Look outside the box… and journalism

It’s time to talk about where we should look to for inspiration as we prepare to transform journalism… again.

Many of us in journalism believe this to be true. I wonder if we know what it means to truly get there.

I arrived at Stanford for my John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship in late August after spending thirteen years in Birmingham, Alabama (and 24 years overall in the southeastern U.S.) wondering about the state of regional journalism. I’ve learned there’s a lot of interest, opinions, and observations already out there about how we can fix our profession.

Journalism has long experienced disruption. The pace of change has quickened, but our unwillingness to be open to it doesn’t always want to keep up. Many newsrooms are focused on keeping up with the treadmill known as the 24/7 news cycle. It’s tough to allow for a moment for news organizations to catch their breath and determine what truly needs to happen next. There are constant reports of job cuts, like those announced at Mashable and L.A. Weekly by their respective new owners. The closure of relatively new digital publications like DNAInfo and Gothamist do not help morale either.

It’s easy and comfortable to act with what we know as we ask for others to be open to new facts and processes. If we in journalism only make changes to it by listening to those within its existing boundaries, we prevent the profession from thriving and growing to its fullest potential. The answers are out there for all to see and explore, though it takes a willingness to investigate and to learn from failure to do so.

One of the ONA17 table discussions in Washington, DC. It’s OK to look within the profession for help, but how journalism chooses to survive depends on where else we look for inspiration and a framework that serves all.

A lesson I’ve long heard preached in the South is “trust the process.” It means understanding a framework is in place to keep you on a certain path. It’s not about handcuffing you into stagnation and the inability to try something new or to dream big dreams. We need to be willing to take off the blinders and dive into how and why we approach journalism as a digital or scalable enterprise. The solution involves embracing something more sustainable and manageable for both the news organization and the community it serves. One possible framework could be borrowed from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

I often describe the nonprofit organization’s Main Street America as a method to focus on what makes a community unique from everything else. I spent the four years before my return to journalism helping to implement this process in Savannah, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. Many in the Main Street world wouldn’t let me stray far from it after I returned to journalism, leading me to complete its old certification process in 2008 and still regularly consult on projects through late 2015. Its Four Point Approach provides guideposts to help focus tackling problems impacting a community’s public spaces, buildings, and culture. It means we listen to what people want instead of always assuming we know what’s best. It allows for the problems to be identified by those affected and encourages the implementation and buy-in for solutions to be easier to secure.

Why can’t it be used to help the same community look at its information needs?

How would journalism look if we started over? I thought I’d be less concerned about suggesting changes to the entire ecosystem as I came back to the industry through the side door, covering economic development. The fear, however, is still real. Those experiences outside of journalism have me wondering if we need to spend more time looking outside of the industry for help to solve it.

Those cries often come from within journalism while pointing to doubling down on existing norms in the profession.

Everything I’ve observed so far suggests there’s less of an opportunity for this change to occur at the national or global level, but it’s entirely possible at the local and regional level. We are committing journalism every day, but we are doing it without much regard for fixing the underlying issues of trust and the willingness to blow it all up. It is less of a reinvention and more of a reflection on what we should be doing as a society. Nonprofit organizations like Chicago-based civic journalism lab City Bureau have already tried to make the process more transparent and understandable, but much more needs to be done. The apparent need to only focus on how the business works affects how journalists are able and willing to fulfill their roles for their communities. We are attempting to tell a community’s story every day, but we are doing it without much regard for fixing the underlying issues of trust or the willingness to blow it all up and start over.

Where else can we look for possible solutions? Can we trust ourselves to look outside of journalism and discover the most obtainable version of the truth? I think that’s what I’ll be trying to find out for the next few months, but I’ll need your help. If you know of anything or anyone that makes sense, let me know (acnatta [at] stanford [dot] edu). We can tackle this search together — similar to the way we need to be working moving forward to best serve our communities.

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