Recently, my wife spoke in person with a reader of her website.
He shared with her his frustration that other readers on the site were writing about what he considered inferior products, but that no one was bringing up what he knew to be a superior alternative.
“How are people going to know the truth?” he asked.
Let’s leave aside the question whether this reader’s opinion about a product did, indeed, reflect the “truth.” He had information that he wanted the site’s readers to see, and he wanted the site’s editor to write about that.
My wife, however, suggested that the reader de-lurk and write up his point of view, himself. The reader was flummoxed.
And here we have yet another culture clash within the transformation of journalism online.
This reader, who was older than the average reader on the site, was operating under the old model of journalism, where gatekeeper reporters did the work of reporting information. As a reader, he tried to make his views known by appealing to the editor of the publication and asking her to devote more time toward reporting the issue that concerned him. That’s the way it’s been done for generations, so that was the approach he took.
My wife, however, tried to get this reader to see a new model, where readers directly engage in reporting and discussing information. If readers see holes in coverage, they should fill them by contributing their information to the site.
The second model, of course, is not exclusive of the first. My wife, like many independent online news publishers, does plenty of original reporting for the website. But her website would have only a small fraction of the pages it now offers if her reporting were the only work published on the site. The new model of interactive journalism, empowering readers to become reporters, is allowing the public access to far more information than it had available to it under the old way of reporting.
Of course, that raises questions about the accuracy of all this new reporting, which is why it becomes important for journalists to engage and recruit knowledgeable readers to participate in this new information marketplace.
I’ve written before that journalism in this decade is an act of community organizing. But what I haven’t addressed is how this change in reporting models can change community organizing itself.
Here’s an example. America’s most famous “community organizer,” Barack Obama, wrote in “Dreams from my Father” about one of his first attempts at community action – an effort to get the Chicago Housing Authority to address and clean up possible asbestos contamination in a public housing unit on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1980s.
He led a group of residents to see the director of the CHA in downtown Chicago, having also invited camera crews from Chicago’s TV stations to tag along. Only when the TV cameras arrived did the director’s deputy appear to meet with the residents.
“The press, smelling blood, discovered that another South Side project contained pipes lined with rotting asbestos. Aldermen began calling for immediate hearings. Lawyers called about a class-action suit,” Obama wrote.
“But it was away from all that, as we prepared for our meeting with the CHA director, that I began to see something wonderful happening. The parents began talking about ideas for future campaigns. New parents got involved. …It was as though [a] small, honest step had broken into a reservoir of hope, allowing people to in Altgeld to reclaim a power they had had all along.”
When I first read that passage two years ago, I was struck by the anachronism. Today, you’d call for the TV cameras, and – odds are – they’d never arrive. Not with newsroom cutbacks and a change in focus at most local TV stations from civic engagement to crime and slime, all the time.
Obama’s attempt to affect change in that housing project would not have succeeded then, had the TV cameras not arrived. While some might see this as an example of what’s now lost in today’s media marketplace, I prefer to see the opportunity that a media without gatekeepers provides in its place.
Today’s social movements can generate their own publicity, typically by getting viral in social networks online. Readers such as the one my wife spoke with don’t need to wait for an overworked editor to get around to their story. They can get it out there directly, instead. If the TV crews don’t show up for the people of Altgeld, hope needn’t be lost. They have new alternatives – new media – through which to organize and communicate, and to build the political power to demand that their needs be addressed. We should encourage them, not hold them back out of fear for losing our market share. As an entrepreneur, I’d rather own a smaller share of a growing market than a growing share of a collapsing one.
Of course, getting information to go viral ain’t easy work – even within a relatively small community. Many knowledgeable sources lack the personal social network to distribute their information to a wider audience. They need to connect via publications with established audiences. The editors of those publications must, at the same time, show the skill – and the will – to find the voices within their communities worthy of their audience’s attention and to urge them forward.
This matching process is as much part of journalism today as old-fashioned reporting.
I realize that it’s tough to ask journalists to take on yet another responsibility, after a decade-plus of urging reporters to learn to produce multimedia and then to blog, all while continuing to do everything that they did before.
But the reward is an active and engaged community that has the ability to initiate its own agenda. The reward is a more active and engaged electorate and a more representative democracy.
And for the more mercenary among you who might not care about social service, the reward also is a ton more page views and audience members than you ever could have attracted on your own with only staff-written articles. (If you take the initiative to recruit and encourage new participants in your publication’s online community, that is.)
Given this, I’d actually hate to see us return to yesterday’s journalism, even if it meant doubling the size of today’s newsrooms and bringing now-closed newspapers (such as my old Rocky Mountain News) back from the dead. A generation ago, when mass-market publishing demanded expensive presses or broadcast licenses, gatekeeper-controlled media provided the only way to reach a large community. Today, with the Internet reducing the barrier to entry for publishing to near zero, forcing the public back into gatekeeper media would rob our communities of their potential for greater growth.
The combination of professional reporters and engaged citizens, working together, can cover more stories on more topics, in more communities and with more first-person expertise than even the largest and best-funded newsrooms of our industry’s past could have done on their own. Many of our readers know this. They have begun producing their own news, and eagerly looking for news from others. They’re never going back to gatekeeper-only media again.
The question for journalists, then, is this: Will we step forward into this new model with our readers? Or will we choose instead to try to hold them back, as we devote our energy and remaining income to more desperate attempts to revive our past?