We — journalists and communities alike — cannot leave the production and financing of public-interest reporting solely in the care of institutions that are ultimately self-interested.
By this we mean that any civic-minded institution has to look after its own affairs in order to look after the public affairs it is charged with. In news media, this means deferring to the attention economy, which necessarily prioritizes trending topics over the public interest.
Even mission-minded commercial news organizations are forced to face the financial bottom line imposed by the shareholders. Even charitably funded nonprofit news agencies are constrained by the priorities of their major grantmakers.
Let’s celebrate the good works of these entities — and then work around their shortcomings. What is the path required for journalists and communities to cover those critical information needs that are neglected by the attention economy?
Communities must take responsibility for ensuring their own information needs are fulfilled.
Commercial news organizations often struggle to serve the public-interest information needs of diverse communities, and nonprofit media don’t have the funding.
But communities have the power to organize and advocate for their own public-interest information needs.
Organized communities can form consumer co-ops or giving circles that can support journalism that’s relevant to their lives.
Some resources and pioneering efforts include:
- Starting a consumer co-op (via Cultivate.coop)
- “How to start a bulk-buying co-op with your friends and family” (Lifehacker)
- Can you reframe this to empower news consumers and audiences?
- News Voices, piloting in New Jersey, is a partnership between media-reform organization Free Press and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. It’s building a model for dialogue between newsrooms and communities.
- The Banyan Project aims to create consumer co-ops for underserved communities that want to improve their information diet.
- Citizen juries convened by the Jefferson Center have already built a dialogue program in Akron, Ohio.
- The National Coalition on Dialogue & Deliberation offers a rafter of resources for public-engagement programming.
- Giving circles represent a powerful way to organize public interest and financial power. Here are a few models:
Journalists must take responsibility for improving their own working conditions.
One path is entrepreneurial, and involves building institutions. Another, less traveled, involves organizing journalists within their peer communities. The sharing economy and the emergence of platform coops makes it possible for journalists to work independently in collective situations, using shared brands and tapping into shared services.
- “Worker Co-ops 101” (Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives)
- “How to start a worker co-op” (Shareable Magazine)
- SPJ Freelancers (Society of Professional Journalists)
- “Starting a Business: Co-Ops” (U.S. Small Business Administration)
- “Financing a co-op” (Co-op Law Dot Org)
The culture of democracy and the future of journalism
Ultimately, the crisis of journalism is a crisis of values, priorities and ethical commitment in our democracy.
Until we put human need — and human rights — at the center of all our decision-making about journalism and media, rather than financial profit, we will live in an impoverished democracy that is susceptible to political demagoguery and commercial abuses.
Journalists and communities only have the world to gain by working together. Community-based financing — be it for co-ops or crowdfunding campaigns, giving circles or some other collective action — represent a profound hope for advancing the public-interest performance of news media.
At the heart of this is a new expression of an old public-benefit relationship. Journalism in the public interest is charitable, not commercial, which is precisely why there’s such a lack of it in our profit-oriented mass media.
A consumer co-op or giving circle to finance unmet information needs therefore represents a distinct set of values and priorities for news media — and a culture of engagement with civic and democratic life that is our greatest hope for a new type of sustainable, professional journalism.