The Democratic Urgency of Designing a New Public Square

Josh Stearns, Paul Waters, and Tom Glaisyer; Democracy Fund

Credit: the roaming platypus

The United States needs a robust and aggressive fourth estate that is trusted by the American public, regardless of a person’s political viewpoint. We need a media that can stand up to attacks and provide a check on power for government and platforms. But we also need newsrooms that can help bring Americans together, inform our debates, and encourage respectful vibrant engagement in our communities.

The institutions, networks, and spaces where Americans engage critical issues facing our democracy are weathering a perfect storm of economic, technological, and social change. This shift is fundamentally reshaping how people access information — and the quality and quantity of the information they use to engage in civic life. To respond, we need to simultaneously reconfigure existing institutions and build new infrastructure to reimagine and rebuild the public square.

The Hollowing Out of Our Increasingly Digital Public Square

Today, social media platforms are ingrained in our daily lives and have enormous command over our attention and personal data. Fundamental principles underlying democracy — trust, informed dialogue, shared sense of reality, mutual consent, and participation — are being undermined by social media platforms. In the wake of the 2016 election, after a flood of revelations and reports about social media’s disruption of the public square, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the power these platforms have amassed requires a level of responsibility and accountability they have yet to embrace.

Social media platform design and algorithms shape search results and news feeds in ways that accelerate the spread of misinformation, convert popularity into legitimacy, and ascribe value to frequency rather than accuracy. This dynamic opens the platforms up to gaming by “populist” leaders and bad actors who shut down dissent, marginalize minority voices, normalize hateful views, and showcase false momentum for their appeals to extremism. Indeed, racial and sexual harassment run rampant on social media, which also collects troves of personal data, enabling profiling and micro-targeting political messages and so-called “dark ads.”

Credit: City Bureau

Through a number of new collaborations, funders across the journalism and civic engagement landscapes have been responding to these and other concerns. Democracy Fund and the Rita Allen Foundation joined the Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund to support new ideas around trust and misinformation. The Hewlett Foundation mobilized seven other foundations (including Democracy Fund and Omidyar Network) to support the first ever independent research on Facebook’s influence on democracy using Facebook’s data via a novel data sharing agreement. In parallel, projects like the Trust Project, Project DATA, and First Draft News have combined support from philanthropy and platforms themselves to tackle aspects of this work.

Creating Journalism With Public Participation at its Core

The rise of social platforms came amid a dramatic economic downturn for America’s fourth estate, but the challenges it faces reach deeper, encompassing a breakdown of the social contract between the press and the people. Prior to the economic crisis, news outlets too often failed to understand and respond to the needs of whole communities, or reflect their full diversity in their sources, stories, and staff. However, the disruption is also creating the opportunities to change that.

Engaged journalism is an effort to support practices, structures, and culture that build feedback loops between community and content creators. A corrective to both echo chambers and news silos, engaged journalism wades into the fray with the public to see what they’re thinking, noticing, and wondering — creating a richer account of civic challenges and solutions.

New tools and processes are being created to put public participation at the heart of reporting, bolstered by support from a group of foundations as part of the Community Listening and Engagement Fund. Anchor organizations like the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Online News Association are helping embed public participation in newsrooms and classrooms. Meanwhile, the Center for Media Engagement and the American Press Institute are providing critical research to guide this emerging field, and organizations like City Bureau are re-thinking the role of newsrooms as civic laboratories in communities.

And yet, none of this work will matter if America’s newsrooms do not reflect the diversity of the American public. Even in 2018 too many newsrooms remain disproportionately white in their staff and male in their leadership. Fostering real progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion has to be at the core of how we think about the democratic renewal of America’s fourth estate. The Ida B. Wells Society is expanding the ranks of investigative reporters and editors of color, the Maynard Institute is training newsroom leaders, the Emma Bowen Foundation provides internships for diverse journalism students, and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media are supporting grassroots news entrepreneurs.

Credit: Institute for Nonprofit News

Local News Ecosystems as Laboratories for a New Public Square

In the face of these national issues, our local communities have become the laboratories where the future of journalism is tested daily. Take New Jersey for example: New Jersey is uniquely positioned in the shadow of two of America’s largest media markets — New York and Philadelphia. Local TV coverage of New Jersey is limited, the newspapers have shrunk, and the state’s public media stations were handed over to out-of-state broadcasters. However, across New Jersey, more than 100 new hyperlocal news sites have emerged and cities are hosting forums to rebuild trust between communities and newsrooms.

New Brunswick Today is a watchdog reporting outlet publishing in Spanish and English. Jersey Shore Hurricane News is a citizen-driven newsroom which uses Facebook to deliver daily coverage to 220,000 people. Brick City Live was started by a fourth generation Newark resident to tell a new story about her hometown. NJ Spotlight is an investigative nonprofit covering public interest policy across the state. Connecting these new efforts, Montclair State’s Center for Cooperative Media has become an anchor for collaborative journalism projects, training networks, and revenue experiments. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has been a catalytic force supporting much of this work and investing in bold bets to build a more connected and collaborative news ecosystem.

Democracy Fund has launched Local News Labs in New Jersey and North Carolina and, in partnership with local funders, is planting seeds elsewhere. Supporting and strengthening this kind of news ecosystem requires tools, practices, and structures that encourage new kinds of relationships across diverse news providers and civic organizations who all have a role in informing communities. NewsMatch, an eight-foundation collaboration, created a capacity building and shared grassroots fundraising campaign for 109 newsrooms that helped raise nearly $5 million dollars in three months. The News Revenue Hub has created a shared set of technology and services to expand reader revenue and help nearly 20 nonprofit newsrooms build robust membership programs.

These new collaborations and networks are scaffolding on which a new public square will be built. Even as we grapple with the civic impact of social media in our democracy, and create new avenues of accountability, we must foster journalism that is more open, diverse, sustainable and authentically local. We have to work on these challenges in tandem if we are to create a healthier landscape for information, participation and democracy.


Josh Stearns is a journalist, community builder and civic strategist. He is the Director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund which invests in people and organizations that make democracy work better. Previously Josh directed the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, focused on developing new revenue models for local news rooted in community engagement and creative collaboration. This work built on his seven years running national advocacy campaigns in support of freedom of expression and media diversity as Press Freedom Director at Free Press. Prior to that, he directed policy and communications for Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the civic purposes of higher education. He is a co-founder of First Draft News and the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

Paul Waters is a Senior Associate at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Focusing on a vibrant media and the public square, Paul works with grantees and newsrooms to create meaningful content about the communities they cover, in a way that reflects the diversity of those communities through the outlet’s stories, sources, and staff. Current grantees of the Public Square Program include the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the Center for Media Engagement, the Trust Project, and the Emma Bowen Foundation.

Tom Glaisyer is the Managing Director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Focusing on a vibrant media and the public square, Tom leads the Democracy Fund’s mission to invest in innovations and institutions that help people understand and participate in the democratic process. Current grantees of the Public Square Program include the Institute for Nonprofit News, the American Press Institute, and the Engaging News Project.


This piece is a commentary on the PACE paper: “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” Please see the publication for more commentaries and the original paper — and follow #Infogagement to continue the conversation.