Maybe we have been trying to solve the problems of journalism the wrong way

It was some of journalism’s greatest challenges that had brought 18 journalists, including me, from around the world to Stanford University as the 2018 John S. Knight Journalism Fellows. Photo: Lester Xu.

It strikes me that whenever I talk to some friends outside of the journalism community, both in China and the United States, about the many threats journalism is facing nowadays, their first reaction is often: “Oh wow, really? I didn’t know that!”

But to many journalists like me, the situation has become dire: People read what they believe is true instead of what is true. Technology companies have utterly disrupted the news media’s ecosystem and yet claim no responsibility to inform their users. News organizations are finding themselves less and less incentivized to fund costly investigative reporting.

Not that I’m accusing these friends, many of whom follow the news, for being ignorant, but I couldn’t fathom how come the rest of the world isn’t even aware of what journalists are fighting for and with, when we think of our profession as so special that we transcend the boundaries of all walks of life to serve as their watchdog. I couldn’t fathom why we seem to be the only ones worrying about journalism.

I didn’t have a clue until I started scrutinizing some of our approaches to solving problems from a non-journalism perspective, thanks to the great class “Starting and Growing a Social Venture” offered by veteran impact investors, Russell Siegelman and Laura Hattendorf, at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business this winter quarter. I started to think: Maybe we as journalists have been trying to solve journalism problems the wrong way.

What is the mission?

Too often, I engaged in conversations with journalists who jumped too quickly to business models or operational strategies without first making it clear what problem he or she is really trying to solve. Such conversations frequently start like: “My project aims to provide investigative stories to underserved audiences,” or “I will engage a young audience through innovative ways,” or “I will design a subscription model,” or even “I will register it as a nonprofit news organization.”

But wait a minute, what is the goal of “providing investigative stories to underserved audiences?” Is it aiming to help people make informed voting decisions or effect policy changes in certain social areas? Moreover, “engaging young audience through innovative ways” is an operational strategy, and “subscription” is a revenue model. Not to mention, “nonprofit” is a governing structure. None of them is a mission. They are tools to accomplish a mission.

A mission, according to an online course offered by the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and taught by media entrepreneur Janine Warner, is a clearly written statement that describes what an organization aspires to be, that is “specific enough to exclude extraneous activities but broad enough to permit creative growth” and can “serve as a reference point to evaluate present and future activities.”

One good example is ProPublica’s mission statement: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” There is a logical flow to the statement that can be expressed in a simple graphic:

A clear mission informs what should be accomplished and how, not the other way around. It is as important as installing a navigation system on a big ship that guides the captain where to go next.

How to measure the impact of our journalism?

The journalism community has widely recognized and documented the many flaws in the conventional metrics measuring the news media’s performance, such as TV ratings, circulation, advertising revenue and even the more recent “unique views” and “conversion rate.” But when journalists try to address the problems of these metrics by starting new ventures, some of us are trapped by the old ways again, emphasizing audience numbers or financial success over their original objectives.

That is not to say we should ignore financial sustainability and only focus on the social good. To the contrary, demonstrating the impact of journalism in measurable terms is extremely important, because it establishes evidence for raising funds from investors or donors as well as supports that the journalism entrepreneur’s logic model is working.

Stanford Professor James Hamilton in his 2016 book “Democracy’s Detectives” suggests that the market has failed to convert the value of lives saved by investigative journalism into equivalent subscription or advertisement revenue. As a result, news outlets that focus on financial returns would find themselves lacking incentives to generously fund investigative journalism. In his book, Hamilton uses a unique approach to calculate the costs to a news organization of producing a piece of investigative reporting and place a dollar value on the real-world outcomes due to this journalism. He gives an example of a 1998 Washington Post series, “Deadly Force,” that investigated Washington, D.C., police shootings. After the story was published, police conducted 100,000 hours of training using additional force, spurring a decrease in the number of fatal shootings. Hamilton used a formula to calculate that for every dollar the newsroom spent on the story, the community received $143 in social benefits.

Hamilton’s research and calculation show that documenting the impact of journalism sometimes requires using different metrics. It also reminds journalists and journalism entrepreneurs that finding appropriate metrics that reflect their mission helps test their logic model and justifies spending and fundraising.

Need does not equal to demand

Social entrepreneurs Taz Hussein and Matt Plummer write in an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review “Selling for Social Change” that: “Just because there’s a clear need doesn’t mean there’s demand.” The authors argue that nonprofits have to learn some of the same sales techniques to generate demand that for-profits have been using for generations.

A lot of marketing literature suggests that the first thing in “selling” a solution is to make the customer really understand the cost of his or her problem. We journalists need to help our audiences and donors understand the cost of not having good journalism.

My JSK colleague Lisa Rossi, storytelling coach from the Des Moines Register, traveled back to her hometown in rural Iowa last November to have conversations with people she hasn’t talked to for nearly 20 years. She found that people deeply care about “small stories,” such as a car accident involving no injuries in their neighborhood, that local editors would consider no news values. People wanted to know if their neighbor was involved and how they could help. Rossi did a great job listening to and unpacking her former neighbors’ needs as well as reflecting on what journalists could do.

But hypothetically, if there was a hyper-local news service catering to these people’s needs, would they be willing to pay for it? And would they pay for it now? How can we as journalists help these potential readers realize that they are in fact living in a news desert and the absence of hyper-local journalism is costing them an opportunity to be meaningfully engaged with their community, help others and be helped when in need?

Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, told JSK Fellows during a talk in October 2017 that INN had been seeing a surge in the number of nonprofit news organizations since 2017, but many people are still not used to the idea of “supporting journalism.” Perhaps we as journalists need to be better communicators of how exactly our work is generating effects.

There is more than one way of doing good journalism. Journalism needs people to explore many business models and governing structures through new ventures. Journalists need to involve everyone else to solve the industry’s problems. However, we all need to think harder about our missions, how we can achieve them and how we measure journalism’s impact before diving too far into the work.