Business of News

Community-engaged journalism is both an end and a means to survival

August 26, 2020

In the era of vulture investors, tech monopolies, and ubiquitous free internet content, the traditional financial structures that once supported journalism have splintered into bits. But so, too, have some long-standing institutional notions about what journalism is and could be. The exacerbation of the local news crisis, propelled by the pandemic, demands new financial models, but it also underlines the need for better media structures—in which readers are no longer audiences, but partners in the work. As I wrote in a July newsletter, “journalists need to ask where the current model is failing, and how it can be rebuilt.” Reimagining journalism’s relationship to its community could serve as both an important end and a means to survival. 

In Monday’s Tow Center webinar, focused on models for community-engaged journalism, Andrea Wenzel—a Tow fellow and assistant professor at Temple University—introduced her new book, Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust. Wenzel’s work is aimed at using the process of community-centered journalism to repair journalistic practice and restore broken trust, particularly among those communities that have been marginalized and misrepresented in the past. “This book is not about saving the journalism industry,” she said. “It’s about reimagining how journalism could better serve communities. And what that looks like may bear little resemblance to traditional models of journalism.” Community-centered journalism asks what information a community needs, rather than presuming to know, and every step of the process requires community partnership. “Let go of expectations that interactions always take place on the newsroom’s terms,” Wenzel said in the webinar.

Alicia Bell, organizing manager at Free Press’s News Voices, agreed, recasting journalism’s traditional vision of its role in a community to include more partnership with local organizers. Journalists, Bell offered, should see themselves as one part of the many pieces that make up a functioning society, collaborators who exist alongside many other essential roles that keep a community alive and thriving. “Journalism is a community infrastructure, at its best,” she said. “That’s what journalism should be.” And just as it’s important for readers to be literate in the structures and functions of a newsroom, Bell added, it’s important for newsrooms to be literate in the structures and functions of the community. Relationship building is a two-way street. 

Sarah Alvarez, founder and executive editor at Outlier Media in Detroit, argued that clarity around norms and expectations could also play an important role in bridging the gap between reporters and readers. “One thing you can do to make your work more accessible is to make clear what you are doing and what you are not doing,” Alvarez said of the unspoken rules of journalism. “All of this stuff is unsaid, and that does a huge disservice to the industry and the communities that the industry tries to serve.” 

In the end, panelists agreed, a community-centered journalism project that works in rural Kentucky may not work in Philadelphia, but the process itself—and the repositioning of a newsroom’s relationship with its readers—can generate a solution that fits each unique place and its people. The sustainability of journalism in the long term will require such solutions. 

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Below, more on recent changes in newsrooms across the world:


  • PHILANTHROPIC ORGANIZATIONS AND INFLUENCE: For CJR, Tim Schwab wrote about the growing influence of philanthropy on the journalism industry, as funders like the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Charles Koch contribute significant funds to support journalistic endeavors. The Gates Foundation, Schwab found, has made more than $250 million in contributions to a wide variety of journalism outlets or affiliated charitable organizations. Schwab digs into the foundation’s influence as an example of the fraught relationships between funders and the outlets they support. “In the same way that the news media has given Gates an outsize voice in the pandemic, the foundation has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture,” Schwab writes. (The Gates Foundation disputes this characterization.)
  • MINNESOTA REPORTER REVIVES PAPER ON SHOESTRING BUDGET: Pam Bluhm, a reporter of forty years at the recently closed Chatfield News in southern Minnesota, used her $1,200 stimulus check to buy the old paper’s computers and filing cabinets, and to register the Chatfield News as a new organization, the Star Tribune reported. Now she runs the paper alongside another part-time job, and many of her writers contribute for free, with volunteers traveling sixty miles to pick up the papers at the printer. “Since Bluhm took over, the News’ circulation is up about 15%, to 865 subscribers,” John Reinen reports. “As word of the paper’s resurrection has spread, so has a desire to help Bluhm succeed.”
  • GOOGLE LOBBIES AGAINST AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT: In response to proposed legislation that would require Google to pay Australian news outlets for their content, Google has begun using its platform to lobby against the legislation—known as the News Media Bargaining Code—among its Australian users, The Verge reported. Google claims that the new code will hurt users’ search experience and endanger their privacy, while the Australian government’s competition commission replied that Google’s public letter contained “misinformation” and that the code would simply require fair payment for journalists. “The idea that Google might be forced to pay news outlets has a certain taste of revenge,” Matthew Ingram wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter. “And yet, rapacious owners—including the hedge funds that control much of the US industry—have done at least as much to injure the business models of their papers as Google or Facebook have.”
  • EPIC GAMES LAWSUIT MAY HAVE IMPLICATIONS FOR NEWS OUTLETS: Joshua Benton wrote for Nieman Lab that Epic Games—the company that produces Fortnite—may have opened a door for news publishers in its lawsuit with Apple and Google over distribution revenues. “Apple took a 30 percent cut of App Store purchases when it launched in 2008; it still does today,” Benton writes. “If someone subscribes to a newspaper or magazine through Apple’s system, the publisher has to lop 30 percent right off the top of its revenue.” He lays out three potential outcomes for the Epic lawsuit, and its implications for news publishers: either the lawsuit fails, Apple and Google reduce the size of their cut, or the companies are found to be in violation of antitrust laws and must change their policies.
  • INNOVATION WILL NOT BE ENOUGH: Last week, the Boston Review wrote about Victor Pickard’s book—Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society. In the book, Pickard advocates—among other things—embracing the idea that the American government can play a role in funding a free press. He also pushes against the idea that innovation is the best solution to the current crisis. “This idea, Pickard contends, misses the fact that the crisis is systemic: a new business model isn’t out there waiting to be discovered, because it’s all of capitalism that’s the problem,” the Review writes. One of the primary solutions Pickard advocates is a publicly funded, independent trust that bankrolls journalism. In 2017, Emily Bell wrote for CJR in favor of an independent endowment for journalism, funded by leading technology companies.
  • LOCAL JOURNALISTS STRIKE IN THE UK: A number of editorial staff working for British local news publisher Bullivant Media—which owns eleven newspapers and four magazines—have gone on strike, saying that the company failed to pay its employees on time amid the coronavirus crisis, the Press Gazette reported. Among other demands, those striking expressed concern about non-editorial staff taking on journalistic work and upcoming redundancies; they formed a socially distanced picket line outside the Bullivant headquarters on Tuesday, some holding signs that read “Defend Local News.”
  • TRAVEL OUTLETS PIVOT: Travel publications are finding new ways to engage audiences, Max Willens wrote for Digiday. Some sites have focused their content around local travel, while others changed production habits—using more voice-overs and fewer on-location videos. Still others have tried to incorporate health considerations into their travel coverage. CondĂ© Nast Traveler, for example, plans to launch a new program that will highlight health and safety precautions employed by different travel businesses, Willens reported. Elsewhere, the Press Gazette talked with Time Out magazine chief Julio Bruno about the title’s return to print.
  • YORKSHIRE POST ASKS FOR SUPPORT: Joining the ranks of passionate local newspaper editorials advocating for reader support, the editor of the Yorkshire Post recently asked readers to consider a donation of, at minimum, five pounds per month. “For now, we are only asking for contributions—this is not a paywall. Not yet,” James Mitchinson wrote. “For now, I am keen to understand if some of the humbling compliments we receive via email, in the post and on social media can translate into pounds, shillings and pence that we can invest in our journalism for perpetuity. I hope so.”
  • RATE OF CLOSURES IN THE UK HAS SLOWED DOWN: Though more than two hundred and fifty print outlets have closed in the United Kingdom since 2005, the rate of closures has slowed, the Press Gazette reported.
  • MORE LAYOFFS, CLOSURES: Five staffers were laid off at ABC-7 in Chicago, Robert Feder reported. The Washburn County Register, in Wisconsin, announced its upcoming closure. And the Center for Civic Media, at MIT, has announced its closure at the end of August.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers (at no cost) and job providers. The Ida B. Wells Society announced that its micro-loan program for journalists would no longer require recipients to repay their loans—you can apply here and donate here.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites.