For several years, media practitioners have debated the best ways to protect, sustain, and nourish healthy journalism. Advice aplenty has been offered to policymakers, entrepreneurs, journalism schools, technology companies, and media moguls.
But rarely have we considered what the ordinary news consumer can do to help support original reporting.
Certainly they can agitate for greater public or foundation support. But is there anything they can do to aid journalism more directly?
The first step is perhaps the hardest: notice who is doing the original reporting. Much of the content we consume consists of summaries of the news. These summaries often rely on information extracted by a different publication than the one providing the recap. So, try to identify the actual reporter who spent the time to generate that information.
Support that reporting through your consumer choices. Many Americans try to have their consumer decisions reflect their values. They buy free-trade coffee to support better labor practices in third world countries. They buy free-range chicken out of concern for conditions on poultry farms. Or they buy American-made clothing or cars to help produce jobs at home.
But few Americans use their clicks to support entities that underwrite original reporting. I’ve never met anyone who deliberately makes a point of clicking on the ads of a local newspaper in hopes that some of that ad revenue will go to fund accountability reporting. Indeed, a slew of technology solutions can help you avoid online ads. We can get our content summaries largely ad-free via Pulse or Flipboard; we can add a plug-in to our web browser that strips out the ads that do appear.
So, first off: visit the websites of the publications that finance real reporting. You could support their advertisers or even consider buying a subscription.
But if you simply don’t want to adjust your consumer behavior to support some social outcome, then at least support journalism via philanthropic donations. Why not donate to a nonprofit news organization? (Here’s a list.) There are all sorts of nonprofit news organizations—national and local—trying to fill the gaps that exist, especially in labor-intensive accountability reporting.
If consumers reward reporting, and let publications know that they’re doing so, the economics of the news industry will change. News organizations will view original reporting as less of a sucker’s game and more of a boon to their bottom line. They will increase their investment in reporting—and you will have helped your country and community.Steven Waldman is a journalist and digital entrepreneur. As senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, he authored a landmark study on local media. Earlier in his career he wrote The Bill, about the passage of the law creating AmeriCorps, and subsequently served as senior advisor to the CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. This article is adapted from a longer white paper, which can be found here. You can watch Waldman discuss his proposal June 16, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. at the Engage Local conference sponsored by Montclair State's Center for Cooperative Media. You can follow the livestream here and join the Twitter conversation at #engagelocal.