At a recent screening of the news documentary East Harlem IS—produced by students at the Citizen Schools after-school program in New York City, in partnership with the News Literacy Project and produced under the direction of The New York Times’s Jane Bornemeier—Amy Perrette, a Citizen Schools board member, noted, “It’s amazing what students can achieve when they’re held to high expectations.” And that goes for journalism’s audience, as well. As David Mindich puts it, “There’s a part of everybody that wants to be elevated, that wants to be challenged.” Excellent journalism, he notes, appeals “to the better angels of our being.” And it makes us want more of it.
(Re)building the Audience
In spring 2005, the Carnegie Corporation commissioned a report, “Abandoning the News,” which examined the impact of declining resources in American newsrooms. The problem wasn’t just one of resources—the supply side of news—the report’s author, Merrill Brown, concluded. It was also one of demand. “The future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news.” The media critic Dan Kennedy put it a bit more bluntly in a recent Guardian column: “If journalists don’t succeed at expanding the community of people who are interested and take part in civic life, then they are facing what will prove to be a hopeless battle.”
News organizations must start treating audience cultivation with a sense of urgency. Not merely as a matter of business—though that’s certainly part of the equation—but also as a matter of democratic duty. “My thinking on this has really evolved from being, ‘Hey, wow, this is really a great thing for building audience for the Times-Union,’” says Rex Smith, “to thinking that this is a way to sustain journalism for our democracy.” While tough times tend to breed short-term solutions, the survival of news organizations depends on the size of their audience nest egg. “That long-term planning—that long-term planting—is something that’s been lacking,” Mindich says. But “we have to see ourselves as part of the democratic process.”
The problem isn’t merely one of “citizenship,” that vague yet powerful concept. The problem is also one of our relationship to truth itself. Call it the True Enough syndrome: as Farhad Manjoo put it in his 2008 book, “The limitless choice we now enjoy over the information we get about our world has loosened our grip on what is—and isn’t—true.” The threat that slack suggests is no less urgent for its Orwellian undertones: the fomentation, in Manjoo’s phrase, of “a post-fact society.” And of a media environment in which facts are increasingly assumed to be customizable—even optional. Think of cable punditry, where facts are so often fungible. Or that, according to a 2006 National Geographic poll, only 14 percent of Americans believe in evolution. Or that “swift boat” is now a verb. All that notwithstanding, truth isn’t an opt-in/opt-out notion.
Which is much more than post-postmodernist balderdash. Citizenship relies on communally accepted modes of taking in and talking about the world—on a shared vernacular that is premised on a shared reality. (“There is a necessary connection between public associations and newspapers,” de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America; “newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers.”) Indeed, “shared” is a key aspect of news; vital to the oft-discussed relationship between information and democracy is information’s communality—which is to say, its authority. When we can’t agree on what the facts mean, what we have is vibrant debate; when we can’t agree on what the facts are, what we have is cognitive anarchy. When James Madison declared that “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives,” we can safely assume that “knowledge,” to him, was an empirical entity, not a cherry-picked cocktail of subjective “truths.”
And yet. We are nearing a point—if, indeed, we’re not already there—in which knowledge itself is becoming appropriated by the glibness of subjectivity. The Web’s erosion of the storied “gatekeeper” function of the press, while it deserves celebration in so many senses, also creates a real danger for our democracy: through it, we now have nearly as many versions of truth—textual, historical truth—as we have news stories. Without a shared frame of reference—without the communal authority on which the power of the press has been predicated—we lose our bearings, stuck in the webs of our own comfort zones. While news will, of course, always have a subjective element to it—the very question of “What is news?”, the sociologist Herbert Gans points out, is not merely definitional, but moral and political—we cannot allow news’s humanity to overshadow its authenticity. News is neither sacred nor infallible; that doesn’t mean it’s not true.