Discerning Media

I spent part of yesterday and today in meetings at the Kettering Foundation thinking about media and democracy. These conversations still, to my chagrin, keep getting tangled up with the debate about old school journalism versus new media.  I’ve blogged about this debate before. But I keep coming back to these meetings because I think that something incredibly promising is happening in this new media environment.  But it won’t happen inevitably; it won’t happen because the new technology just makes it so; it won’t happen unless we discern and aim toward using these new media to create a better environment for democratic politics.

Here’s where I think we need to go next.

First we need to understand that publicly relevant journalism is not beholden to any particular medium — not print, radio, TV, or web.  Publicly relevant journalism is reportage that links information with value. By that I mean linking what the facts are on any given matter with what people’s and communities’ concerns and aspirations are.  Good journalism never just reported what happened.  It reported on how what happened matters to us.  Events matter to us because they impinge or constrain or open up possibilities for us achieving things we care for. This kind of journalism can happen in a newspaper as well as on a blog.

Second, we need to get over this distinction between professional journalism and citizen journalism. It was a twentieth century economic circumstance that gave rise to the penny press (see James Carey on this) and the very model of professional, disinterested journalism. In the last decade or so, two phenomena have converged: (1) the old business model for print journalism cratered and (2) digital media made analogue media obsolete.  Phenomenon 2 certainly exacerbated phenomenon 1.  But it didn’t cause it!  Well before web 1.0 or web 2.0, newspapers were in crisis.  Ten years ago we lamented that two newspaper towns were becoming one newspaper towns.  Now we lament that there are towns without any newspapers at all.  Old-school journalism wants to blame the web.  But the blame lies elsewhere.

Third, we need to understand what drives demand for good journalism.  In today’s meeting, Dan Gillmor made the good point that the old model of journalism was about manufacturing a product (a news article) and distributing it to the passive masses. The old model, which sent news out to people,  trained people to be passive consumers. Now with new media, Dan argues, we have plenty of content but poor demand for good quality since people are trained to wait and settle for whatever news comes at them.

That’s a good point.  But Rich Harwood and I countered that it is not a matter of ginning up demand for better news but creating conditions under which citizens can engage.  As I see it, people aren’t going to seek out good journalism unless they see their own connection to it.

The dominant political culture of the twentieth century trained citizens not to bother with matters of widespread, common concern.  Their officials would take care of it. If their officials didn’t, well then just bitch and moan until they did.  Nary was there a message that common problems call for common deliberation and action.  So we just started delegating it all to officialdom.  This is a recipe for apathy/outrage (two sides of one coin) not engagement.

In that kind of context, why should anyone bother reading the paper?  Why should I bother reading about matters of common concern when what I think about it doesn’t matter at all —  and when I have even less chance to make a difference?

Hence, fourth, and finally for this post, relevant journalism, whether it happens on the web or in print, needs to embedded in a culture — or help create a culture — that sees members of political communities as political agents.  One of or guests in today’s meeting, Jeremy Iggers, who helped found the Twin Cities Daily Planet, has been focused on creating a new platform with just this task. With him, we have to start treating people as actors rather than as consumers and audiences.  Good journalism calls for political transformation.  Not only that, sustainable journalism calls for this. Perhaps in another post I’ll document the places and cases in which media that actually connects with communities’ democratic capacities becomes economically sustainable. Folks will pay for news when it matters to them — and when the political culture considers that what they think does indeed matter.

In short, the future of journalism lies in creating conditions in which the people engage with the news because they think that it matters to them and because they think that their own take will matter back. Also, we need to realize that good journalism knows no particular medium, though I do think that digital media open up exponentially more opportunities and spaces than analogue media ever did.