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A tale of two reports: Part III--Learning from progressive media experiments

Over the past few weeks, I've been reading through two reports on the future of journalism in order to consider new models and structures for independent journalism in the networked era:


Independent reporting--shielded as much as possible by interference from either corporate or government influence--is a crucial component of public media. However, definitions of what constitutes "independent" journalism are contested. In last week's look at the report by Michael Schudson and Leonard Downie, Jr, I took a look at some of the endangered journalism species they are seeking to protect and nurture, including "accountability reporting," which watchdogs those in power; "explanatory reporting," which demystifies complex topics, and "social empathy reporting," which puts a human face on crisis and contested issues. This week, I'm taking a closer look at The Big Thaw which provides a set of observations and recommendations for a multiplatform network of media outlets that practice exactly these kinds of reporting: The Media Consortium.

A caveat is in order here—I consulted on various drafts of this report, and Tracy Van Slyke (who runs The Media Consortium) is the co-author of my forthcoming book: Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media. Both of these publications explore engaged media projects that, at times, are more explicitly partisan than either traditional journalism or public media. That said, they provide valuable lessons and questions for legacy media producers in the current moment, when actively connecting with publics and moving them to action is becoming a survival skill.

Brent Cunningham, the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, wrestles with this dynamic in the magazine's latest cover story, Take a Stand: How journalism can regain its relevance:

The idea [that] journalists are little more than bloodless keepers of the record—which has served and protected but also severely hamstrung the press in this country over the last hundred or so years, increasingly feels like a cop-out. And as the so-called legacy media—the mass, mainstream media—struggle to survive and remain relevant as their business model fails and their competitors multiply, it is a cop-out that could have dire consequences for the future of public-service journalism.

The rhetoric of American journalism describes an adversarial fourth estate, a redoubt for professional skeptics who scrutinize authority in the name of the public and help keep the public discourse honest. As long as our newspapers enjoyed quasi-monopolies and the evening newscasts were a national touchstone, the moth-eaten reality of this self-image was easily ignored. But the hard truth is that the press mostly amplifies the agendas of others—the prominent and the powerful—and tends to aggressively assume its adversarial role only when someone or something—a president, a CEO, an institution—is wounded and vulnerable.

The mainstream press, he then argues, needs a new mission to regain its footing--a mission that involves much more dissent and critical analysis, crusading coverage that convinces the public that journalists are on their side. Some will argue, he notes, that such a mission rests more comfortably at outlets like The Nation and The New Republic

...and in other idea magazines and the proliferation of agenda-driven Web sites and blogs—than in the mainstream newspapers and broadcast outlets. But I would suggest that, while opinion publications do publish deeply reported investigations and analyses, such outlets will not be the birthplace of the kind of wide-ranging, practical, and sustained discourse that we need. Part of the reason is that—like the informational silos of the blogosphere—they too often preach to the converted. But part of it, too, is that the political debate in this country is too polarized to allow it. Rightly or wrongly, there are great swaths of the citizenry who just won’t hear it if it comes from The Nation, and others who won’t hear it if it comes from the National Review. Plenty of people won’t hear it if it comes from The New York Times, either, but the paper’s reach and authority are considerably broader—both at home and abroad—than that of these partisan outlets.

Yes, our national discourse is uncomfortably polarized. But that doesn't mean that news and media projects with a political take should be swept under the rug when it's time to discuss journalism. Instead, they should be valued and examined as models that inspire strong user loyalty, active engagement, and tangible social and policy outcomes. That's why The Big Thaw is a must-read for anyone trying "save journalism." In it, we learn:

  • Independent media may become dominant media as news consumption becomes increasingly fragmented, personalized and pro-am.
  • Journalists and outlets need to develop "distinctive competencies" to deal with the new environment, including fostering community, crossing platforms, and constantly experimenting.
  • New "sources of value" are arising for media projects: location-aware mobile apps, increasingly sophisticated filtering technologies, and "social reading"--which reflects the tendency of users to share and discuss content with their networks.
  • Collaboration is also source of strength and support in turbulent times; networks of outlets are uniquely positioned to share both the risks and rewards of trying new models.

The Big Thaw is a rich repository of observations, anecdotes and predictions. Most of all, though, it stresses the importance of being proactive and looking ahead. Quoting author Donnella H. Meadows, it reminds us: “Most people assume that the future is something to be predicted rather than created. The future does not simply happen to us; we shape it.”

In other words, it's no longer our challenge to save journalism; we must all prepare to fundamentally transform it. As Van Slyke writes in a discussion of the report on Care2:

To survive and thrive after “the big thaw,” media-makers need to shift our understanding of journalism: Who produces it, what the audience wants, and how they want to consume it. Now is the time to stretch creative boundaries and evolve so that we can strengthen independent journalism for the long-term. And journalism consumers must think deeply about what they willing to do to support an independent press. Together, we can chart a new future for journalism.