Never before has the idea of a free press meant so much to everyday Americans. It’s not that the country is under siege by a runaway tyrant or that we have rampant corruption or government by secrecy. Rather, the idea of a free press is taking on new meaning in a nation where, increasingly, small towns and rural areas, exurbs and even suburbs have less and less news coming from traditional journalism organizations — particularly news reports that cover their local concerns.
Their regional dailies have shrunk both news holes and distribution zones. Their radio stations carry canned music. Their television stations focus on crime for a shrinking number of appointment viewers. And their weeklies are clinging to their own life rafts.
Metro journalists parachute into surrounding communities to cover a major story and vanish as soon as developments slow to a trickle.
Yet even as traditional news business models flail and journalists fret about the plight of a democracy where the supply of news has been diminishing, the United States is re-inventing the very notion of a free press.
We are beginning to see that we are privileged not only to consume news that is freely reported and published, without fear or favor, by professional journalists; we are also privileged and free as ordinary citizens to make the news we need. To gather it, edit it and publish it. To tap those “go-to people” in our communities to help us identify which civic issues we need to address and to share their knowledge about civic affairs.
New media makers with access to digital media tools are increasingly stepping up to supplement their local news media and plug gaps in coverage with their blogs and community news sites. In the process, they are recruiting longtime civic catalysts as content producers. Now these civic catalysts are discovering that producing news can be as much an act of civic participation as voting.
Indeed, I would assert that media participation is a striking new definition of civic participation.
While no one wants to see traditional news organizations disappear, the newcomers who are doing news work are teaching us that the press can be free whether the journalism is undertaken by traditional news organizations or not. Moreover, where journalists in some countries are constrained by government control, new media makers in the U.S. don’t need handbooks on how to blog anonymously to avoid censorship.
We used to call these new media makers “citizen journalists” or community bloggers. However, in a pronounced trend in this SPJ centennial year, we observe professional journalists, newly severed from their news organizations, joining this new free-press movement. From Seattle to San Diego and Denver to Baltimore, they are launching their own town or statewide news sites to complement or compete with traditional local news organizations.
As these news initiatives take on stewardship roles in their communities, they are garnering philanthropic support.
A new study released in June 2009 by my center, J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, found that 180 foundations had awarded at least $128 million in grants to support 115 news initiatives since 2005. Attesting to the trend, nearly 87 percent — or 102 of the 115 news initiatives — launched only in the past 3½ years. They range from hyperlocal to health to watchdog sites.
None of this would be possible without the mindset of a free press in the United States, an expectation that journalists can freely perform their watchdog role without interference by government. That freedom had always applied to mainstream media and then moved to the alternative press. Now the mantle is being taken up by the news gatherers and so-called “fact entrepreneurs” who are affiliated with entirely new forms of media.
Many traditional journalists shudder at these new media makers, asserting that they don’t have the skills or training to be impartial or to verify information. Other journalists are nostalgic for the old days of Big-J journalism, perceiving that the new media makers are devaluing the role of professionals who are trained to deliver fair, balanced and independent coverage. All these core journalism values no doubt have helped to ratify the soundness of our founders’ decision to ensure that the Bill of Rights contained the First Amendment’s free press guarantee.
Slowly, however, some traditional news organizations are experimenting with how to partner with these new media makers. They hope to add feet on the street, amplify the best of the Small-J journalism and ferret out opportunities for local enterprise reporting.
As we celebrate SPJ’s centennial anniversary, we need to be open to new opportunities to maintain a robust supply of news. We must not only use the freedom we have to report on public life in our old ways, but we also must pursue new ideas for a free and open press. Whether the news comes from professional or amateur journalists, the goal is always the same: to hold public officials accountable for serving the public and to hold citizens accountable for being good citizens.
This article originally appeared in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Centennial Book, which was recently mailed to SPJ members. Order your copy here.