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 issue:
🤔 I’ve been thinking about how journalism both fosters and hampers our ability to feel like we belong. Here are some recent notes + small highlights from chats on an effective future for journalism with the brilliant Darryl Holliday and Carla Murphy.
#40: so, what's journalism for again? (Time Spent)
Multiple Mainstreams (Dissent)
Mainstream media anger check (Time Spent)
Q’s & A’s on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act (Nieman Lab)
A Secretive Hedge Fund is Gutting Newsrooms (The Atlantic)
I took a little time off to see friends and family, so here's a longer post I've been cooking mentally.
This time of year feels like a great slowing down. Many people return to their home of origin, quirks and all, to be with their people. It's gotten me thinking: how do you know you belong somewhere?
Over the last several winters, I feel like it has gotten harder to have conversations about shared people and places. In the past, a holiday weekend with friends or family would have included a lot of shared news about our community and/or news from the couple of news sources everyone consumes.
Now, every time someone checks their phone, we see a completely different feed, aggregated under different preferences, on a different app. Aside from the new variant, over Thanksgiving, there weren’t any “big stories” that everyone was equally engaged with.
I find it profound that a handful of people can belong to the same family but not the same communities.
So let’s talk about belonging.
What is journalism’s value proposition?
Earlier this month, I sent out a note saying I’ve been wondering what the value proposition of news really is, and summarized a few advertisements from news organizations that state theirs.
Today, I want to explore a single value proposition from the perspective of the individual.
➡️ Value Prop: Journalism allows you to feel like you belong.
Seeing stories about your people, your lived reality, your community is fortifying, if you feel accurately represented and able to act on the information you consume, be it sharing it with a friend, taking action or simply remembering to bring an umbrella.
It’s the “Did you hear…?” moment when you look up from your phone on the couch, or the “Guess what is happening to X group of people we both care about?” moment when you send a link, or the “Z just happened! Let’s all go together!”
It’s why your weird Twitter bubble feels so exciting when someone gets riled up about something and you feel invested.
In the broadest sense, news about your people is exciting to exchange.
Now, let’s consider this value prop—the ability to belong—as an offering of traditional news.
Value Prop: Journalism allows you to feel like you belong.
A little context: I have occasionally noticed Indian people who speak English as a second language say “I belong to [name of city]” rather than “I am from [name of city].”
It seems like a small grammatical error but I’ve always sort of loved the mistake and found it touching, because I think feeling that you belong to a place is very different than being from there.
Saying “I belong to [X political party, Y club, Z group]” is normal because to belong somewhere represents that that’s where you feel community. But I’ve rarely heard it in reference to the place where one is born.
So you can imagine why this sentence from an article about community newspapers in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas gave me pause:
I recognized myself as belonging to the place I was born and lived because of journalism.
They are the words of Thaís Cavalcante, a freelance journalist from the Maré favela in Rio, explaining her path into community journalism. In context it reads:
I started with no money and no training. I recognized myself as belonging to the place I was born and lived because of journalism. I learned that it is possible to start practice before theory.
I was struck by the idea that journalism could make you see yourself as a part of the place that you’re from. And yet, that’s exactly what its value proposition is.
Whatever form it comes in, community-based news gives people access to information, identity and agency. It’s extremely important. To get more granular, the value prop of local news is:
Information: It allows you to access information to about the place/community to which you belong.
Identity: It allows you to be represented and feel seen/heard.
Agency: It allows you to participate in that place/community.
In one respect, human beings have never needed journalists to access the above. At the most local level: your family, your block, your church, your workplace — we have access to all the news we need about comings, goings, issues and gossip.
But the more we zoom out, local to city, state, and national publications we see that traditional news organizations have long been the gatekeepers of information1 pertaining to:
access to care and resources—sound information to navigate power structures governing a place.
the self-image of a people—how the whole community is represented or addressed, the trends in their experiences, the obstacles to their success.
social mobility—how the community compares to others, what aspirations that community should have, how to access the mainstream culture.
Which is dangerous if not executed fairly and wisely.
In other words, when you add the news business into a community’s information ecosystem, you will almost certainly amplify value and add harm.
Harm: Journalism excludes you from belonging
First, for anyone not familiar with journalism, it does have a professional code of ethics, which you can view here. One is to minimize harm.
I’ve always felt that at the micro-level, journalism does a fairly good job at adhering to these ethics, but as an industry, it does a very bad job of it.
So if professionalization of local information can increase its value to facilitate belonging and inclusion, what harm might it create?
➡️ Harm: Journalism excludes you from belonging.
Before unpacking this, I want to share some brief excerpts from recent conversations I had with two very smart thinkers on journalism.
I spent a lot of time in Massachusetts as a kid, where the public meeting was basically invented. You would walk over to your town square and vote on an issue that affects your little community. Those are all things that are information based, right? Like information doesn't really have market value just on its own.
[So if] journalism is the business of turning information into a thing that can be sold, then journalism and information are not the same thing.
This is an excerpt from a longer conversation we had about how journalism ought to be defined and he aptly pointed out that there is no good lexicon of information beyond journalism.
“The language is just so wrapped up in professional journalism that it becomes hard to conceive of things beyond it,” he explained.
How do we talk about the information that the bus line is being shut down in front of your house? That is news to your block, even if it's not news to a journalist, right? And journalism isn't always interested or invested in information that people really need.
Here is where the harm part comes in. I see it in two ways.
First, there is the harm of exclusion: if a piece of information isn’t relevant to a dominant group of subscribers/viewers/consumers, it’s not going to make it on the airwaves.
Second, there is the harm of representation: The more a particular group’s vantage point is amplified, the more poorly all minority groups will be represented, simply by virtue of the fact that they aren’t being considered as carefully, if at all.
Our news media infrastructure now needs to redesign itself in a way that advances the democratization of media that happened because of the internet. And if you're doing that, there is no master mainstream.
In reality, to navigate these multiple mainstreams of media available to us online, we need both policy and media literacy solutions.
But as we discussed the same question—what does journalism uniquely offer—it became clear that no one has a good answer yet and it should be a pressing question. She said:
I still do think that journalists have a very unique skillset and knowledge base. What needs to happen is that journalism needs to get more specific and probably more narrow about what [its] unique add is.
It has changed. And I think that journalists have lost the sense of what our value is. I think the industry has lost the sense of what that is too.
For example, Bloomberg, when he was in office, implemented the open data policy, so now I don't need to rely on the Daily News or the New York Times to tell me who owns my building. I can go onto the access portal and there's a whole database of information from city agencies. That used to be knowledge that I could only get from a newspaper and that's changed. The notion that I need a journalist to get access to that is silly, right?
What I do need a journalist for, however, is to help me figure out if I have a more pointed question about that data and how that data is playing out on my street.
So I think we need to have a finer and sharper conversation about, well, what is our core competency for this time?
Why this matters
So let’s bring this all together.
Building an information product that allows people to feel like they belong is the basis for much of the success we see media ventures enjoying today. It’s why we spend hours on social media, binge-watch streaming TV, glue ourselves to network television and so forth.
However, when that information product purports to provide civic value as its core competency and abide by a set of ethics including do no harm, we have to look at the product as a system rather than individual stories or publishers.
The value of belonging to and and successfully navigating life in your communities is beyond measure. But when news organizations optimize for that value (ie: by promoting lifestyle, service and political journalism to maximize engagement from a predominant group), other groups are inevitably harmed (ie: by being excluded from consideration in the selection of newsworthy information or by being mis- or under-represented in news itself).
Why is this important to think about?
For consumers, especially those (on the left or right) who often feel unseen/unheard in mainstream media, it’s a starting point for consuming more critically, rather than passively loading up on content that provokes anger, resentment or confusion about your place in the world. And blanket dismissals of “the mainstream media” aren’t effective. Here’s a tool that might help.
For producers of traditional news—and I struggle through this a lot—considering where the publisher you’re working with sits in the ecosystem and what its value prop is, is worth asking before contributing to the churn of a news cycle based on outdated norms around newsworthiness.
For everyone in between—it’s incentive to take take up the pen and fill in the gaps, as we see happening in countless examples like the one about Rio’s favelas.
I’m still piecing all this together in my head, but I definitely agree that we need a new vocabulary for “news” products, and many more conversations about what it actually means to navigate multiple mainstreams.
Always up for a chat if this made sense to you and you have thoughts!
Related: This is why the death of local newspapers has created such big information gaps and information opportunities, to the point that the government is involved (see: Local Journalism Sustainability Act, Build Back Better), hedge funds are involved (see: the gutting of newsrooms), and lots of community organizations are finding innovative ways to fill those gaps.