The “U” in “Community”

A new study of Chicago's journalism scene takes a top-down approach to news value

“The reinvention of the news gathering industry is being engineered—at least in part—in Chicago,” the Chicago Sun-Times declared in April. Today, we have some evidence to support that expansive claim—in the form of a study that examines emergent news sites in that toddling town. “The New News: Journalism We Want and Need,” produced by the Community Media Workshop, commissioned by the Chicago Community Trust—and paid for with $25,000 of a $250,000 CCT grant from the Knight Foundation—looks both at the new sites founded in Chicagoland during recent years, and, as the report’s title suggests, at what audiences want from those sites.

But that latter premise is also a problem. The conclusions the report reaches about the desires of a nebulous audience are based on feedback from focus groups that brought together thirty-three “leaders of nonprofits from across the region including performing arts organizations, social-service agencies and advocacy groups, to gauge their perceptions about the state and of [sic] local news coverage and visions for a better future.” The report explains the logic of relying on such focus group data for its findings (emphasis mine): “we sought to arrive at a user-oriented critique of local online news coverage.”

The contradiction between those two sentiments is striking: unless you define a nonprofit executive as a specimen of averageness when it comes to local news sites, your “user-oriented critique” is going to be skewed. Executives are simply not average. As community-oriented—and community-savvy—as nonprofit leaders may be, they’re not the typical users of community news. And yet that’s how they’re portrayed by the report. “We decided the best way to gauge trends and assumptions about news users, our region’s information needs, and news-business successes and challenges,” the report’s authors write of their focus-group methodology, “was to work with on [sic] an audience we feel is particularly relevant but not particularly well-represented in the larger discussion about where the news is headed.”

And that’s fair enough. But the language—and, as such, the point—here is murky: is the purpose of the report to obtain a fair and representative sample of the desires of average news audiences in Chicago—or is it to give voice to an underrepresented group? The two aren’t the same—in fact, they’re fairly diametrically opposed—and yet the language of “The New News” muddles them.

In the confusion, the report does a disservice to its own conclusion: what are we to take away from a study that defines journalism’s “users” only as influential members of a given community? When “The New News” concludes, based on its focus-group feedback, that “what we want and need” is news that is “vetted,” “selected,” and “shared,” how much credence are we to give to that finding? The overall aim of the report—to step back, for a moment, from the financial anxieties of journalism and consider the enduring (and evolving) value of news—is admirable. And the narrative detailing its findings, studded with telling quotes and colorful anecdotes (if also a few errant typos), is worth a read. But the report’s odd definition of local news’s “users”—its assumption that business executives, nonprofit though their businesses may be, somehow know what “we” want when it comes to the news—undermines, unfortunately, the whole affair. It assumes a top-down approach to news gathering, and enforces the increasingly outmoded structure that is a vertical, rather than horizontal, relationship between news’s producers and users. In doing so, “The New News” compromises the very thing it was, ostensibly, meant to validate: community.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.