The vast majority of Americans, of course, won’t want to participate in such an alliance. But let’s say instead of twelve thousand, The Washington Post or The New York Times got twelve hundred volunteers around the country from a broad range of backgrounds. They could be organized into reporting teams around issues, or specific stories. There could be journalistic boot camps akin to Camp Obama, or an expansion of programs like the Savannah Morning News’s now dormant Neighborhood Newsroom program, which identified citizens from underserved communities and trained them to be neighborhood correspondents.
Such pro-am collaboration is under way in other professions, notably scientific research. Galaxy Zoo, for instance, used unpaid volunteers to classify images of galaxies into various types, in an effort to help astronomers understand how galaxies evolve.
It would be crucial that the professionals not simply view their citizen partners as free labor—twelve thousand interns there to do what they’re told. They would need to embrace the entire public as potential colleagues and fellow citizens.
In other words, journalism would need to begin to change the narrative about itself. It is a narrative that has been created by the press’s own failures, its arrogance and shortsightedness, but also by a forty-year campaign by segments of the political right to vilify the press as a “liberal” cabal, and a more recent and less coordinated effort by elements on the left to portray it as a corporate stooge. Changing this narrative will not be easy. There is considerable hostility and distrust toward the mainstream news media, but some of it is the result of ignorance about what the press does and why. The partisan press-haters will always be with us, but the nascent News Literacy movement is attempting to rectify the pervasive ignorance about the values and methods of journalism—to instill in young citizens the importance of the best kinds of journalism, and how to distinguish it from the less-reliable, less-intellectually honest stuff that floods our information environment each day. Early News Literacy efforts are centered on the classroom, but, as Megan Garber suggested in our July/August issue, an obvious next step is to invest in a broader public-education campaign on how good journalism affects our individual and collective lives, and what our communities would be like without that journalism. It’s baffling that the press has never really attempted to make its case to the public. Now it can’t afford not to.
Toward a New Critical Culture
In 2000, Marshall Berman, writing, appropriately enough, in Dissent, bemoaned the lack of a vibrant critical culture in America, and longed for a way to connect the various strands of grassroots-level ferment—in politics, music, literature, etc. By “critical culture” he meant “one that struggles actively over how human beings should live and what our life means.” He was dismissive of the mainstream press’s ability to lead such a culture, but he also had no answer for who else might lead it. “One big problem for any critical culture to come is, how will its concerns and its ideas be transmitted and shared?” he wrote.
Nine years on, with blogs and social networks, Twitter and Facebook, we have the connectivity that Berman sought; but for that connectivity to be in service of a critical culture will require a committed arbiter—a leader—of the cultural conversation. Part of Berman’s critique was that “too many ideas, coming through too many channels” was a bigger problem than the banality of so much of what was produced each day by our mass media. “As communications technologies metastasize,” he wrote, “it will be even harder not to be flooded out.”
The spirit and strategies that drove OffTheBus will continue to evolve, and someone—or many someones—will eventually get it right. In that 1995 essay, Jim Carey suggested that “we must turn to the task of creating a public realm in which a free people can assemble, speak their minds, and then write or tape or otherwise record the extended conversation so that others, out of sight, might see it. If the established press wants to aid the process, so much the better. But if, in love with profits and tied to corporate interests, the press decides to sit out public life, we shall simply have to create a space for citizens and patriots by ourselves.”