Something special is happening in Seattle

Posted on August 12, 2011 by Janet Coats

We were seated inside a West Seattle art gallery, the view out of the window a glorious sunset over the water.

In any other meeting, that view would have been distracting. But the conversation was so compelling, the sunset was over with barely a glance from me. Seated around me were representatives of Seattle's news ecosystem -- folks from traditional news organizations like The Seattle Times and ethnic media, from community startups and from the King County Library System.

They were sharing what they've learned about ways to meet community news and information needs. And they were doing it without the underlying sense of competition that often permeates journalism gatherings.

In my study of the community news landscape during the past 18 months, I've often thought to myself, "There's something special going on in Seattle journalism.'' My visit to Seattle this week confirmed and deepened that thought.

There is something special going on in Seattle journalism. And I think it says something about the special feeling of community Seattle itself embodies.

A three-day visit to a city hardly qualifies one to speak about its spirit of community. But I was impressed in every conversation I had with journalists and others invested in community news and information about their starting point for thinking about why journalism innovation is so important.

They didn't start from "journalism.'' They started from this point: What does a community need to be healthy, to function well on behalf of all of its citizens?

Starting from the idea that news and information are vital to a community's health helps to change the conversation about journalism. Journalism becomes part of a larger whole. The panicky, fear-driven conversation about what will become of the institutions that have traditionally provided news and information becomes instead a focus on the broader ecosystem that meets those community needs.

So many conversations about the future of journalism are really about the future of journalists -- and by journalists, I mean people who draw paychecks from newspapers and television stations. That construct has resulted in a feeling of competition, of threat, as if there isn't room for a more diverse range of news and information providers.

Not only is there room, but there is a fundamental need for efforts beyond traditional newsgathering organizations, and the folks in Seattle seem to have embraced that idea. Traditional newsgathering organizations have been so diminished by budget cuts that they can't possibly provide the depth and breadth of coverage they once did -- and those resources just aren't ever coming back.

But it's more than the cuts of the last few years that makes a diverse news ecosystem so important. Traditional newsgathering organizations never provided deep coverage of individual communities -- whether those communities were geographic ones, topical ones, or ones united by common experience. The half-hearted efforts we editors made to provide that coverage were never adequate, but they did sometimes serve to keep out hyperlocal "competition.'' That's because the newspaper viewed those more targeted, often more grassroots enterprises as taking away "our'' ad dollars.

As newspapers have pulled back and back and back, the field has opened for true community coverage to emerge. The questions now become how to better connect the entire ecosystem, to reduce duplication of effort and create broader distribution of news, and how to develop a strong business model to sustain this work.

In Seattle, experiments are under way on both counts. In my next posts, I share more about what I learned in Seattle, and the way that trip is shaping my thinking about the intersection of community and journalism. Seattle doesn't have it all figured out, and there remain some unresolved tensions among news providers. But they are starting from the right place, by asking how news and information systems can cooperate to help build a healthy community.

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