More ‘Serious Disruption’ in Store for the Local News Industry

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Local and hyperlocal journalism, like the entire news industry, is being pushed toward big change — to leave its editor-centric culture and connect more deeply with the community in the news-gathering process. I recently spoke with Peggy Holman, co-founder of Journalism That Matters, who is one of the on-the-ground agents of change.

What is “Journalism That Matters” and what has it accomplished?
JTM has focused on convening the “whole system” of journalism to re-envision and re-create journalism. It helps to shape an evolving news ecology that cultivates thriving communities. We believe journalism matters most when it is of, by, and for the people. It brings together a wide array of people so that journalism engages communities and communities engage in journalism.

JTM has a track record of engagement that creates breakthrough ideas, innovation, collaboration and action. Our more than 1,400 participants have told us that JTM has inspired them to create new ideas, projects, partnerships and ventures.

You see the “old news story” being replaced by an “emerging news ecology.” What’s the crucial difference?
The old news story is manufacturing-like, a linear assembly line. The emerging news ecology (see image below) is highly relational, with constant interactions among a circle of engaged partners.  And with advertisers hanging out as a placeholder for revenue sources, it is a reminder that that particular conundrum has yet to be solved.

Can you give an example of this new approach as it’s being used successfully by a publication?
I’d say that the award-winning WellCommons — a place where community and journalism work together to create a healthier Lawrence and Douglas County, Kan. — provides a glimpse of what is emerging. The public was involved in the design of the site.  According to WellCommons’ originator, Jane Stevens, the site changed the way the journalists did their work. The site, most days of the week, meets Stevens’ original goal of 50% of the content coming from the community. The approach is inherently solution-oriented.

Q. Can legacy journalists adapt to this new process of producing news?
Some will, some won’t. As in any time of significant structural change, the old system dies even as the new system is born. Those who survive do so because they glimpse the possibilities for doing even better journalism in the new ecosystem and jump in to bring them to life.

As I’ve interacted with journalists over the last dozen years, I have seen many in mourning. I hear them asking, “Is there a place for me in this new ecosystem?” and “Are the values and principles that I hold dear still relevant?” Some just hope to retire before it all falls apart.  Yet for others, the desire to contribute, to serve the social good is as strong as it was when they were inspired to become journalists.

We have a system essential to democratic engagement that is seriously broken. And given the importance of an informed public for making decisions that affect our individual and collective lives, it’s essential that the role that journalism has historically played be re-invented to meet today’s needs.

You want to add a sixth “W” to the “five W’s” — who, what, where, when, why — of the traditional news reporter.  Please explain.
No matter how grim the story journalists are covering, when asked, “given what’s happened, what’s possible now?” people in despair lift their eyes to their hopes, dreams and desires. We seem to have an innate human capacity for discovering strengths and possibilities. It just takes asking.  And doing so helps those who receive the story to be inspired by it. Some are even activated to engage in productive ways.

Surveys consistently show that a majority of the public doesn’t trust the news media, this despite two decades and more of  “civic journalism.” What kind of relationship do the media have to establish with the community to win trust?
They have to establish a relationship with community.  Period. For one thing, the public is far more diverse than traditional media organizations. Mainstream media is about 85% white. Hardly the voice of much of the public.

Communities need to take responsibility for their own story.  One way to do that is to embed journalists in community. When journalists see themselves as of the community, not outside commenting on it, something shifts.

Did you start out as a journalist?
My background is not in journalism. I’ve been involved with system change in organizations, using a group of social technologies that enable groups of any size to creatively engage with complex, important issues, I chose to work with journalists because I saw the catalytic potential of journalists to be agents of change through the stories they tell.

What if journalists were catalysts of the shift, helping us to imagine the possible by shining a light on the myriad of remarkable experiments in every field, including their own?

That’s where Journalism That Matters comes in. Our work is to envision what’s possible in the news and information ecosystem and tell the story of what’s emerging so that journalism becomes a catalytic force to help us through a transition of cultural narratives.

You meet and work with a lot of people in the news and information community. Does what you see on the ground make you hopeful that the news industry as it’s existed for decades can transform itself in such basic ways?
I am highly optimistic that the functions that journalism has traditionally served to inform the public will not only survive, but improve. I think it completely unlikely that the news industry as it has existed will lead the way. Some organizations may ultimately make the transition.

As with virtually any significant structural change, I expect the innovative leaps to come from outside the industry. And unfortunately, we are likely to see serious disruption before new forms exist at scale. That is the nature of structural change – disruption, followed by lots of experimentation, as it now occurring, ultimately leading to a few cogent principles that enable a coherent system to emerge.

If the news media build new and better connections with the community, and do everything else, how do they attract the now-missing revenue to sustain their transformation?
Revenue is like the search for the holy grail — challenging and elusive. I do think we are seeing some clues:

WellCommons has a brilliant solution: free membership to individuals and a charge to organizations, who are motivated to be there to serve the public – their customers.

Tom Stites, who is pursuing the idea of a consumer-producer co-op through the Bayan Project, is exploring another avenue. What appeals to me about the co-op model is that it makes explicit the important relationship between journalists and the community.

In the end, I suspect revenues will come through multiple sources. And it will seem so obvious that we’ll all wonder why we didn’t think of it.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.