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The Death and Re-birth of Journalism

How can media help people feel like they are part of a common purpose and foster the information and engagement that citizens need to be citizens?

For three days, a group of some 20 funders, media makers and civic engagement experts met at Pocantico, the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y., to wrestle with such concepts as thick engagement (which, to oversimplify, is meeting, deliberating and problem solving) and thin engagement (voting, or clicking on a digital button).

The gathering was organized by PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) and a white paper will be coming soon.

As an onramp to the conversation, I sketched out how I see the journalistic ecosystem evolving. Here are my slides with some context:

I see four big trends:

  1. Metro dailies are beset by disappearing portfolios, which is as keen a problem as disappearing revenue. They offer little original coverage of foreign and national news, local news, or coverage of arts and culture. Their mostly suburban readers don’t value their city hall coverage. Their enterprise stories are, at best, episodic. And their sports coverage is available in many other places.
  2. New owners will honor new rules. While legacy news outlets long adhered to sacrosanct conventions of independence, balance and fairness, new owners will bring different mindsets and different values to information sharing. Engagement, for one, will likely be paramount.
  3. Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high and even blog and aggregation startups are starting to aspire to and hire for real journalism chops.
  4. It’s not only the business model for journalism that is broken, standard models for journalism are broken too. Stenographic false equivalencies, conflict framing, bipolarity that masquerades as balance is producing new calls for journalism that is more than a commodity, but is also a catalyst for the public good.

I am optimistic about the new landscape for several reasons:

  • Some 80 investigative news startups have launched around the county and have even organized into the Investigative News Network. Some, like ProPublica, are national, but most are focused on local statehouses. I expect every state in the nation will soon have the likes of a Texas Tribune or
  • Indie news startups covering communities are flourishing on micro budgets, and several are starting to expand with satellite sites. They, too, have organized into the LION publishers group.
  • Niche sites specializing in health, climate, politics, and the arts are filling in the gaps left by legacy news organizations.
  • Tech sites are growing their news portfolios and companies like Twitter and BuzzFeed are bringing serious journalists onboard.
  • Non-narrative news possibilities are growing. News games, interactive maps, searchable databases, drone and sensor journalism promise to appeal to news consumers who are not drawn to narrative stories.
  • While an array of simple distribution platforms – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest – is growing so are deep, focused reporting sites such as Politico or LongReads.
  • Soft advocacy news sites are opening the door for responsible coverage through the lens of what’s best for the public good. Sites like Philadelphia’s are covering schools and are unabashedly in favor of good public schools. Increasingly, news about the built environment in cities, and the requisite planning and zoning board hearings, is coming from sites like Plan Philly or Urban Milwaukee that care about sustainable cities.
  • Finally, we are seeing robust models for collaboration driving both newspapers and public broadcasters that amplify news, present engagement infrastructures, and widen possibilities for sponsorships.

As we search for new models, we are already seeing an increase in expert “knowledge” journalists, benedictions given to the contributions of such “activist” journalists as Glenn Greenwald, outright calls for “advocacy” journalism, and new-found discoveries of solutions journalism that are starting to suggest new roadmaps for re-imagining old itineraries.

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