(This post is intended to complement previous “primers” on government reform, community economic development and relational community organizing. In each case, the underlying values are deliberation, collaboration, equality, and inclusion.)
In a community of any size, people cannot directly deliberate, work, or form relationships. Their interactions must be “mediated.” Thus the media of communications are essential features of civil society and politics. For civic reformers, three major aspects of the media require constant attention.
First is the nature of the available media. In 1910, 110 newspapers were printed for every 100 households in the US. That meant that for most urbanites, consuming the news meant choosing one or more daily newspapers, each oriented toward a particular demographic or interest group, each filled with articles written by professional reporters. But the number of daily newspapers had already fallen in half in cities like New York City by 1940. In 1980, 50 million Americans tuned in nightly to one of three national television networks’ news broadcasts that consisted of summaries by celebrity “anchors,” along with short video segments from the field. But the network news audience had fallen in half by 2010. In 2012, about one in twenty Americans said they regularly followed campaigns by watching videos uploaded to YouTube. Some of those videos were parodies, songs, and “mashups” of footage from professional sources.
These shifts in the form of the media that we consume have civic implications. The amount of information, its reliability and relevance, its power to move or shock, whether we can contribute ideas, the degree to which we see people like ourselves represented, and the degree to which we share common experiences all vary.
A second topic is who controls the media and under what constraints. Traditionally, daily newspapers were privately owned. Under the Constitution, private owners can do practically anything they want with their own publications, but in a competitive market, they must be somewhat responsive to consumers’ demand; that is a constraint. A publicly traded corporation, a state agency, a government-subsidized not-for-profit corporation (such as an independent public radio station), or a page on Wikipedia that anyone can edit–all operate under different rules and incentives. In general, the incentives should favor the provision of reliable, substantive information, diverse opinion, and opportunities for interaction. Those principles probably do not favor one particular system of control, but rather a mix of forms.
The third topic involves the prevailing norms and self-understood purposes of the people who produce media. CNN’s political director, defending his heavy use of polls, once asserted that surveys “happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win?” “Who is going to win?” is one definition of “news.” It encourages not only regular polling, but also close coverage of the mechanics and strategies of political campaigns. Around the same time, the Wichita Eagle asserted that its purpose was to depict the public’s “struggle to find a middle ground” by giving prominent attention to civil discussions among non-aligned citizens. In some cases, the Eagle actually convened citizens to deliberate and then covered their discussions in the news pages. That was a very different definition of “news” from CNN’s, with significant consequences for the public.
I have been watching and occasionally participating in media reform efforts since the early 1990s. At first, relatively little attention was given to the format of media. Printed newspapers and magazines and professionally produced news programs on radio and TV seemed fairly stable and unproblematic. The main reform objective was to change the incentives operating on the owners or managers of news organizations. Reformers believed that the Federal Communications Commission had a right and obligation to regulate certain aspects of the content of the broadcast media, because broadcast stations used the public airwaves at no cost to themselves in return for serving the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Reformers were particularly committed to the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which required substantive and balanced coverage of controversial current topics. Newspapers could not be regulated in the same way (because of the First Amendment), but reformers wanted newspaper owners to face competition in each market so that consumers would have market power. They asked the FCC to block media mergers and prevent individuals and firms from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same markets. Finally, they favored government-subsidized public media as a valuable alternative source.
Those fundamental objectives remain valid today. However, courts have looked with increasing skepticism at regulation, especially now that cable news networks no longer need the public airwaves. Meanwhile, competition has largely vanished in the local news industry due to shrinking audiences and revenues. Newspaper ad revenue declined 31 percent between 2000 and 2007, while the number of reporters assigned to cover statehouses fell by almost exactly the same proportion. Today, a city is lucky to have any newspaper at all, and broadcast television stations employ skeleton crews of reporters. The goal of preventing local monopolies seems quaint.
A second reform agenda gathered force during the 1990s. Called “public journalism” or “civic journalism,” this was an effort to change the prevailing norms and values of professional reporters in the interest of stronger democracy. It was led by insiders, such as the Wichita Eagle‘s W. Davis (“Buzz”) Merritt and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Cole Campbell. Generally committed to norms of deliberation, collaboration, inclusion, and community, these journalists changed daily newsroom practices in interesting ways. An important example was the decision of the Charlotte Observer to dispense with horse race campaign coverage, stories about how the campaigns were trying to win the election. Instead, the Observer convened representative citizens to choose issues for reporters to investigate and to draft questions that the candidates were asked to answer on the pages of the newspaper.
Public journalism produced interesting and appealing results in scattered cases, but it had lost momentum by 2000. One reason was economic tumult in the news industry. Another challenge was the intrinsic difficulty of sustaining a reform movement. But perhaps the biggest factor was the rise of the Internet, which threatened the jobs of the daily newspaper reporters who had supported public journalism in the 1990s while also promising an alternative path to reform. In the 2000s, if media professionals continued to talk about supporting democracy and civil society, their attention shifted to the nature of the media. Blogs, online news stories with comment threads, wikis, listserves–all seemed to offer unprecedented advantages. Because they were cheap, they could break the monopoly of corporate media. Because they were interactive, they could promote dialogue and discussion more efficiently than the efforts of the Wichita Eagle and the Charlotte Observer to convene citizens and cover their deliberations. News could even be “crowdsourced,” or voluntarily produced by collaborating citizens. That seemed inherently civic.
I think the new media formats have largely proved disappointing, and it has been a mistake to ignore the older issues of journalists’ norms and media ownership.
“Interactivity” does not automatically mean civic deliberation. On the contrary, few forums are more dispiriting than the unmoderated comment field that follows a standard newspaper article.
Professional reporting continues to play a critical role. According to a study of the changing news environment in Baltimore, MD conducted by The Pew Research Center, the number of news outlets in the city has proliferated to 53 “radio talk shows, … blogs, specialized new outlets, new media sites, TV stations, radio news programs, newspapers and their various legacy media websites.” But the number of reporters has fallen. That means that there is more written and spoken text about the news, but it is highly repetitive. A search of six major news topics found that 83% of the articles and blog posts repeated the same material–sometimes with commentary–and more than half of the original text came from paid print media such as the Baltimore Sun. In turn, Baltimore’s remaining professional journalists are so overstretched that they cannot provide what is called “enterprise reporting” (digging to find new information not already in the public domain). The city government and other official institutions now have more, rather than less, control over the news:
As news is posted faster, often with little enterprise reporting added, the official version of events is becoming more important. We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.
Meanwhile, even though the cost of starting a news source (like this blog) has fallen, media concentration remains a threat. Clear Channel Communications owns 1,200 radio stations. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, HarperCollins, and Fox News Radio, among many other news sources in the United States. The Internet may enable more voices, but if they rely on fewer enterprise reporters, and if more of those professionals work for a few media moguls, we have made no progress.
The Charlotte Observer story ends with an ironic but relevant coda: after the newspaper had dropped its experiments with public journalism, it acquired a citizen-produced nonprofit website, Charlotte’s Web, that had been founded to promote discussion and collaboration. The Observer merged that site into its main commercial web portal, which retains no evident commitment to dialogue or local problem-solving. Today, the Observer has a local monopoly, belongs to the McClatchy chain, and has shed 42 percent of its employees.
The proper role of reporters seems to draw less fruitful and constructive attention than it did a decade ago. National Public Radio recently reopened that discussion when it revised its ethics handbook so that it would no longer define “unbiased” reporting as giving equal time to opposed opinions. Instead,
our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all [not both] sides have been considered and represented fairly”
This is an example of an effort to redefine the prevailing norms of professional news producers–but as such, it is unusual today.
Overall, I think it has been a mistake to count on technical features of the new media formats–what the jargon calls their “affordances” (such as the ability to post comments)–to revive civic life. But the other paths to media reform look very difficult today, so we should certainly make the most of the new media. Since 2002, J-Lab has been funding and providing training and technical support to online citizen journalists. Some of the best local websites serve what the Knight Foundation calls the “information news of communities” without relying on the declining professional news media.
For example, the Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minnesota is an impressive website that publishes numerous original stories every day while also republishing articles from more than 100 partner organizations, including the for-profit press. It is run by a nonprofit organization, the Twin Cities Media Alliance, but has achieved sustainability by selling advertising. By charter, it is “dedicated to closing the digital divide and helping citizens empower themselves with media.”
This is just one example: hundreds more could be cited. In taking an inventory, I would include all not-for-profit venues for news and discussion produced to a significant extent by volunteers, whose tools include not only websites but also elaborate email lists and sometimes low-powered radio broadcasts. The very act of producing and sustaining such forums contributes to civic renewal, especially if the organizers promote dialogue among participants who have diverse perspectives.
The Daily Planet is unusual in its broad geographical scope (a whole metropolitan area): more commonly, citizen-generated media forums serve micro-communities, such as urban neighborhoods, specific immigrant groups within cities, or small towns. Their small scale offers civic advantages. It increases the attention paid to places and people who would otherwise be overlooked. But a small scale can also be limiting, since many important decisions are made at higher levels. The best models, therefore, are not particular forums-such as individual websites–but whole “ecosystems” in metropolitan areas that consist of numerous micro-community sites along with aggregators and supportive professional news media.
The Pew study of Baltimore suggests that the ecosystem of that city is lacking: too much of the news originates in the Mayor’s office and is simply recycled on blogs and radio talk shows. But Lewis A. Friedland finds that Seattle has a “robust ecosystem,” in which news is generated by citizens and reporters and circulates through a whole range of venues, including email and Twitter lists, neighborhood blogs, and public and private professional media. The Seattle Times has developed formal partnerships with nonprofit sites to encourage sharing of daily content in both directions.
Friedland notes that favorable public policies have strengthened Seattle’s media ecosystem. The city is famous for its district council system, begun in the 1980s, which has decentralized power and enhanced citizens’ civic skills. Meanwhile, Seattle has funded community groups to use new communications media. A third aspect of its strategy is a comprehensive plan to make municipal data and information available in usable formats. The city has even taken a formal inventory of citizen-generated news venues and provides them with free training. We could say that Seattle’s media ecosystem meets the genuine needs of its citizens reasonably well. Enhancing other whole systems is probably the most promising strategy today.