News Leadership 3.0

March 31, 2009

Journalism as civic engagement

The digital revolution is remaking the idea of civic engagement and re-connecting journalism to community is both a challenge and a promise

Digital media provide exciting tools for connecting people and millions are online in social networks discussing matters both important and trivial. Being a link in the network, rather than owning it, challenges journalists and news organizations to re-establish community connections they severed long before the Internet grabbed center stage. Partnerships of journalists and citizens hold promise for the future of news. But rather than asking if citizens can learn journalism, why not ask if journalists can learn civic engagement?

David Stoeffler describes the decades old credibility gap in a recent speech:

“Where we see fairness, many see bias ... many readers believe that our editorial opinions and our own personal biases carry over into coverage. And if we are honest with ourselves, we know they are right - if nothing else it shows up in the stories we choose to cover and those we choose to ignore. ...

“Where we see the importance of getting the facts right, many see we are failing to get the right facts. Accuracy is not just about spelling the names correctly, it’s about talking to the right people, about providing context and perspective so the picture is more complete and the coverage “rings true” to readers.

“Where we hold ourselves out as the most credible sources of news, many see an aloof institution that often refuses to own up to its mistakes. Our newsrooms rarely reflect the diversity of the communities we serve. Our leadership is primarily still a club for white males. Too few journalists are willing to engage readers - still thinking of them in disdainful terms as uneducated or uninformed. ...

“These are challenges we must confront if we are to survive - if we are to get to the other side. ...”

Well said.

Now, we’re also hearing a lively debate about whether citizens can really perform journalism. How can citizens be objective? What about conflict of interest? How will they meet the professional standards of craft?  These and other questions about the ability of citizens to provide news coverage are valuable and necessary as society processes the tectonic shifts beneath the news landscape. Certainly, the broad debate about the value and ethics of independent journalism is important as the traditional financial base for news gathering diminishes.

Among the many things the Internet is remaking is the definition of credibility. Transparency and a willingness to engage are replacing authority and objectivity as top standards. I sometimes hear journalists wondering how citizens might be trained to be journalists. I always want to flip that—What will citizens teach journalists about community and civic engagement?

I hope that learning is already taking place at hundreds of community news sites. The broad debate often obscures what is happening on the ground: Citizens concerned about news in their communities and journalists recently forced out of their newsrooms are finding ways to make it work. Hybrid models that team professional journalists with citizens are emerging all over the United States. While often less complete, authoritative or sophisticated than traditional counterparts, these emergent partnerships spell a piece of a future for journalism, especially for journalism at the community and local level.

What if established news organizations partnered with the citizen sites to cover community news? One editor at a mid-sized newspaper recently told me she is considering asking a local non-profit to help with arts coverage the newspaper no longer has the staff to provide. The Oakland Tribune is partnering with Spot.Us to report on the deteriorating state of Oakland’s streets. A freelance reporter will be paid with micro-contributions from the public and Spot.Us will ask citizens to report potholes that will be mapped online.

These are a couple of small examples. But on the Internet, a lot of small can add up to something big.  Reliance on citizen contributors for micro-news might free up journalists for enterprise stories that citizens are less likely to be able to produce. I’d like to hear of other examples of established organizations reaching out for help from citizens. Please comment or e-mail me at michele dot mclellan at yahoo dot com.

If your organization is interested in working with community sites, J-Lab is looking for partners for a Networked Journalism project that will involve partnering a newspaper in five cities with five hyperlocal news projects in each of their communities. The project will provide micro grants for the hyper local sites and will fund a part-time coordinator at the newspaper. Contact Jan Schaffer via news at j-lab dot org.


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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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