March 10, 2021

“Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit,” wrote Henry Adams.

So it is for the news business today. It is fashionable in some quarters to say local journalism is dying. But look closer. Amid the difficult search for a new economic model, a skeptical, polarized public and serious reflection over longstanding practices, the field is also full of dreamers, problem solvers and pioneers charting new ways to live up to enduring responsibilities.

I hope to highlight the dreamers here from time to time. Here are four major challenges to journalism today and four attempts to confront them that are worth watching.

How do you launch a publication in a rapidly changing community that’s been poorly served by mainstream journalism?

“How do we build an outlet for local journalism that is rooted in, representative of, and responsive to communities in a city as diverse, complex and powerful as Oakland?” The Oaklandside, a new publication in that Bay Area city, asked itself as it launched last summer.

To accomplish the task, the journalists at The Oaklandside thought they had to  “fundamentally understand what people care about and need more information on,” the outlet wrote in a report on their process.

They couldn’t rely on their experience and training to know (which would have been the traditional answer). They also had to include the community in the newsgathering (the staff was too small by itself). They needed what they called a “deep relationship” with the community if they wanted to have community support.

So in September 2019, The Oaklandside, a sister publication to Berkeleyside (founded by journalists Frances Dinkelspiel, Tracey Taylor and Lance Knobel) started listening: They did long one-on-one conversations with more than four dozen community stakeholders; held community events and conversations about journalism, even about objectivity; and conducted an online survey to get more input from hundreds of Oakland residents.

They published the learnings in a “document of insight statements” and described what they stood for in a public “founding values” document.

What they heard from their inquiries is a roadmap for any publication:

  • Cover systems, not just symptoms.
  • Invest in opportunities for people to tell their own stories.
  • Create a new and more accurate narrative about Oakland’s underserved communities.
  • Make the local government more accessible.
  • Help people connect and preserve Oakland’s diversity in a rapidly changing place.
  • Be practical with news people can use.
  • Have a staff that reflects the community it is supposed to understand.

The real test, of course, is the journalism this process inspires. But the signs are promising. Cover systems, not symptoms? This story does it: “Vaccination codes: what worked in Oakland, what didn’t, and what’s next.” Create a more accurate narrative about Oakland’s underserved communities? This story does it: “‘We’re like a little family here’: Dimond District small biz owners lean on community to persevere.”

One of the axioms of disruption is for any organization to ask itself, “If we were starting this from scratch, what would we do?” Starting by listening is surely a good answer.

How do journalists contend with public officials who are lying?

The first principle of journalism is to get at the truth, building on a foundation of facts, arriving at an accurate accounting of events, and finding, over time, the truth of what has or is happening.

What do journalists do if public officials just lie? The problem may seem particularly acute in the age of Trump and Twitter but it is hardly new or even particularly different now. From the Red Scare witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy to the systematic deceptions of Vietnam to the faulty intelligence over the Iraq War, news people have struggled to contend with falsehoods wrapped in blue flannel officialdom and pernicious abstraction of making nonsense sound serious.

The public radio and television outlet in central Pennsylvania, WITF, is searching for a new approach to contend with it today.

WITF has promised its community it will regularly hold accountable those who played a role in perpetuating the falsehood that the presidential election was stolen.

To do so, they intend to repeatedly identify “how elected officials’ actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.” If for instance, a Pennsylvania lawmaker introduces a bill, they will note that he “signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence to call those results into question.”

(Eight of Pennsylvania’s nine Republicans voted against certifying the state’s electoral college votes on Jan. 6.)

“These are not normal times,” says the station’s website. With disinformation and misinformation spreading in new and frightening ways, “it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.”

This “wasn’t a policy disagreement over taxes, abortion, or government spending,” the station’s announcement says. “This was either knowingly spreading disinformation or outright lying by elected officials to overturn an election …”

Some in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have suggested that the journalists go even further — and refuse coverage to anyone who has participated in the false narrative about the election.

That idea is a mistake. It smacks of blacklists and the Hollywood Ten, and WITF isn’t going there.

But it will be valuable to watch how WITF’s effort to plug that memory-hole plays out. They are not alone. The conservative publication The Bulwark recommends that journalists should ask and ask again, in effect, if someone believes the earth is flat.

What are some journalistic pathways to find understanding over race and politics?

One of journalism’s most important jobs is to create a public commons where people can learn from each other, understand and solve problems. In today’s million-little-pieces media environment, that job is tougher than ever. Various publications are looking for ways to explore our political divisions — from holding civic conversations to looking at their historical role in promoting systemic racism.

The Los Angeles Times has added a refreshingly simple approach (that Poynter’s Kristen Hare has previously covered). In a series called “My Country,” reporter Tyrone Beason is traveling the country to write about people wrestling with the same uncertainties over race and reconciliation as Beason himself. “There’s a side of me that wants to believe this country will someday bestow on my fellow Black Americans the respect we yearn for. But there’s another side of me that sucks its teeth and rolls its eyes at the notion that Black people will ever receive their due in a country where armed white men who call themselves patriots can freely ransack the U.S. Capitol while some of them wave, without irony, Confederate battle flags.”

As Beason travels to the inauguration in the maiden entry, we meet a South Carolina legislator who entered politics after his sister was murdered by a white supremacist in a church; a Black minister whose congregation are mostly white Trump supporters; a white man who has left the United States after being beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville.

It’s an old-school approach to our contemporary chaos — sending a gifted, thoughtful writer out to observe and absorb. Beason is a character in his pieces but a quiet one, listening not lecturing. Two generations ago it would have been called New Journalism (think Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, or more recently Eli Saslow at The Washington Post or Lawrence Wright at The New Yorker).

The strength is that Beason is the through line, the observer, the listener, the searcher. The challenge is that his question is so big. Will he continue to meet illuminating characters? Will he learn something that he and we didn’t know? Will his journeys be more than a line on a map? I hope so. I am hooked and taking the trip with him.

Can local journalism find a way to serve audiences and lead while chronicling the intensifying debate over voting?

Newspapers evolved from the Enlightenment in the early 17th century to make information once held by the few available to many. Journalism is by nature democratizing.

What role can it play now, when the two parties are making voting rules a defining battleground between them? One answer is to help citizens in their own communities know what the rules are so they can participate.

Last election the Philadelphia Inquirer produced “How to Vote in 2020.”

For audiences, news can too often seem like a party at which you arrived late and don’t know anyone when you get there. Not this. It was a digital product with as many doors into it as possible, welcoming the experienced voter and the first-timer alike. Among the entrance points: “Should I vote? Am I eligible to vote? What races are on the ballot?” It also covered more arcane rules for people who wanted to vote by mail and needed specific details.

Most compelling to me: It was produced in the five most common languages in the Philadelphia area.

In the sensationalist late 19th century of yellow journalism, Joe Pulitzer hyped the news on the front pages. But he and other publishers like E.W. Scripps used their editorial pages to teach citizenship. Immigrants had reading circles. Someone who could read English would read the paper out loud to those who couldn’t. The news, even the most sensational versions, was about involving people and creating community.

And isn’t community an essential antidote to chaos?

More from Tom Rosenstiel:

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One of the most recognized thinkers in the country on the future of news, Tom Rosenstiel (@tomrosenstiel) is the author of 10 books, including three…
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