must be doing something right”?
And with all the attention we pay to diversity in the nation’s newsrooms, it is here in the land of hyperlocal news sites where diverse voices are finding their oxygen. Take a look at the Twin Cities Daily Planet, which aggregates ethnic news in Minneapolis and St. Paul, or GreaterFultonNews.org, which covers Richmond’s mostly African-American Fulton Hill. If mainstream news organizations are faltering in covering minority communities well, would it not be more ethical to empower those communities to speak for themselves?
I find it fascinating to see how citizen media makers frame news stories. Rarely do they use conflict as a frame. If they cover a meeting and everyone agrees on something, that ‘s the way they write it.
If mainstream journalists go to a meeting where everyone agrees, we all know that it’s likely our editors will go on automatic pilot and say there’s no story there.
What does this say about the ethics of a journalism that defines “conflict” as news, but does not validate consensus? Do we even know how to render consensus as journalism?
Citizen media makers will report a meeting chronologically and just tell it like it is. They don’t worry about whether that’s going to be interesting or whether a story has a narrative arc.
Such a practice earned the scorn recently of one blogger, who denounced a Huffington Post entry as so boring “it never should have run.” The Huffington writer filed 1,400 words, three minutes of audio and a 480-word transcript.
Her post concerned comments Barack Obama made about poorer voters at a meeting of wealthy donors. The writer, an Obama donor, attended the meeting.
When, in the effort to make our stories interesting, do we fan the flames of controversy?
But she blew the lead, asserted the writer of the blog called History Eraser Button. It wasn’t until the 28th sentence that she reported that, “Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience.”
“Yes!” said the blogger. “That’s your lead. Sell it! Get people fired up! Don’t waste your readers’ time.”
I ask you: When, in the effort to make our stories interesting, do we fan the flames of controversy? When do we make civil discourse impossible or drive it underground? When are we so relentlessly keeping score – which candidate messed up today? Who bested the other? – that we lose touch with our readers, who don’t really care about the score. They just want their leaders to address and solve problems.
So what do we do with all these new players who don’t seem to want to play by our rules? How dare they occupy our space?
Last year, we funded two projects at the University of Montana journalism school to start up hyperlocal sites in the small town of Dutton and on the nearby Crow reservation.When the publisher of the Big Horn County News in Hardin, Mont., learned about CrowNews.net he was quoted in the Missoula Independent as saying this: “Competition. Competition for news. Competition for attention. Competition for the aspect of being the primary news source in the county. The only thing we have to sell is news and readership. The fewer readers we have the less valuable our paper is to advertisers.”
While it might be all well and good that the journalism school was trying to train journalists on the ground, he said, “They are sending them out to undermine and destroy the very newspapers that will be hiring them.”
Those are fighting words. Is it only those of us who belong to the official tribe of journalists who have the purity of intent and the rigor of ethics to serve our communities? Once upon a time, I might have agreed with that. But it is no longer so clearcut for me.
What doesn’t exist yet, but I hope to help build, are real, operating examples of how things could be different for both Big Horn County News and CrowNews.net. J-Lab hopes to be able to show how news organizations could begin constructing an overarching local “info-structure,” one that would support new definitions of “news,” new participants in content creation and interaction, and new pathways for news and information.
While it seems like partnerships (and outright acquisitions) are happening in many media arenas, we don’t see many partnerships between mainstream and citizen media. Indeed, we actually see newspapers either denouncing citizen sites in their backyards as unfair competition or unethical or ignoring them entirely and building parallel efforts.
We don’t see many partnerships between mainstream and citizen media. Indeed, we actually see newspapers either denouncing citizen sites in their backyards as unfair competition or unethical or ignoring them entirely and building parallel efforts.
Some smart news organizations, though, are beginning to take some cues from these media developments. They are concluding it’s time for a new core mission, one that repositions the newspaper in the community and revisits knee-jerk practices.
I believe that news organizations need to construct the hubs that will enable ordinary people with passions and expertise to commit acts of news and information. Call them random (or not so random) acts of journalism, if you will. News organizations need to be on a constant lookout for the best of these efforts, trawling the blogosphere, hyperlocal news sites, nonprofits, advocacy groups, journalism schools and neighborhood listservs. Your goal is to give a megaphone to those with responsible momentum, recruit them to be part of your network, impart some core journalism values – and even help support them with micro-grants.
Denouncing these alternative channels of information as not “real journalism” will no longer work.
Ultimately, your goal is to rethink who are really the experts about that community. Is it just the heads of organizations, or people with titles, or elected officials? Or is it the people who live there day after day? What is the ethic that has ignored those voices or relegated them to the color quotes? A more responsible journalism would mine that expertise and amplify it. But first you have to find it and nurture it.
This new mission is requiring journalists to embrace new partners, validate supplemental news channels, and support – without always controlling – a vibrant local newscape. Denouncing these alternative channels of information as not “real journalism” will no longer work.
Importantly, it calls for journalists to get off automatic pilot. We need to re-imagine what we do and how we do it; we need to test drive new ideas day in and day out. We need to expand our “tribe.” We need to pay better attention to what consumers find valuable and not assume we always know what’s best. We need to rethink some of the rules of the road and not take for granted that the way we’ve always done it is the only way that it can be responsibly done.
We need to rethink some of the rules of the road and not take for granted that the way we’ve always done it is the only way that it can be responsibly done.
Citizen media makers don’t aspire to be big-J journalists. They are the small-J plankton in our new media ecosystem. So, who says they have to play by the same rules that produce the very kind of journalism from which they are seeking relief?
Most citizen media makers are motivated less by covering community and more by building community. Is that unethical? Are news organizations allowed to have such aspirations?
Finally, the world of journalism needs to entertain story frames other than “conflict” or “gotcha” frames, or keeping that giant scorecard in the sky. Habits that used to safeguard good journalism just might now be getting in the way of good journalism. I believe that we can figure this out if we just pay attention.
Habits that used to safeguard good journalism just might now be getting in the way of good journalism.
Are we allowed to rethink and redefine what we do?
Today, “newsworthiness” more often is decreed by the consumers rather than the suppliers of news. Heading into the future, news becomes less of a concrete deliverable – a story or package of stories occupying some form of real estate online or on the printed page – and it becomes more of an ongoing process, a back and forth, of imparting and learning about information. The process of involvement in the news, whether it’s an interactive consumption or a proactive creation, becomes as important as the output. The goal is to relay and exchange information that meets any number of benchmarks – but not necessarily all at once.
The information should:
- Yield useful knowledge.
- Grow that information or knowledge.
- Surprise or enlighten.
- Move citizens to do their jobs as citizens.
- Hold public officials accountable.
- Do a better job of holding citizens accountable.
- Help people navigate their daily work and personal lives.
- Empower others to discover or share their own stories.
- Engage people in opportunities to participate in either the process of news – newsgathering, news analysis, news reaction – or in addressing public problems and issues.
This is tricky terrain. For many of you, it may feel too messy. It’s so much easier to turn on the auto-pilot and continue cruising down the road we know so well. We need to ask more often why we do things the way we do. Is it only because that’s the wa we’ve always done it? Or is there a better way? Amid all the handwringing about the future of journalism, I am an optimist.
Many of you are communications researchers. I hope I have sketched out a menu of research opportunities for you today.
And I close with this admonition: Let us not be so sanctimonious in our lip service to ethics that we fail to understand that others have ethics, too. Ethics and a desire not just to cover community life, but to help community life go well.
As Pogo said: We have met the enemy. And, maybe, just maybe, it is us.