Last week, I was part of a national conference https://sustainlocal2016.sched.org/ on journalism sustainability convened by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media. Our panel was asked to begin with an overview of the state of local-news sustainability.
Having no particular expertise regarding the mix of revenue streams everyone is testing these days, I decided to focus on what I think lies at the heart of the question: the public. Whatever happens with advertising and subscriptions, events, membership or repurposing of content, I’m convinced that a key to survival will be a public willingness to support journalism. We must come to see information in the public interest as we do the arts or education – as a civic good, one we are responsible for sustaining.
This is no small challenge, since we’ve trained the public for years to believe that the news comes to them for free — or really cheap. You turned on the TV, or you plunked down your quarter for the paper, and you never really thought about the fact that advertisers were paying the bill. This means that we are going to have to make our work so important, so engaging, that people will feel they can’t do without it.
In other words, we’ve got to make our journalism indispensable. Here are a few thoughts I shared with the journalists at the conference about how to go about it:
— Be IN and OF your community. When I started as a cub reporter at the Colorado Springs SUN, the editor and publisher wrote a column published on the front page. As a newly minted Medill master’s graduate, I found this unorthodox custom disquieting. But it surely worked for the readers, who sensed the editor’s engagement with the community. Later, when I became editor of the Des Moines Register, we kept alive the paper’s historic tradition of running our cartoon on the front page. Register cartoonists had won two Pulitzers over the years; more important, they’d won the hearts of Iowans. In particular, the Sunday cartoons, poking fun at the state and its residents, made it clear that we were all in this together.
— At the same time, we need to remember our leadership role. We are not, as journalists, just seeking to be part of the kaffeeklatsch. We are leading a conversation. I remember focus groups at the Register in which, at the end, a reader would say, “Well, you’re the editors. Help us see what you think is possible.” It’s not a return to the old top-down model that I’m recommending here, but rather engaging in ways that broaden and deepen the community, making it more inclusive and ensuring that people discover things they don’t know.
— We need to be honest about who we are and what we’re attempting to do. The hardest voice I ever had to write in was the editorial voice of The New York Times, when I served on its editorial board. People don’t respond easily to disembodied voices. Amid today’s endless debates about objectivity, I’m struck by the power of the view espoused by the Dutch news organization De Correspondent. They believe that their journalists should be, first and foremost, AUTHENTIC — a quality that is essential if they are to cultivate the rich relationship with readers that the organization seeks.
— Keep in mind that HOPE may be bigger news today than disaster. In this era of cynicism and division, we need a journalism that helps people understand that solutions are possible and government can work. Journalism is supposed to provide an accurate picture of the world around us, but ours has looked pretty lopsided for years. This is not about softball questions or happy-talk stories: Good journalism creates community through a common understanding of accurate information – the good as well as the bad.
— We must remember that we are most effective when we reach people through their hearts as well as their brains. We’ve always known that good writing and powerful photography were key to our success. We have so many more tools today for engaging people and making lasting connections. Elizabeth Alexander closed her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” by asking “…and are we not of interest to each other?” In recent years, journalism has done as much to distance us from one another as it has to connect us. Our future now may rest on our ability to correct that course.