Journalism sustainability is about more than money

Posted on April 08, 2011 by Janet Coats

It seems that every conversation in journalism these days turns on a single topic: How are we going to pay for it?

With the economic model that sustained journalism through the 20th century broken, everyone is trying to figure out how to build the new one. From the New York Times’ pay wall to foundation funding to renewed focus on digital advertising, folks are looking for a variety of ways to create financial momentum for journalism.

But sustainability for journalism is not just an economic question, although that seems to be the most urgent component.

Sustainability also means ensuring that journalism is relevant to the concerns of everyday people.

The focus on economic sustainability, combined with the fading but continued emphasis on the divide between old platforms and new, does not leave a lot of air in the room for the relevance discussion. I think we need to challenge ourselves to make sure that the focus on relevance remains at the center of our concern.

I think that focus should include these elements:

• Examining how we’re using the tools available to us to connect news and information to communities in a way that allows people not just to consume it, but to participate in it. We need to be smarter about tailoring content to the way people actually use it, and the ways they use the devices that allow them to access it.

• Getting far smarter about social media, not just as a pipeline for pushing out content but as a reporting tool. Too many of us – both traditionalists and entrepreneurs – view social media as a marketing tool. In truth, its best use for journalism is as a listening post that gives insight into how public dialogue is evolving.

• Understanding the value of data and how to make it visual, searchable and personal. We have not begun to exploit the power of data to tell both community’s story and to help individuals understand their own stories.

Building on the idea that I wrote about in my last post – Lisa Williams’ theory that journalism’s future is about smaller and smaller organizations having bigger and bigger impact – these conversations need to focus on building journalism sustainability at a community level.

And that means building a reporting ecosystem that connects the craft of journalism with community building.

A fair amount has been written in the last couple of years about what kind of journalism is most imperiled by the collapse of the economic model that paid for reporting. The case has been made that it is state government reporting, a critical need at a time when state budgets are in free fall. Or that it is foreign coverage, an expensive but necessary proposition in an age when revolution and changing economies and natural disaster are reshaping the face of the world. Or that it is investigative reporting, the kind of tedious watchdog work that uncovers wrongdoing and safeguards the taxpayer.

All of those types of journalism are vital and need support. But I would argue that all journalism begins with community journalism.

That’s why our New Media Journalism Initiative is working to enable innovation in community journalism. We believe that it is by understanding journalism’s connection to the kind of decision-making that makes democracy possible at the most local level that we begin to glimpse what relevance truly means.

And we believe that by building capacity for journalism at the local level, we ultimately help enable journalism in all its other wondrous, and necessary, forms.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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