Categories
Journalism

REIMAGINING LOCAL NEWS

Perhaps the best way to rescue our decaying democracy is from the bottom up, community by community. After all, we citizens do hold the sovereign power.

What, then, do people need to know to be effective citizens and exercise their power to govern themselves? In other words, what kinds of news is most supportive of a healthy democracy?

Through my many years of exploring this subject, it strikes me that most people don’t think about the critical relationship between their ability to engage as citizens and the news and information they consume.

 Rather than serving as trusted guides to an increasingly complex world, news — online, in print or on air — can create an uneven playing field for citizens trying to exercise their power. Worse yet, it can contribute to disempowering feelings of apathy, disgust, and deep polarization. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Today, we have an opportunity to start considering local news as something which can be — ought to be — designed and co-produced with community residents for the specific purpose of helping them to work democratically to solve problems. 

This might sound crazy to many because, for most of our lifetimes, the news business has been just that — a business. And finding, reporting, and distributing local and hyper-local news has been very expensive. National news can be delivered at scale. On the other hand, collecting the itsy-bitsy details of life that can build community and can translate complex issues into understandable reports can be labor-intensive and costly. 

What if we could relax some of the professional constraints that were meant to ensure quality but created distance between the scribes and the people? 

News today does not have to be a business. What if we thought of it as a gift economy with some sort of peer-to-peer news network? This would not be the old-fashioned kind of network on television, but a digital community network that could be crowdsourcing the news from within, 24/7, to share what it knows – like, for example, that the city council is about to locate a toxic waste dump across the street from the local school but hasn’t yet made that part public? Years ago, when I secured the web address, Newsbyus.org, this is what I had in mind. It would be a kind of Associated Press collaborative for home-grown news from across the country. 

I have a hunch that if “everyday” people were more involved in crafting the news, the stories we would tell each other and the world would be different, more meaningful and thus more useful. I’m not talking about sweet, light, and trite stories here, but I am thinking of the kinds of stories that build the culture, create muscle memory, and contribute to greater resilience. Stories are the way we transmit our values and each story contains a parable, be it man against man, man against nature, man against system, or man against self. (Yes, I know that’s overly manly but please bear with me for the sake of ease.) 

What’s the story we’re feeding to ourselves? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a group? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a neighborhood block? Let’s get a handle on the daily stories that are shaping us. 

Research shows that people mostly want an acknowledgement of the bigger whole — their place in it and to see their contribution to the larger community. They want the correct narrative about them to be out there in public. They don’t want to be misrepresented. They want their voice to be heard and to participate. 

In the past, journalism was mostly about the power of just giving witness to what is happening inside a community, but maybe we’re now witnessing the wrong things.  Maybe now it’s time to start listening to the community; to give it a role to inform others, with us as curators. 

In this way, journalism becomes a crowd activity – and also a civic act rather than the work of individuals trying to remain detached out of some narrow allegiance to one definition of fairness as getting “both sides of the story.” Today, there are multiple sides to all stories, and our fear now should be that we’re not hearing all of them.  Embracing a “he-said, she-said” framework for fairness is not the only lens through which to find the truth. And while I’m breaking ranks here with much of my traditional journalistic upbringing, I’ll add that we could focus more on strengths rather than deficits and agreement rather than conflict. We’re not always divided, and division is not, by far, the only stories we need to be covering today. 

There’s no doubt that journalists, like researchers, are highly skilled at describing problems. That is, of course, a necessary first step to helping community residents recognize a shared problem. But the more interesting news can be found in how they are responding to the challenge and if they are trying to solve it together. Do they have the resources they need to do so? The ideas? Where might they find a moderating force to help them learn how to discover these things for themselves? 

That kind of coverage would be one big shift: one based on optimism rather than pessimism and on cooperation rather than division. It’s a necessary shift in mindset for journalism and for democracy, itself.

Categories
Civic Engagement

SOUL OF THE COMMUNITY

Puzzled by what causes people to care enough about the people and place where they live to become engaged in it, we launched the Soul of the Community project at the Knight Foundation with the Gallup organization to see if we could find answers.

What we found offered a new way of thinking about “community engagement,” introduced a new vocabulary and helped citizens and leaders reimagine how they could foster greater resident involvement. Most notably, it demonstrated that the degree to which people are attached to their community matters a lot — and in measurable ways. 

The study identifies some of the main factors that reflect whether or not people in a community feel attached to a place and each other. At first glance, the factors are not what you expect. It isn’t, for example, the quality of local leadership, basic services, civic involvement, safety or the local economy. All of these are clearly important, but they don’t create the ties that attract and bind us to the place we call home. 

What does create the kind of deep psychological and emotional attachment that motivates people to care about the place in which they live? In communities large and small, the answers were remarkably consistent: openness, social offerings, and aesthetics. By openness, we mean how open and welcoming the place is. Social offerings include places where people can meet, like entertainment venues or parks, and generalized caring for one another. Aesthetics includes the natural environment and that which we build.  

So what? And who cares? 

Here’s the kicker: the study found that cities and towns that had higher percentages of mentally and emotionally attached residents generated higher rates of GDP growth. While we didn’t correlate the results to other standard measures of well-being, one could hypothesize that it could also be true of them. 

These findings resulted from three years of listening to the voices of more than 43,000 people in the 26 communities that the Knight Foundation serves directly. 

As I traveled around the country to talk with groups of business leaders, civic organizations, community developers, government officials, and many others about the results in their specific communities, it was fun to watch how this new, tangible, and measurable way of thinking about engagement ignited possibility. 

I’ll never forget a breakfast meeting with business leaders in Wichita where I jokingly said we were going to start the day by talking about love. Once it was clear that we were talking about loving where you live, the conversation took off. One hospital leader talked about the challenges of competing to hire top talent. And, as had often been the case in other cities, people began to realize that they had to tout the attributes of the place in addition to the job because more and more people were choosing where they wanted to live first. During an ah-ha moment, the group realized that they should have preserved rather than destroyed a well-known tree canopy – an aesthetic enhancement. 

The Soul of the Community continues to influence talk about community engagement across the country. It invites people from all walks of life into a conversation once reserved for social scientists. Civic engagement no longer seemed soft, fuzzy and filled with unproved assertions to data-driven professionals. 

Why did I call it Soul of the Community? Why not heart? 

A thoughtful chat in Charlotte with a university president who was also a theologian affirmed the choice. The soul represents the whole of a body and, he explained, it is a source of learning and growth from which change happens.

I’ve barely touched the surface of the potential for learning and growth that the Soul of the Community study offers. I encourage you all to go and look at it. 

For more on the Soul of the Community study, check out the video.

Categories
Journalism

NEWS, DISRUPTED

Today more and more people understand that the First Amendment wasn’t just written for the press. It was written for Americans—and there’s an opportunity, especially now, in our digital world, for all Americans to fully embrace their First Amendment rights. 

It’s easier today to exercise your right to free speech than it ever has been. We have so many creative, fast-moving ways to share. Write a blog, post a YouTube video, tweet, create a meme, develop a podcast, share a TikTok or go old-fashioned and write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or call in to a radio talk show.

We all have a lot to say. But who is listening?

The challenge is the cacophony — the sheer scale and tenor of competing voices, and we all know that not all of those voices belong to the angels. We can see that people who wish to create bedlam and menace are often the very first to use these tools the most aggressively. But it’s also a double-edged sword.

The democratization of storytelling also gives us journalists a greater chance to curate and tell more complete stories and aggregate them all in a way that serves the greater good. 

It’s this ideal of serving the greater good that can distinguish journalism from the many other forms of protected speech.

Journalism is commonly thought of as a mediating institution. Simply put, a mediating institution bridges the gap between each of us and the larger society. It stands between an individual’s private life and the public.

Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher and political activist, helps us to understand this role through his philosophy of dialog between our inner and outer worlds. Journalism serves as a kind of bridge in society, translating the “I” to the “other” and the “other” to the “I.” Buber had said that individuals cannot know themselves except in relationship with a community. This “I-to-other” translation work is what journalism has traditionally been able to do, albeit with many flaws and omissions.

But today, highly partisan, so-called news networks in print, online and on air, are abandoning this role choosing instead to build loyalty with one group or another by creating echo chambers of unquestioned beliefs that can increase the number of clicks, likes and shares and, readers and viewers. They intentionally do not serve as a bridge to understanding others because it is not in their business or political interests to do so.

Recent media research shows us that people generally prefer to stay inside their own tribes and to have their belief systems reinforced rather than expanded or challenged. This was, after all, the genius of Roger Ailes and the creation of Fox News.

Ironically, then, the big risk now is that even with more voices, we’ll have more entrenched tribes – and not necessarily a wider
marketplace of ideas and perspectives.

For most of my career, I’ve been looking for an antidote to these trends and searching for ways that journalism can promote connection, belonging and a sense of common purpose.

The ideas that I’ve been pursuing lately, explored in our, just-published book “News for US: Citizen-Centered Journalism,” are about the urgent need for journalism to make dramatic changes to meet the moment. Amid this din of voices, disharmony and animosity, journalism must return to its roots as a mediating institution and play a facilitative role.

It can do this by introducing people to a wide range of ideas, perspectives and beliefs so that a self-governing people can come together to fulfill the founding promise of “e pluribus unum.”
My two coauthors and I suggest that news outlets committed to democracy practice relational journalism, an approach that focuses on the development of an ongoing relationship with the community it serves. It involves a set of practices that aim not only to restore people’s trust in news media but also to increase citizens’ power in the democratic process.

Admittedly, this is a much higher bar for journalism than the just-the-facts-mam approach of yesteryear or the more modern and all-too-common polarizing volley of rhetorical talk.

The opportunity we have today is to find ways to celebrate our diversity and harness technology to foster the type of constructive dialog that a free, self-governing people need to shape their shared future, together. It is our chance to sustain journalism, as well as to strengthen this imperiled democracy.