Stijn Debrouwere's notes of his conversation with Paul Edwards:
Journalists talk a lot about how newspapers and democracy go hand in hand. But what kind of a relationship is that really? As Jack Shafer pointed out in 2009:
[Alex Jones, like many others] never chalks his cue and lines up the quality-press-equals-a-vibrant-democracy shot because it's impossible to make. Democracy thrived in the United States in the 1800s, long before the invention of what we call quality journalism. Between 1856 and 1888, when most newspapers were crap and controlled by, or beholden to, a political party, voter turnout hovered around 80 percent for presidential elections. Compare that with the 55.3 percent and 56.8 percent turnouts in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. [...] Could it be that deep-dish reporting that uncovers governmental malfeasance and waste—the sort of news Jones and I prefer over fluff, sports, bridge columns, and comics—doesn't promote activism or participation? Could it be that such exposés end up souring the public on democracy and other institutions?
Paul worries about the challenge of addressing what you call the issues of slow violence. How do we keep audiences engaged on long-term issues of importance for society when attention span is short, when it is hard to pay for deep dive reporting.
At Deseret News, he's tried to focus on those long-term issues: "we have made some hard choices about the areas where we will really devote resources for enterprising journalism. So, for example, we have dedicated reporters to "beats" (wrong word) that reflect six areas of editorial emphasis -- faith, family, care for the poor, education, financial responsibility and values in the media."
But it doesn't solve the problem: "Although our audience says they care about the poor and needy, those stories -- as currently done -- don't engage our online audience."
Yes, there's only so many investigative stories and advocacy reporting you can take every week. It easily becomes too much to digest.
Stijn recalls: "It reminds me of a friend of mine who works for United Way, and says that he's designed the website for a couple of different audiences. One of those audiences are the people who care deeply about their community and want to support United Way with generous donations, but can't be bothered to keep up on the news and follow what United Way is actually doing with their money." People can care but that doesn't mean they want continuous media coverage about everything related to issues they think are important. Maybe stories are not really what we need? Maybe it's campaigns like the Times of India does ( http://noboundaries.org/blog/2010/01/03/can-a-newspaper-change-an-entire-country/ )? Or community outreach like what Joy Mayer is doing? Or something else still?
Paul feels we should forget about the single audience. "I think we need to recognize that there are several different jobs to be done, just as there are several different audiences. What newspapers used to do was, through monopolistic power over print and distribution, try to do a little of everything for everyone. But the web disagregates that and requires that we think in very different ways about engagement."
Solutions journalism might provide, no pun intended, a solution, but as Paul says, "it runs so counter to the ethos of neutrality and objectivity." Stijn: "The web has taught people that bias is okay as long as it's out in the open, and people generally don't mind it when they read a blog. But as a newspaper, there's such a long and respected tradition of neutrality that if you break from that, it shocks."
Then again, the lack of trust people have in the media means that tradition is crumbling anyway: people don't believe we're neutral and objective anymore anyway – if you'll allow for some hyperbole.
There's also the intriguing work by by Greg Linch's work on "impact": set a goal for each piece of journalism you do, ask yourself what kind of impact you want it to have (from "I think people should know" to "this should change" to whatever) and then make sure you reach that goal. That's much more powerful, Stijn thinks, than "we write, the rest is up to you".
And it needn't be polemic: "And one of those goals could well be 'we need more nuanced discussion on X' rather than 'we need to solve X in exactly way Y because that way is best.'"
Paul: "I think it is even fair for a media organization to think about what social needle they would like to see move within their community (e.g., children's literacy) and then think about what information can better inform policy, what perspectives can help, etc. I would go so far as to say that using the various platforms of media that there could be some effort to then organize community action around issues where there is some wide consensus."
Paul talks about the progress they've made in Utah, and the difficulties with solutions journalism. "With regard to children's literacy in Utah, our media companies have been directly involved with some effective campaigns. But the clear link between what we report, how we cover, and then how that feeds into a genuine campaign is impressionistic at best. And so the effort for 'Read Today' comes across as gimmicky corporate relations rather than seriously tackling a deep social issue."
Stijn sees other difficulties, too: "In Cedar Rapids, we've tried to make a push for better schools and in particular better ways of grading. But the thing is, we don't have a long tradition of expert education reporting, so people think 'who are you to tell us that this is such a big issue and something that needs to be addressed?'"
We need to think beyond the paper and beyond stories, says Paul: "I do think that our online presentation continues to borrow far too heavily from the old paper model. So we still tend to think of the web as a place where all that the paper did is shoveled into one spot. I think that limits the possibility for engaging audiences in different ways."
And those things can complement one another: "One might imagine a site (or portion of the site) that is more action oriented rather than analytical. Nonetheless, it may link to the stories that are written on the subject of action that come from the media organization itself and links to lots of related sites."
We might use other social platforms and charities as an inspiration. They use media and news updates too, but it's part of a much bigger strategy. Or look at the recent success of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. Stijn: "Think about that recent story about the harassed bus monitor and people's overwhelming support. Or Kickstarter, where people get excited about all sorts of dreamy projects. There is almost a sort of performance element to it. Speak to people's hearts and work with their attention span rather than against it. Which doesn't come naturally to us."
It's frustrating to talk about all these issues and kind-of-sort-of seeing some solutions on the horizon, but not yet clearly enough to feel secure that we're headed in the right direction. But if the media wants to really commit to the role of fostering the community and improving civic life and improving knowledge about important local and national issues, it's time to start moving in that direction and to try out new things. We can't just talk about it. We can't just claim we're essential to democracy. We have to prove it.