Tom Stites, a former newspaper editor and a deep thinker about the journalism craft, gave a speech last summer that won plenty of well-deserved attention. In that talk — which we guest-posted here, entitled “Is media performance democracy’s critical issue?” — he posed a key question about our future.
Now he’s back with an essay about the need for great journalism. It appears here in four parts, which we’ll run today through Thursday. (You can also read the entire essay here; we’ll also post a PDF version soon. (Part 1, Part 2.)
Here’s the third installment :
Needed: More Excellence in Journalism
Third of four articles
By Tom Stites
One size misfits many
The ever-widening gap between the rich and everybody else creates an ever-widening gap between the journalism needs of the rich and of everybody else. To ensure that democracy has the informed citizens that are crucial to its health, it needs journalism to serve people on both sides of the gap. And journalism is failing.
Folks without health coverage need very different medical reporting from those who have it, and folks who earn weekly wages with poor to nonexistent benefits need different financial features than salaried professionals with substantial savings. For example, poorly paid people need guidance on how to avoid payday loan shops and other predatory lenders – and, if in their grip, strategies for getting free.
The have-nots, who far outnumber the haves in our society, need journalism that shows them how policy changes will impact their lives as much as the haves need to know how they will impact their investments. Employment and other economic reports have distinctly different meanings to folks on either side of the income gap.
But today’s mainstream journalism is aimed almost entirely at serving the haves, sending less-than-affluent Americans to what passed for journalism on broadcast and cable news shows. (For an exploration of how this phenomenon works, see my June 30 speech to the Media Giraffe Conference.)
Doing news coverage and service journalism that bring relevant information to the less than affluent is straightforward and easy to solve – if only the resources can be found to accomplish this.
A more challenging need is journalism that presents the truest possible picture of national economic life, shorn of Wall Street’s hype and bias and economists’ rosy lenses. One approach would be to create an index of economic indicators aimed at reflecting the economy the way the target audience experiences it, drawing from alternative perspectives on the GDP and quality-of-life indicators such as household income, access to health care, consumer borrowing, the personal debt-to-asset ratio, and the true jobless rate (taking discouraged workers into account).
The three areas outlined above present daunting challenge after daunting challenge, and an afternoon of conversation among any handful of readers of this article could greatly extend the list with good ideas. I’d love to be part of a discussion, for example, about how journalism can combat propaganda techniques used in the shaping of political messages. No one news organization could handle all of just this short list of ideas for ways journalism can serve democracy, and different ideas would work best in different journalistic settings.
Already not-for-profits like the Center for Public Integrity are committed to doing national- and global-scale investigative journalism that big news organizations are shedding (disclosure: the writer is a consulting editor for the Center), and more are stepping up. NewAssignment.net is a fascinating new entry in this area. A not-for-profit could rather easily create an index of economic indicators that are relevant to less-than-affluent Americans (or it could be a signature feature for a new news organization devoted to coverage that’s relevant to this group of people, the way the Dow-Jones Industrial Average is a signature feature for The Wall Street Journal).
The corporate databases outlined above would be a natural fit for a not-for-profit, and in fact many not-for-profits are already working in these areas. CorpWatch, for example, keeps a helpful industry-by-industry database of articles on corporate behavior, but a comprehensive database of the type outlined above would require a staff to create and maintain – and thus would require resources that few non-for-profits have.
Creating excellent journalism that’s meaningful to less-than-affluent people is much easier than distributing it effectively to the vast number of people in this category, and creating publishing structures to accomplish this – in print or on the Web – is a huge undertaking. The investment would be huge as well, though Web costs are coming down all the time. In this time of journalistic flux, what fresh revenue streams can be found so that publishing serious journalism for the less than affluent thrive? And who is motivated and has the resources to even test ideas like these, much less launch them? Or who has brainstorms about ways to achieve these ends with modest resources?
TOMORROW: The search for new players. (Or read the whole thing here.)
Tom Stites is publisher of UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist religion. Contact him here.