Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time. Each letter includes tidbits from research, tips and experiments that are all part of a book I’m working on called Taking Back the News. If you’re new, subscribe here!
In this letter:
📰 Thinking through who gets to be a journalist and what that means.
Centering the news consumer instead of the media (Time Spent)
I want to start today with a piece by Joshua Benton in Nieman Lab on who gets to be a journalist and how to expand the pool of people who can enter the industry.
Here’s the context:
Journalism has a diversity problem. Actually, it has diversity problems, plural: racial diversity, class diversity, gender diversity, geographic diversity, and more.
And there are really only two major ways such problems can be addressed. You can change who gets to enter the profession, or you can change what happens to them once they’re already in it.
Benton tackles the question of entry.
First, it’s a great summary of the general paths into journalism, whether you enter through your education (j-school, journalism undergrads) or your work (freelancers, former school paper editors).
I was a school paper editor who ended up going to j-school, and at the time (2012) the value of j-school was as hotly debated as it is now. I went because I knew traditional journalism was an elite field and taking on debt felt worth the access to a network I’d never have otherwise. Close friends agree. Here’s a 2018 piece by Rachel Benton that contextualizes it further.
After establishing why we need more accessible pathways into the industry, Benton proposes a solution: Create alternative certification programs akin to those offered to career-switchers who want to become K-12 teachers. The data speaks for itself. He writes:
As of 2019, American K-12 teachers who’d taken the traditional route to certification were 82.2% white, 7.9% Hispanic, and 5.3% Black. Those who’d taken the alternative route were significantly more diverse: 66.5% white, 15.5% Hispanic, and 12.9% Black.
In other words, alt-cert teachers are more than twice as likely to be Black or Hispanic than traditionally certified ones.
Many journalists I respect wholeheartedly agree with his proposed solution. I do, too. But I also think the entire conversation rests on some assumptions that are worth unpacking. If you’ve been reading for a while, I think you know where I’m headed.
The big assumption underlying professional journalism
The assumption here, and in pretty much all takes I see in media circles about how to fix journalism (diversify newsrooms, fund local journalism, build trust with audiences, find business models that make quality reporting accessible) is that professional journalism is the way to deliver news to a public.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with that notion. I think traditional journalism is an important but shrinking piece of our information architecture for reasons beyond the industry’s struggle to support itself and be trusted.
As a j-school grad, I obviously see merit in professional journalism. But what I came away with from j-school is that the skills of journalism ought to be made more widely accessible, not simply as a pathway into the industry but as a life skill. The world is becoming too messy and confusing to not know how to think like a journalist. (Maybe I’ll write a separate post on this.)
While the boundaries surrounding “professional” journalism are clear in the eyes of its producers and gatekeepers, I don’t know that the same goes for consumers, nor do I think it ever will. In one sense, this is what news literacy efforts seek to remedy. Teach kids while they are young what “information neighborhood” they are in, what the differences between advertising and news and propaganda are, how to fact-check, what goes into reporting and so forth.
Once, when I was reporting a story on news literacy’s future, someone told me that it sounded like the industry was trying to convince people it was still relevant. I laughed at the time, but 6 years later, I find myself thinking along similar lines every so often.
Three vantage points on traditional news
Here are three vantage points from which I’m considering the relevance of traditional journalism.
Vantage Point 1: Journalism and content share a bed
Consider the following from a 2019 Copyhackers post on how to be a successful guest blogger in most mainstream publications titled, The ‘Complete-Nobody’ Guide to Guest Posting Fame and Fortune (By the Guy Who Built a Career Out of It):
Confession: I’m probably the least original dude you’ll ever meet. The fact that I wear the title “creator” is nonsense.
However, in the world of guest blogging, my lack of originality is far from a detriment. It’s probably the leading characteristic of my success.
What do I mean?
No matter how journalistic a site or publication may appear, editors care about one thing: popular content.
Popular content equals traffic. And traffic equals ad revenue, subscribers or (in some cases) customers.
Editors want articles that align with what’s currently working for their site, without overlapping or cannibalizing existing content.
While popular content looks different publication to publication, within a publication – and even within a publication niche – it changes very little.
The line between freelance journalist and freelance writer feels almost invisible to me now. For most freelance journalists I know, their bread and butter comes from this stuff: how-to’s, pop culture commentary, clever content on trends, reported personal essays, content marketing, and the occasional exciting piece of “journalism” where they break a story or an angle on a story and report it out.
Meanwhile, my inbox is filled with really smart stories, interviews and news analysis from newsletter writers who have no background in journalism.
Our feeds are a mix just the same.
Vantage Point 2: Breaking news is hard to do right
Now, consider the vantage point of a newsroom covering big breaking news.
Reframe, a project of Resolve Philly that seeks to increase the understanding and adoption of humanizing language in the news, recently published a report on how local media responded to the murder of George Floyd in the first week it happened. Specifically, it analyzes protest-related articles from 19 news organizations and then makes recommendations for improvement.
What they found was unsurprising but telling: Headlines focused more on responses to protests (i.e. counter-protests, public officials’ statements, the future of two local symbols of former mayor Frank Rizzo) than on the source of the unrest or protesters’ demands. The people quoted or paraphrased in articles were mostly public officials or members of law enforcement (37.5%), while 15.8% were protesters. Yet 43.8% of images analyzed showed people protesting.
What they recommended was also unsurprising but important: Context on protest’s root issues needs to be included in early reporting. Editors should reimagine traditions of reporting on official statements from public figures and celebrities.
Amplifying the words of those in positions of authority without significant context shifts focus away from the protests themselves, participants’ goals and demands, and the perspectives of other community members.
For many reasons, breaking news is hard to do in a value-creative way. Newsroom funding and training is a big one. But so are norms. Traditional journalistic ones and how-to-win-the-internet ones.
Vantage Point 3: News can come from outside the newsroom.
Finally, consider the vantage point of news sources that work really well but are driven by civic participation. For those who don’t follow the media industry, nonprofit City Bureau is something of a darling in how-do-we-fix-local-news circles.
It’s a civic journalism lab in Chicago that runs programs to address information needs in collaborative ways, such as through their public newsroom, which hosts moderated discussions on local issues, and through its Documenters program, which trains (and pays) local residents to take notes at public meetings. Some highlights from their funder:
City Bureau’s Documenters team has now trained more than 1,000 people to cover more than 1,300 public meetings. During the pandemic, when in-person meetings were first paused, City Bureau built a database of 1,300 neighborhood, city and state resources to direct residents to food, money, legal help, available via text message and in 10 different languages.
There are other creative and sustainable examples of public journalism happening in partnership with newsrooms, or independently, journalism-degree not required.
I point to these examples because I think it’s worth thinking more carefully about whether the audiences/communities/constituents that journalists are supposed to serve will need traditional journalism as it is currently taught in higher education 20, 60 or 100 years from now. Sadly, the answer feels more no than yes. (I don’t think it’s ever going to be a complete no—but I could be wrong or in denial because I personally love and value journalism.)
For these reasons, I’m hopeful about Benton’s suggestions on how to reimagine journalism education and access, with a keen eye on critically evaluating the norms that get passed down through them.
One of the most important is how journalists are taught to think about who they are serving. (As I’ve written before, we have to center the news consumer instead of the media.)
On that note, a new study by Jacob Nelson and Stephanie Edgerly, The (Ir)Relevance of Audience Studies in Journalism Education, points to gaps in precisely that. Data collected from course syllabi from leading journalism schools throughout the country show a narrow focus on audience metrics and lots of room for a broader conceptualization of the audience. And then of course there is the question of those who don’t consume traditional news (hi, gen-z).
I had a chat with Stephanie about all this and I’ll publish a Q&A next week.