One day in the fall of 2019, as I sat on a beach in Brazil, I heard the distant sound of hands clapping. Not the raucous clapping of a beach party—this was the concentrated, intentional sound of a small group of people. The small wave of clapping moved toward me as I stared out at the Atlantic, until it finally reached my little section of the beach.
As though heeding a silent command, everyone around me joined in the clapping, not rhythmically in sync but clearly connected. So I started clapping too, hoping all would be revealed. That’s when I realized that the clapping was following a man with a child on his shoulders. Like an aura around him, anyone within ten feet of this man and the child dutifully clapped as they passed and wordlessly went silent as they moved on.
I re-told this moment days later to a friend, who then explained to me what I had seen. When a child gets separated from their loved ones on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, they’re hoisted onto the shoulders of a nearby adult (preferably tall), who volunteers to walk the beach until the child is reunited with their loved ones. The clapping draws attention for any frantic parent searching for a small child in a crowd of hundreds until they’re reunited.
The people of Rio de Janeiro have developed one of my favorite things: a simple solution to a complex problem. Here, we had a problem of monumental importance, that everyone enjoying the beach that day could understand but no one could have solved on their own. It wasn’t about the tall man playing the lead role, or the first person to start clapping, or the frantic parent. The best response to the crisis of a child lost on a beach is not to ask a few people to mount a search for a parent. It is simply to get more people involved, at a level at which everyone is willing and able to participate; it is to draw power from the crowd, rather than rely on a small group.
I think of this often when I think about the future of journalism, and how we will solve the crisis before us. For decades, we have invested so much time, money, and hope in the idea that a small group of individuals who are experts in their field can solve the enormous, complex challenge of building and supporting an informed citizenry. But the longer I’ve worked in this industry—and the more I’ve grappled with the core questions of what and who makes journalism in the public interest—the more clearly I’ve seen the error of this thinking. This is not a problem that journalists can solve on our own. The best response to the current crisis in journalism is to get more people involved, at a level at which everyone is willing and able to participate. Not just as news consumers, but as distributors and—most important—producers of local information.
As we collectively confront interrelated challenges of ecological disaster, systemic racism, pandemic, and social stratification, I believe journalism that works as a part of a networked civic ecosystem is more important than ever. Unfortunately, it’s not the journalism we have today; I’m not convinced it’s the journalism we’ve ever had. Even as the primary business model for journalism fails, new models built from the wreckage of the old may not be enough to create the informational public goods that are necessary for a just and racially equitable society.
For all the nostalgia of journalism as the “fourth estate” and a “pillar of democracy,” the news industry makes the world worse as often as it makes it better. Endless news cycles; racist, sexist, transphobic coverage; coastal elitism; and polarizing politics have all but squandered public trust. The “first draft of history” is being written by the victors, and it shows in their coverage. I believe that journalism in the public interest is as valuable and necessary as any public good, and that an ecosystem of local media sources—newsrooms, libraries, public access TV and radio stations, and other information hubs—can help communities determine their own futures.
Here’s one thing I know from six years of cocreating a nonprofit civic news organization with a long-standing commitment to setting up community infrastructure in service of place-based local news: The crisis facing journalism isn’t just about business models and algorithms, or trust and engagement. It’s not just about revenue and sustainability, or vulture hedge funds and venture philanthropists. Or foundations and media policy. The crisis facing journalism is also about journalism’s very purpose, and its public benefit.
So, as they say, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”
The best response to the current crisis in journalism is to get more people involved, at a level at which everyone is willing and able to participate.
If the local media industry was in a recession in 2021, it may be heading for a depression in the years to come. Poynter reporter Kristen Hare’s chronicle of newsroom closures and cutbacks feels like an obituary page for local news these days. The numbers are grim: Half of all newsroom jobs were shed between 2008 and 2019, a year where there were more coal mining jobs than journalism jobs. Just last year, 16,160 more jobs were cut across digital, broadcast, and print news. Since 2004, 1,800 newspapers have closed their doors—at least 90 during the covid-19 pandemic, according to Hare. The business model for local journalism is on life support; our industry’s wounds are at least partly self-inflicted.
For most of its history, the business of journalism has tracked newspapers sold—then webpages clicked—to make a case for the advertising dollars that have traditionally funded editorial operations. In recent years, that cozy relationship with advertisers—traditional journalism’s primary revenue stream—has faltered, as advertisers have found a more lucrative dance partner in Big Tech, selling access to personal data for increased reach.
In that same time, numerous studies have demonstrated the democratic benefits of local news reporting on civic action—among them, that local newsrooms help reduce government corruption, increase the responsiveness of elected officials to their constituents, and encourage public participation in local politics. This isn’t purely a matter of journalistic output reducing corruption—effective democracy requires accurate information that engages communities in civic life. The number of times a user landed on an online news report isn’t enough; a free press framed as a public good should be measured by the ability of people to engage in the ongoing processes for positive change in their communities. A revised definition of journalistic efficacy could make a new case for financial sustainability for journalism as a public good—one that serves communities most often left out of the bottom line when it comes to revenue.
Imagine if the success of a newsroom were measured by the quality of informed civic action in its coverage area. A decades-long rise in American disengagement from civic life—including voting, union membership, church and other social clubs—suggests there’s plenty of work to do.
Historically, journalism’s theory of change, if it can be said to have one at all, has been to build bigger platforms and see who shouts the loudest. Call it “consciousness raising” or “amplifying voices,” but today, as fewer companies control more commercial journalism organizations, the “amplified voices” look and sound more and more like the oligarchs in charge.
The view from journalism’s ivory tower shapes the view from the ground. From the 1968 Kerner Commission Report to the last American Society of News Editors survey in 2018, study after study affirms that the professional media workforce is, and has been, disproportionately white, male, able-bodied, and cis, and made up of people who are significantly more wealthy, educated, and politically left than the people in their coverage areas. Biases toward dominant perspectives are inherent to journalism as a professional field. It comes as no surprise that the oldest and most dominant journalism professional group, the Society of Professional Journalists, began as a men’s-only fraternity in 1909, a time when “man” meant white man.
For decades, newsrooms have resisted hiring and promoting diverse perspectives that might have opened new avenues for innovation and revenue that come with authentic representation. Today, higher-education journalism programs that charge exorbitant sums of money from job seekers are aided by affinity groups designed to professionalize the field and preserve the status quo. Job seekers, in turn, are left with debt; for the privileged few who enter the industry through J-school degrees, a series of unpaid internships, late freelance checks, and “exposure” opportunities compounds the already high price. Felix Salmon perhaps said it best: “If you’re poor, or working-class, or a rural person of color, or mobility-constrained, or a single mother struggling to bring up multiple children, or otherwise part of a group that has historically been underrepresented in newsrooms, is it possible for you to go to J-school? Sure. Is it likely? Not in the slightest. Is it advisable? It is not.”
Journalistic production and the consolidation of power in media are not disconnected issues. If our shared narratives are part of a tool kit necessary for creating change in our communities and the inequitable policy outcomes that govern them, then production of these informational public goods should be accessible, reliable, and produced by a diverse range of people. When those goods are largely controlled by people who look and live nothing like the people they serve, the results affect the product in content, form, and audience. Nationally, when 54 percent of adults between the ages of sixteen and seventy-four read below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level, who are journalistic articles—produced by a master’s-degreed journalist and written at a college reading level—for? Nineteen percent of adults can’t read a newspaper, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In a city like Cleveland—where 66 percent of adults are reported to be functionally illiterate—is a two-thousand-word investigative feature written for the average Clevelander? Who’s left out of the conversation when roughly 78 percent of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated along the East Coast, the West Coast, or in Chicago?
There are, of course, other audiences for these stories—policymakers and power brokers, politicians and lobbyists, powerful institutions and wealthy individuals who might enact change on behalf of those in need. But the vast majority of news articles aren’t designed for people who are most affected by the issues reported. Instead, the people most affected by a given issue are the subjects of stories written about them, not for them. In that way, news reinforces the sense that people are powerless to change the forces affecting their lives. Paywalled stories about inequity are plentiful, but, as media researchers Fiona Morgan and Jay Hamilton put it, “there is no Wirecutter for low-income individuals.”
Given this, the decline of public trust in journalism is entirely rational. People rightly have to wonder if the game is rigged when they see themselves portrayed as victims and charity cases in content and don’t see themselves reflected in hiring priorities and engaged as producers.
In the book You Are Here, Whitney Phillips and Ryan A. Milner call journalism “a power-replicating machine.” Without a driving mission, journalism is guided by profit and, often, power. Without a theory of change, journalism resists it. Without a framework for measuring real-world impact, journalism counts what people click with little concern for what they do.
So who and what is journalism for? Which types of information are public goods, and what do the producers of these public goods need in order to sustain their work? What role should journalism play in a country that is increasingly racially and gender-diverse, yet further divided by wealth, power, and politics—and what will we need for journalism to fill that role? A revised theory of change for local journalism will track the ability of people to engage in the difficult process of answering these questions and meet on common ground to shape solutions.
A journalism that engages, employs, and promotes reporters and nonprofessional media-makers with lived experience of the most pressing issues we face as a country is journalism that builds trust and cements accurate, reliable information as a public good worth saving. Authenticity breeds trust. The question of who and what journalism is for is directly related to questions of who can be a journalist.
There is no number of news articles that will save us from the challenges ahead, but there are a million people willing to take on the role of “Observer,” “Courtwatcher,” “Community Correspondent,” “Info Hub Captain,” or “Documenter” for their neighborhood, block, or building.
The solution to the current crisis in journalism isn’t simply to save jobs, but to willingly and intentionally democratize the means of journalistic production. New infrastructure that weaves participatory media and public assets will democratize journalistic skills and could unlock a movement for collective action, a not-so-secret weapon against news deserts and misinformation hidden in plain sight. It relies on thousands of everyday people who are eager to participate, organizations with physical media-maker spaces, and communities taking collective action.
I’ve written in the past about what journalism can learn from mutual aid, how we might put those lessons into practice, and why a new contract with local media should reframe the traditional consumer-producer relationship into one of cocreation, with journalists and communities working together to produce essential information as a public good. The profit-driven side of local journalism may be in free fall, but infrastructure for a more public, participatory, community-driven, trustworthy, accurate, and representational news ecosystem is readily available. A patchwork constellation of community information hubs already exist, woven into the fabric of their respective communities. Historically, these nontraditional community information conductors have been subsidized in varying degrees by taxes as a public trust:
- There are more than 10,000 public libraries across the country serving as living archives and real-time verifiers of community information. They are often the first and last resort for low-income and vulnerable people most in need of direct access to accurate, timely, relevant information, and they provide professional support for people on how to access it.
- The Alliance for Community Media has counted 1,677 PEG (public, educational and government) access channels across the country. These hyperlocal TV and radio stations host trainings, produce local news, provide community meeting space, and build local connections.
- Similarly, there are more than 1,500 low-power FM stations owned by Indigenous tribes, religious groups, immigrant communities, and nonprofits across the country. Though they aren’t always publicly funded, these stations are often highly participatory.
- Lastly, though they aren’t the usual definition of mass media, there are more than 34,000 post offices across the US. As the author and professor Victor Pickard has already pointed out, “These spaces could become centers for different kinds of community media, from weekly newspapers to municipal broadband networks.”
High school and college newspapers, churches, block clubs, community organizations, and other civic organizations round out a networked community-information service in the making.
A newsroom that connects existing civic assets around the participatory production and distribution of accurate, trustworthy, locally relevant information will build a future for local media as a true public good. There is no number of news articles that will save us from the challenges ahead, but there are a million people willing to take on the role of “Observer,” “Courtwatcher,” “Community Correspondent,” “Info Hub Captain,” or “Documenter” for their neighborhood, block, or building. Let’s build new newsrooms as civic hubs—and integrate existing newsrooms into community spaces. Let’s train many more people to commit acts of journalism without going into debt for a costly degree. Let’s open up the field of journalism to include residents working alongside reporters on some of the biggest questions facing our communities.
The crisis facing journalism isn’t just about business models and algorithms, or trust and engagement. It’s not just about revenue and sustainability, or vulture hedge funds and venture philanthropists. Or foundations and media policy. The crisis facing journalism is also about journalism’s very purpose, and its public benefit.
A growing list of nonprofit community-media organizations are bolstering local information ecosystems by working directly with communities most impacted by systemic injustice. These opportunities are not unpaid internships or ways to gain “exposure.” At their best, they are acts of co-creation around common experiences.
An excerpt from the executive summary of City Bureau’s 2021-2024 strategic plan charts a shift in news production that is evolving across the country:
“As we learned and grew, our focus shifted from triaging gaps in the existing local media infrastructure to cultivating a new, more equitable and democratic system that could replace it entirely. Our experience shows that, to live up to its ideals, journalism needs many, many more people involved—not just as consumers, but as producers and distributors working in collaboration with professional newsrooms.”
Similarly, mission statements from other service-based, community news organizations outline a new contract between local media and the public. From Canopy Atlanta, a community-led nonprofit journalism project:
“Our mission is to equip metro Atlantans to report in collaboration with experienced journalists about the issues their communities care about most. We tell stories that directly respond to neighborhood needs, partner with existing community information systems, and build neighborhoods’ capacity to keep obtaining information from public records, officials, or archives.”
From Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization:
“We identify, report, and deliver valuable information to empower residents to hold landlords, municipal government and elected officials accountable for longstanding problems. By keeping residents first, we hope to give more than we take and leave people with the information they need to create change in their own communities.”
From Resolve Philly, an organization dedicated to equitable news practices:
“Our work centers on improving how misrepresented communities are covered by the media. We believe that in a time of widespread mistrust, political division, and industry upheaval, journalists must reconsider not only what they report, but how they find, frame, and tell stories.”
And from City Bureau:
“Our mission is to equip people with skills and resources, engage in critical public conversations and produce information that directly addresses people’s needs. Drawing from our work in Chicago, we aim to equip every community with the tools it needs to eliminate information inequity to further liberation, justice and self-determination.”
To counter current threats to our democracy and address the problems facing our country, journalism needs to adapt, borrowing from tried-and-tested approaches to public education, community organizing, movement building, and civic engagement that cultivates collective action. The current local-media landscape is struggling for finances, relevancy, and purpose—but, with innovation and investment, the collapse of the current business model could give way to a stronger, more participatory media that is integrated with the local ecosystems that it serves.
Reimagining the theory of change that got us to this point is a necessary step in acknowledging history, embracing accountability, and shifting power to a better future for local media—one that is participatory and reflective. Journalism isn’t just a career path, or a business, or a “pillar of democracy”; it’s the best tool we have to shape civic infrastructure and fuel the equitable revitalization of our communities. As the existing media landscape falters and fails—and interrelated crises inevitably unfold—information ecosystems that acknowledge history, embrace accountability, and shift power will be needed more than ever to ensure people have the resources they need to keep their neighbors informed, engaged, and equipped to solve complex problems with collective solutions.
TOP IMAGE: Nicolas Economou/AP