Fake news started out weird (did you hear about the guy in Florida who unknowingly married his granddaughter?) and is now decidedly scary.
What can be done? Here’s my proposal for those concerned about the future of truth: Invest in it.
Just as we mobilize minds, money, and manpower on behalf of the environment, education, and global health, we need to throw that same kind of army behind a new cause — the care, feeding, and mass distribution of truth. You might know this work by its less glamorous name, journalism.
I realize that the news makes for a weird cause. Because yes, you do see more news stories than ever in your inbox and Facebook feed and home screen and on (indeed, we spend more time consuming news in the digital age, not less). There’s never been a better time to be curious about your iPhone 7, last night’s episode of Westworld, or that other popular work of science fiction, political polls. But while tech/TV/horse race coverage proliferates, journalism about the topics that matter most has suffered a quiet and brutal slaughter.
You can measure it in the 24,000 reporter jobs that have been eviscerated since 1990, a near halving of the U.S. journalist workforce in just 25 years that shows no sign of slowing down. Or pick up any local paper outside of New York City to witness the even more aggressive ransacking of local journalism. “Spotlight” was a great movie about the kind of reporting that is now sadly rare.
There are a million reasons for this, but the main one is that we delegated the work of informing voters about democracy’s most important choices to the marketplace, and the marketplace returned us up-to-the-minute updates on the Mannequin Challenge.
But here’s the good news: In the last several years a small group of leaders has stepped up to fill gaps that we have all realized we can’t ignore in the last few weeks.
Paul Steiger formed ProPublica, an outlet dedicated to in-depth investigative reporting — the kind that unearths truths people in power work hard to keep secret. Lara Setrakian founded Syria Deeply, now News Deeply, to provide context and focus on a crisis that was massively underreported; she has now expanded to other global topics, including the Arctic and the refugee crisis. A host of local journalists formed outlets dedicated to covering public-interest topics in San Diego, Minneapolis, Texas, and more than 100 other places. My colleagues and I launched our organization, Chalkbeat, to cover public education in the local communities where education takes shape.
Many of these organizations are nonprofit, by design (News Deeply is a bold exception). Because as much as we are all rooting for the New York Times, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Vox — old and new media companies that are fighting an uphill battle to keep the truth alive — we cannot rely on their work alone. Even in the best case scenario, these big national outlets will not be able to devote half the boots on the ground needed to cover issues like the environment, education, and criminal justice in the way they demand. They certainly can’t sustain the local bureaus that used to provide regular coverage of state and municipal governments and communities, but have since closed, even in the largest cities.
The market is not enough, at least not in its current form. To bend our society into the reality-respecting shape we’d like it to take, we will have to subsidize the truth, at least for now.
That’s where you come in. The movement with the best chance of battling fake with facts is extremely young, covers only a small slice of the issues, and needs a lot of help. Here are just five of the long list of resources that real news, delivered about topics that matter, in regular intervals, and for the long term, will require:
- Legal protections: As Gawker learned this year, a single pissed-off wealthy person can bring a newsroom’s legal fees so high it can no longer operate. At Chalkbeat, we rely on the generosity of a constellation of pro bono legal services. Our needs, and those of our colleagues, are only going to grow as we do — especially if the president-elect’s leadership on libel and press freedom takes root.
- Servers: Some of the infrastructure that makes real news possible is invisible to the non-nerd eye. Our team at Chalkbeat learned this the hard way last month when our coverage of Trump’s education secretary pick, Betsy DeVos, brought our servers to a total and utter collapse minutes before our Thanksgiving break. Sustaining growing readership is not going to cost a million dollars, but it does cost money and brain space. We haven’t even started worrying yet about the risk of malicious hacking. Public-interest news organizations need tech leadership, now more than ever.
- Boots on the ground: Hey, college students and career changers who want to give back. We need you to arm yourselves with the research findings, school/zoning/community board meeting takeaways, and the on-the-ground insights that no voter can think all the way through before casting a critical decision. And we need somebody to pay you a living wage. Today, journalist salaries in this country have not kept pace even with social workers and school teachers, and we do get what we pay for. I haven’t even mentioned yet what we increasingly don’t pay for at all.
- Art and visual leadership: Storytelling is visual, and if we are going to compete with propaganda and for-profit fakery, we need to bring out the attention guns. Photojournalists have become another casualty of the news business model crisis, and that will have to change. For real news to win, it needs to pop (and also sing and maybe even dance, but I promised to keep this list to five). Finally, last but really first…
- New business models: If the most interesting problems are the ones that are the thorniest, then the time of a biz-dev specialist’s life can be found inside a newsroom, trying to figure out a sustainable way to pay the bills. Compared to other worthy causes, news is relatively cheap, but it does cost something. We have to pay for the reporters and the artists and the coders, as well as for things you might not think of but that the powerful people and special interests we need to hold accountable certainly have — like access to academic libraries and people-finding tools and curated databases. The emerging public-interest news sector needs brilliant business minds to help us chart a course that will catalyze all available dollars toward the cause of an informed public, not to mention all available publics to the information they need.
If all this seems daunting, here’s one last piece of good news: solving this problem may be hard, but it’s also fun, and if we succeed, the reward will be even sweeter. So donate, volunteer, join us. Send us your down time, your library logins, and your ideas. Propaganda doesn’t have to win. The rest of us just need to work a little harder.