How does your garden grow? The information ecosystem as a metaphor for reform

The crisis of journalism is often mistaken for a business problem, but it may be more useful to think of it as a form of ecosystem collapse.

The 2016 presidential election and its aftermath can, in that light, be seen as the information equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon or Fukushima disasters — a seemingly endless gusher of toxic discourse, horse race coverage and poll chasing, plus associated waste streams of science denial, “fake news” and alternative facts.

The problem is the marketplace. Mass media are by nature economically libertarian and market-driven. They exist in a commercial economy that accepts any chunk of information content as valid based on its fungibility as a subject of attention.

So moral equivocation becomes common coinage, and the apparent credibility of personal or corporate brands becomes more important than factual veracity or actual trustworthiness.

Metaphors for reform

In such a media economy, the emergence of neofascistic demagoguery seems an almost organic inevitability — a natural outcome of the way we design our attention-seeking mass media.

If so, if this is a truly “organic” outcome, perhaps we should work with that metaphor, and confront the problem on its own terrain. Literally.

We could try to reform this broken media marketplace — but why confine ourselves to it? Beyond and encompassing the market is the commons — with farther fields and richer soil for our democratic society to cultivate.

The commons are, in the end, ecological in scale. They encompass all human activity. The most familiar expressions of the commons are air and water — although even those are commodified or must be regulated against commercial exploitation or pollution.

In a similar manner, the cultural, information and media commons define our shared perception of the world, and the shared norms of our collective behavior.

Like natural resources, our attention defines these commons — and is a commodity that can be organized and developed, both in our roles as consumers, and also in our cultural and civic lives. Advertising and subscriptions are just two of the many powerful means by which mass media is able to mine value out of our attention.

And it is exactly this issue — of for-profit resource exploitation, in this case of our raw attention — that produces the central struggle in our democracy between commercial (or private) and communal (or public) interests.

And make no mistake — through the lens of the ecological metaphor, our information ecosystem has been devastated.

News deserts, toxic pollution and other ecological hazards

The necessity and urgency of the ecological metaphor is that it cannot be encompassed by the marketplace. Like a river swollen with floodwaters, it bursts its banks. Like the rising ocean tide, it eats away at the shoreline. Like the wildfire, it consumes forests and subdivisions indiscriminately.

Let’s go with the metaphor. Look at how our mass media is failing us — look at the scale of it. These sorts of problems require more than market corrections. They require advocacy, intervention, investment in public works, and changes in the  behavior of journalists and the general public they want to serve.

The crisis of journalism is ecological.

Desertification follows an epic clearcutting of legacy news media, as journalism’s funding drought deepens. Newspaper ad revenue has plummeted from a high of $64 billion in 2000 to around $19 billion in 2015, digital included — resulting in the dieback, consolidation and shuttering not just of individual newspapers, but entire regional and national chains.

Pollution is flooding our media channels with misleading toxic waste and disposable plastic trash — such as the $2.3 billion in influence-ad spending projected for the 2016 election cycle.

Weedy infestations of false stories and reactionary media have colonized whole demographic groups and are choking out diverse, healthy, productive civil discourse.

Erosion of the “topsoil” of civil society is a natural outcome of all this habitat destruction and toxic waste. Our ability to have honest, open conversations in a civic, democratic context seems to be wearing away, as public trust in mass media hits a “historic low,” and media companies, political candidates and other vested interests profit off the false polarization of civil society.

We know what the problems are. Let’s not distract ourselves with trying to resurrect old industrial journalism. The digital 21st century offers communities and news producers alike an unprecedented opportunity to use grassroots tools and techniques to achieve scale and impacts that were once limited to the monolithic corporate institutions.

It’s time to start planting the seeds for co-op, collectivist and peer-to-peer production models, and cultivate real alternatives to the industrial news model.

It won’t work unless everyone is involved — journalists and the communities they serve all need a place at the table.

And, as a form of habitat restoration, it’s the only real work of consequence for the future of journalism, and for the health and well-being of our democracy and our communities.

Cultivating sustainable civic media

A new form of public media is necessary if a robust Fourth Estate, and the civil society it can sustain, are to persist. It must be an investment — a philanthropic investment, and while major philanthropy must lead the way and facilitate this economic conversion, the real philanthropy has to happen at the grassroots.

Americans need to donate to journalism like they donate to their local church/temple/mosque, PTA and hospital.

And journalists need to prove themselves over and over again, every day, that they are worthy of those gifts.

Any innovation that happens must be an innovation in service, any investment must be in building the commons. The market, with its focus on commodity, is too small and constrained to sustain on its own a healthy democratic society. Unless it is regulated and designed to do so, the market cannot accommodate human need and social good that are firmly outside the formula for profit that drives its entirely commercial transactions.

By thinking ecologically, and working largely (if not exclusively) in the nonprofit and public-benefit realm, we can design systems of financing, production, promotion and distribution that increase both the independence of the news produce and the trust and engagement of the people (to borrow from Jay Rosen) formerly known as the audience.

To coin a phrase

Let’s call this new type of ecological mass medium “watershed media,” and define it broadly as a commons-based alternative to mass-market news and media.

More specifically, watershed media can be used as a term that encompasses any sort of print, digital or broadcast media that are share a few key characteristics:

  • They are primarily dependent on public support, and community support in particular
  • They produce programming that fulfills an otherwise unmet cultural or civic-information need
  • They aspire to a high level of achievement in their medium
  • Their programming is freely available in perpetuity for community use and response.

However, the ecological metaphor is demanding. Real-world pollution, drought, and habitat destruction have information-ecosystem equivalents in clickbait, influence advertising and “fake news”; in the lack of investment in public media; and in the degradation of public trust and civil discourse in our democracy.

How do we remedy these problems? What are our actual, sustainable alternatives?

It’s not good enough to describe a messy, ad hoc network of post-industrial media producers as an ecosystem. It’s not at all good enough to define the health of an information ecosystem according to the stature and majesty of its anchor institutions.That is not a resilient system. That is industrial monocropping with some community gardens at the fringes, and maybe a high-end farmer’s market or two.

Productive, efficacious and sustainable mass media that serves the public interest requires intention, systems design and careful, ongoing cultivation.

It requires investment in network capacity more than in institutional capacity. It requires community commitment beyond the superficial engagement of social media.

Successful watershed media may be considered the informational analogue of a permaculture food system — interdependent, carefully designed to make optimal and renewable use of local resources, connecting producers and communities with complementary needs, and serving a shared public purpose of local stewardship and resilience.

Systems design and the future of civic media

To extend the metaphor, consider how gardens can be designed for public access, oriented to get the best sunlight, and diversified and selected to resist disease and drought. Flora and fauna can work together in symbiotic, or at least complementary, ways; land can be formed to catch and hold water.

These are idle metaphors — and yet … news producers and their advocates can find curious resonance between best practices in ecological management, in which limited resources are managed to produce abundance; and sustainability strategies that could improve and deepen their relationship with the public.

Imagine what a philanthropic regime based on ecological principals would look like for journalism:

  • Public gardens: Open, social platforms encourage conversation and sharing. Be like a park, or a library … part of a commons.
  • Sunshine: To rebuild trust, news producers as advocates for the public interest must be transparent and accountable, disclaim bias, and let the sunshine in. (Without sacrificing protection for sources and worker privacy.)
  • Ecological Diversity: By consistently representing and serving the information needs of diverse communities, journalists can demonstrate their value, and deepen their case for support.
  • Cooperation: Journalists are having a hard time going it alone in the post-industrial attention economy. Cross-promotion and collaboration can multiply the impacts of limited resources, and build a gestalt presence in an oversaturated attention economy. Where can journalists go with co-ops? Is there a future for journalism co-ops beyond the AP?
  • Rainwater harvesting: Crowdfunding is the agricultural equivalent of watering a houseplant. Sustainable public-interest journalism will require a more sophisticated and large-scale approach to sustained catchment and irrigation.

Think ecologically. Journalism sustainability is a matter of systems design. Appropriate technologies. Partnerships. Experimentation and iteration. An economic commitment to service and to sustaining a healthy community.

How does your garden grow?

Whether you are a philanthropist, a journalist, or a concerned community member, it’s time to rethink the orthodoxy of our journalism and mass-media business models, which too-easily produce degraded discourse and destructive political decisions.

It’s time to invest programmatically in co-ops, giving circles, collectives and community organizing that keep the public interest — and the journalist’s professional, ethical service — at the center of the equation.

All this is new territory for journalism. Largely untraversed. The soil uncultivated.

Let’s break some ground together.

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