The case for government investment in journalism, a manifesto

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University and vice president of Journalism That Matters.

At the end of this discourse, someone will accuse me of fouling my own nest. That’s if you ever even see this commentary, printed or online in what used to be called the local newspaper.

Regardless, it will circulate. As do the words of the late Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS journalist, more than 50 years later that start this letter. Because if the structures of networks and media ownership and cultural representation remain the same  — if they continue unaltered – then the main of us may look up one day dazed at what has transpired and realize we have done it to ourselves.

The North Carolina General Assembly this spring is considering the rollback of a longtime requirement for some local governments that legal notices be printed in newspapers, a revenue stream for publishers totaling millions of dollars a year. States across the country, including neighboring Virginia, have been gnawing on the issue as well.

Should HB 504 become law, nine North Carolina counties and municipalities would no longer be dependent on their local publications as a vehicle for bidding out state contracts, announcing property foreclosures, or conducting in public any of several other government or legal business. The counties represented in this bill could instead post notices on their own electronic servers.

But what would be lost in the transaction? The legacy local newspaper, most likely, already facing technological disruption, the “great collapse” of revenue from classified, display and subscriptions, a product struggling to reinvent itself in our brave, new digital world.

Since 2007, more than 120 newspapers have been lost to these struggles. Many locales and communities across the United States no longer have access to fresh news and information as newspapers reduce their frequency from seven days a week to four or three or go totally online. Residents glean what they can from the news aggregators, but are more  knowledgeable about what is happening far away than what is happening in their own back yard.

But if the publishers of the local newspapers might set their lobbying teams to pause and look at the consequences of that loss beyond their own bottom lines, they would find that they are compelled to speak up now, because something much larger than newspapers themselves will be lost.

Our sense of place. Our sense of democracy. Our ability to learn and influence our unfolding narratives.

As long as we are willing to continue to allow community news, information and storytelling to die, then we complicit in our growing ignorance. The water is slowly heating, and we will warm ourselves, complacent believing that we are receiving all that we should. Until we are startled into the realization that we know too little, too late.

I do not speak on behalf of the institution – the newspaper. Or the local radio or television station. I ask that you consider news and information, that public service function keeps us informed and connected to local opportunities and talent. The community stories that give us a sense of ourselves and our place in the world. The cultural narratives that shape our reality and sometimes allow us to see – and move — beyond them.

Let us consider using those funds from legal notices to train community storytellers, much like the writers of the Works Project Administration in a nationwide media corps. Use our underemployed talent, whether fresh out of school or displaced from the profession or newer community voices, to bolster civic news and information functions. Boost open government initiatives to create even greater transparency especially in communities that have lost their newspaper watchdog functions.

As Edward R. Murrow has said:

“We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small traction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure would grow by contagion; the economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure–exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.”

Murrow was referring to that new medium of television, back in 1958, and its growing programming diet designed to delude, amuse and insulate us. But his concerns and his solutions are as valid today, with the rise of the Internet and the loss of our civic commons.

There are some who will wring their hands and say that government shouldn’t be funding our news and information. They’ll point to the arguments over our public broadcasting. They’ll say that in this political and economic climate, it would be impossible to redirect these government monies to funding community news and information for a more informed citizenry. We need less government control, not more.

Let someone else pick up the slack, they’ll say, we don’t need newspapers now. We have the Internet.

They will ignore that government is already in our media. They will ignore history, that shows that this innovation called a free press was started with government licensing, preferential postal rates, even government-purchased printing presses in some locales. Our founders even insisted on a free press in the First Amendment to our Constitution.

They will ignore that we would not have the democracy we enjoy if we did not have a free press. They will believe that newspapers achieved their heights on their own and can figure their way out of their fast race to the bottom on their own, thank you very much.

But we’re talking about something more vital to our civic discourse than newspapers. We’re talking journalism, that vital community information function. One that serves our communities and its residents first, by whatever means necessary.

Community news and information for the people, by the people, of the people.

We must remain in conversation. We must stay informed and engaged. For we will grasp the enormity of what we have lost from journalism too late: Exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

“There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference,” Murrow said in 1958. I would argue that we are waging it now.

The case for government investment in journalism, a manifesto

Changing the Language of Journalism Work

So I’m here in Denver at the Journalism That Matters gathering April 3-4, 2013 around the question “What’s possible when old embodiments of journalism die and its spirit is free to take new forms?” Already our conversations today have sparked conversations and questions about
“What is journalism?” “Do we have to have a commercial model?” and “How do we create engagement that is inclusive of our diverse communities?”

We are tearing the fabric of journalism apart to look at new forms, new partnerships and new ways of measuring the impact of what we do as communicators.

One of the main challenges we’ve bumped up against already is the challenge of using old language to describe new forms. I’ve seen this same shift in higher education, where I teach in communications, as we’ve discussed our students as “customers.” When I think of my students as engaged learners, there’s not a whole lot of room to think about the “product” I’m delivering/sharing/coaching in the classroom and what students are “purchasing” as customers. . And measuring the value of that exchange is nearly nonexistent. Our language is insufficient to do more than point.

A similar conversation ensued at #jtmdenver. So does traditional, commercial journalism serve advertisers, community or someone else? What do we mean by engagement? What does a healthy media ecosystem look like?

I believe in the power of language to shape our reality. I believe words can frame the conversation/debate before we even have begun to explore all the possibilities of who we are or can be. So talking about our advertisers as our customers or our readers as audience still does not get at the nuances of how we need to be describing this new news ecology.

User-generated content does not describe engagement, people! It does not get at the participatory, creation and dissemination and conversation processes that are now in play as we find the disintermediation of legacy media that has occurred from technology, new forms and other challenges to our traditional notions.

So we need a new vocabulary for understanding the work that we do and its value to the larger communities that we serve. The beginning of that vocabulary is emerging at JTM in words such as: authenticity, collaborators, community weavers, participation, engagement. It changes in how we measure the impact of what we do from clicks, page views and subscriptions to social capital, happiness indices and the relationships that we help create from the work that we do.

If we are doing our work well…that is creating journalism that helps nurture community engagement in civic discourse, then we need a new language to describe that work. That vocabulary is emerging at #jtmdenver and throughout our Journalism That Matters conversations.

I invite you to help us shape the language that gets us to focus on what’s possible for journalism now.

Changing the Language of Journalism Work

Lessons From Time, Inc.’s Assignment Detroit for Hyperlocal Operators

Buy a house in the “inner city”. Drop in a reporter to live for a year. Sounds like a recipe for a reality show.

But this is the script that Time, Inc. used to launch its Assignment Detroit project nearly a year ago. And by the accounts of Detroit participants at Journalism That Matters: “Create or Die” in Detroit this June 3-6, 2010, Time’s project has been sorely lacking in representing the reality they live every day.

The community’s anger started with the initial cover of Time, Inc.’s magazine that portrayed a city abandoned. For those who continue to live and work in Detroit, the cover is a symbol of the approach by Time, Inc. that denies the passion and resurgence happening all across Detroit.

A palpable tension filled the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History as JTM participants listened to Karen Dybis, a blogger for the Time, Inc. project, describe her role in the project (Video). She outlined the goals and failures of the project in a frank appraisal.
So what can we learn from Time, Inc.’s example?
Communities are complex, rich environments. A house doesn’t buy you access.
Embedded journalists aren’t of the community. They parachute in and out with no real investment in the outcome of their works.

Lessons From Time, Inc.’s Assignment Detroit for Hyperlocal Operators

The Media Deserts Project, part of the Media Deserts/News Oasis Project

1. What do you propose to do?

We’re using GIS tools to create a “climate” map that tracks changes in the reach and depth of community news.

2. Is anyone doing something like this now and how is your project different?

Papercuts shows pinpoints of newspapers that have closed. We are creating a “media desert” map with reach data for existing media that shows where people lack access to news.

3. Describe the network with which you intend to build or work.

We’re using open geographic information systems software. We will overlay existing daily and weekly newspaper circulation data, demographic and community data through ESRI and a network analysis of hyperlocal online news providers. We also will use Ushahidi software to build a layer of crowdsourced ethnographic data.

4. Why will it work?

More than 120 newspapers have ceased operation in the United States since 2008. The Pew Center, New America Foundation and the FCC report disturbing effects of newspaper changes, broadband access and other media access issues. Across every state of the nation, community residents are experiencing growing voids in local news coverage. Just as the USDA food desert map has galvanized community conversation and action around remedies, we believe visualization of community media systems will help illuminate where news is lacking. Our map will help monitor the system over time and focus attention and resources where they are most needed.

5. Who is working on it?

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is an associate professor in journalism and online community development at Elon University who is the principal investigator for the project which is being developed in conjunction with Journalism That Matters, an international collaboration of journalists, educators, hyperlocal operators, broadcasters and news producers. Ferrier is also part of a larger collaboration of university researchers examining the changing media system. She is working with Dr. Ryan Kirk, an assistant professor in environmental sciences at Elon University who is an expert in GIS systems. Journalism That Matters is providing intervention-related consulting to communities identified as media deserts.

6. What part of the project have you already built?

We are currently prototyping a state version of the mapping system using daily and community newspapers. The prototype will allow us to test our metrics for measuring and defining “media deserts.” We have also created partnerships with several national media policy organizations that are interested in seeing such a map become reality. We are currently installing the Ushahidi software and creating a system for capturing stories of media deserts. Through Journalism That Matters, we are testing interventions in one topical media desert in Seattle. We have identified two other communities in which to host conversations around interventions.

7. How would you sustain the project after the funding expires?

We are building collaborative research partnerships with other higher education institutions and policy foundations. We feel these organizations will support the mapping system and research website once the demonstration project is completed. In addition, we plan to provide consulting services, ethnographic research and specialized reporting to communities with media deserts.

The Media Deserts Project, part of the Media Deserts/News Oasis Project