Newsonomics: Rebuilding the news media will require doubling-down on its core values

“Alt-what?” I asked the audience of the leaders of America’s alternative press, in a talk last Friday, the day of the inauguration and the day before an estimated 100,000 people marched through downtown Portland, Oregon in protest. “Alt-what in America’s growing news deserts” was the title of my talk, and it followed up on my most recent Nieman Lab column. In that piece, I asked who — struggling dailies, emerging public radio initiatives, spirited startups, local TV stations — might seize the opportunity of the day and ramp up the kind of local news coverage that readers might support with subscription or membership. Could alt-weeklies be part of the solution? More than 100 of them still populate the landscape, from the hometown Portland’s Pulitzer-winning Willamette Week to Cincinnati’s CityBeat to Vermont’s Seven Days to the L.A. Weekly (itself just now put for sale). The alternative press was out of an earlier tumult, in the 1960s and ’70s, and I knew it well, having been part of it early in my career. Then, it was “alt” as in counter, as in counterculture — but that’s a blast from a fast-disappearing past. Now, these publications almost all build their audiences around things to do, guides, and calendars; the level of incisive local reporting varies widely. Further, the word “alt” has taken on the dark new reality of “alt-right,” the sanitized neo-Nazi umbrella for those who decry (“Lügenpresse!“) the press, not build it. And then there’s the la-la land of “alternative facts” that Kellyanne Conway unveiled to Chuck Todd over the weekend. Throughout the past week, the pages of America’s news sites have been transformed into what seems an alternative universe itself, as the rat-a-tat-tat of Trump-promised change looks like the flipside of the past eight years. That alt-what dilemma of the weeklies offers just a variation on the theme. For them and for America’s news media generally, the question grows more urgent by the day: Who are you now and what can you do for would-be paying readers? “Hold the media accountable, and make your public officials hear you,” Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the Washington march Saturday. Expect to hear a lot more of that sentiment. Within the demand comes both a threat and an opportunity to reclaim a paying readership for news that newly matters in subscribers’ lives. Fundamentally, we’ve arrived — possibly again — at a place where people expect values-oriented media. Let’s talk about what that may mean, and then, more practically, I’d like to offer five ways news media can begin to breathe new life into the notion. “Values” may seem a scary proposition for much of the legacy press and the digital startup press that has followed it. It can conjure up partisanship or “taking sides,” but it doesn’t need to. Take that word: accountable. Journalists have talked about accountability journalism and practiced it well for decades. But in recent years, it has sometimes seemed like an add-on — maybe a foundation will fund it? — rather than the basic mission of a free press, national and local, in a free society. That’s how the framers saw it when they gave the press quite a shout-out. They didn’t do that so that fishmongers, tailors, and alehouse keepers would have a place to advertise. They did it to keep tabs on power. As budgets and newsroom workforces throughout the country have been halved, stenography — limp, single-source stories — have become more the rule than the exception. Too few of the remaining local reporters, at the nation’s 1,370 or so local newspapers — we have only four national ones — have both the time and local knowledge to hold local and state politicians and business to account. So they largely — with very important and award-worthy exceptions — don’t do enough of that work. That’s the certainly a question of capacity, one that I raised last week, and it’s the gating issue here. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to believe that we can’t rebuild local news capacity until we’re more clear about our 21st-century values. What might we include in those values? It may not be bad to start with a few Robert Fulghum tips from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. They seem oddly modern and newly recited in this toxic political atmosphere:
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
They seem awfully relevant, don’t you think? These seem to be human values and American values, and the press can remind all of us about them. Maybe a few additional ones can be borrowed from the Boy Scouts: being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, thrifty, and brave. Those are just for starters, though. Try the four principles of the long-established and once universally accepted Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
  • Seek truth and report it.
  • Minimize harm.
  • Act independently.
  • Be accountable and transparent.
Yes, it does seem quite basic to have to list these, but the times apparently demand remedial courses. Underlying all this, a single word: fairness. Even more than mere “accuracy,” it’s the word that has driven the best journalists from tiny towns to major metros. It’s still the best barometer. Rather than assert some shaky new world or parse meanings of words most everyone understands — “fact” and “lie” now among them — the admonition of Washington Post editor Marty Baron, reaffirmed by others, says it simply: “Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.” Make no mistake, it’s not the adoption of a values-based mission that’s essential. It is acting on these values that must now define news media. If publishers, editors, and general managers — at dailies, public radio stations, alternative weeklies, TV outlets and emerging digital startups — assert such values, what work will they point to, each week or each day, that fulfills that promise? Those news organizations — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Guardian — that have seen a boom in subscription sales have done just that. They’ve done the visible work, and readers have responded. This is the outline of the new social contract I urged last week. A contract is, by its nature, transactional. Journalists, and those who pay them, must make a new bargain, a new offer to their readers and communities — and then make good on it. I wonder how many of the 3 million or so people marching on Saturday — and of all those lighting up the lines of Congress this week — subscribe to a newspaper. I bet you many of them did once but no longer do. They probably didn’t find those papers politically objectionable, but instead would more likely cite a worse fault for media: blandness and incompleteness. Readers do expect coverage of the day, and those that don’t provide it don’t deserve reader support. (Consider, for instance, the 22 percent of U.S. dailies that didn’t feel the mass protest of millions deserved play on their front pages.) This is the new virtuous circle that must be spun, and quickly: Readers hold news media accountable for covering the news, and news media hold the power centers of their nation, states, and communities accountable for their actions. Spin the wheel faster, and more money will fall out, paying more and more journalists to do their jobs. Call it a pipe dream if you wish; I call it a necessity. At this point, it seems clear that without reader revenue, we’re likely to see a robust local press continue to wither away toward extinction. 2017 witnesses a convergence of severe financial pressures and intense press demonization, led by the new president. In a nation in which the press and broadcasters represent a thin line between partisan propaganda and citizen-readers, the time for action — new action — is now. Press critic Jay Rosen’s brutal realism — “Winter is coming: Prospects for the American press under Trump” — seems more prescient each day as working journalists are charged with felonies, multiple federal agencies are gagged, and the “alternative fact” war with the press looks to be an enduring affair. Comparisons to press crackdowns from Turkey to Venezuela to Russia, seemingly unimaginable six months ago, demand reading. What might this new asserted social contract look like? I hope to be building it throughout the year — and your submissions are highly valued — but let’s start with five points of the moment:

Project strength, not weakness.

When the bear appears in the wilderness, you don’t curl up in a ball; you make yourself seem as large as you can. The press needs to do that. In addition, subscribers are more willing to pay for strength — that day-after-day demonstration of news values — than to weak appeals for support. Assert the strength of the news product — and how your subscription can make it stronger. Wishful thinking also won’t work. Earlier this week, some journalists noted how new White House spokesman Sean Spicer behaved on Monday as compared to Saturday, saying the shift might herald the long-awaited political pivot. Journalists who make too much of kinder words here and there and don’t stay focused on actions will be run over. Wesley Morris, The New York Times critic-at-large, deftly dissected a cousin of this wishful thinking (“Politics’ newest empty gesture, the disavowal”), appropriately decrying “political language used in such a bloodless, begrudging way that it’s borderline dangerous.”

Remedy news overload.

Even before the raft of Trump initiatives launched this week, the infinity of news has weighed heavily on readers’ minds, with the smartphone an accomplice. Now that overload can lead to a political overwhelming. As Callum Borchers outlined in The Washington Post recently: “The news overload is enough to make you want to throw your hands up — or, perhaps, use them to reach for a cold beverage and a remote control, with which you can escape the transition tornado by tuning in to back-to-back NFL playoff doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. This is a near-perfect situation for Donald Trump.” We know solutions for overtaxed readers, in an age of digital and social news bounty: editing. That’s why newsletters have proven so valuable as a new news marketing tool. But news companies of all kinds can go farther. How about organizing Trump’s tweets into tables, searchable by date and topic, with the fact check alongside it, rather than only writing one fact-checked story after another, which for readers tend to disappear into the ether? Various kinds of scorecards — we’ve seen beginning indications of them here and there — can help readers make sense of the change-in-policy chaos and change-in-law confusion that is yet to come. Tame transience by creating permanent searchable records, new variations on the old Times Topics pages and their cousins of an earlier generation.

Show, don’t tell, impact.

The real-life implications for Americans, given the spate of policy/law changes, looks like it is going to be profound. Especially at the local level (where, let’s remember, everyone lives), health care, environmental, education, and criminal justice impacts should be quite reportable. This week, via NPR’s All Things Considered, I heard the kind of report we need. NPR, in partnership with Phoenix’s KJZZ and Kaiser Health News, produced “Arizona Children Could Lose Health Coverage Under Obamacare Repeal.” In less than four minutes, it made human impacts clear.

Create an Ignorance Index.

We’ve all seen them, those stories — now multiplied by the fake-news feeding frenzy — of how many Americans believe “facts” that simply aren’t true, like “vaccines have been shown to cause autism” or “President Obama was born in Kenya.” How about publishers — again, nationally and locally — creating with polling partners a series of Ignorance Indexes, tracking over time how much community/nation ignorance has increased or decreased? We’d hope — one of our fundamental values, right? — that as a learning species and nation, we could all agree that facts are important. Does that sound elitist or partisan, you know, asserting that facts are important? Forget the noise. If factuality is one of those core values, double-down on it. And have some fun with it. Maybe show the comparative results of two groups: subscribers and non-subscribers.

Identify allies.

Given the events of the day, would-be allies of the press are popping out of the woodwork. Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe call-out for the Committee to Protect Journalists (now even more necessary, as six journalists have been charged with felonies related to Inauguration Day violence) boosted CPJ donations 140 times normal. John Oliver’s summer appeal to support journalism clearly spurred some rush of subscription sign-ups. Publishers — who must earn support they receive — must ask who are the social influencers, local or national, who will get people to open their wallets, given the new realization that paying for news makes a difference? The sprouts of a real reader revenue revolution must be nurtured.
Photo of the U.S. Constitution by Kim Davies used under a Creative Commons license.

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