Let’s end the news as we know it (and all feel fine)
Imagine local journalism intended to improve civic health
I regularly forget I’m supposed to be a journalist. Even in a room full of journalists, all of us JSK Journalism Fellows, talking to someone like the chairman of The New York Times, I feel more like a representative of where I’m from than a representative of my field.
Back in Akron, Ohio, I’m just a guy, standing in front of a city, asking it to love him. That’s also how I saw myself in Macon, Georgia, where I was born and raised then escaped and returned. Macon taught me how to be a citizen so Maconite could mean more than my address. But our first year in Akron was miserable. I wasn’t connected to the city, didn’t have close friends and lacked purpose, all of which I needed if we were staying.
So, I did what any totally rational person would: I started a print magazine. The Devil Strip, which turns four in March, looks like most any alt-weekly — heavy on the arts, culture and music, biased towards small businesses, plus a dash of investigative and explanatory reporting. It’s our purpose and ambition that make us different.
In every story and every issue, we’re trying to connect Akronites to their neighbors, to our city and to a greater sense of purpose because we want more people to care about where they live so they become more involved in making their cities better. Shared burdens are easier to tackle and shared joys are more fun to celebrate.
That’s why I’m at Stanford. When I applied, I said I wanted to eradicate news deserts and strengthen local news, which is still true. But it’s more true to say I don’t want to save journalism; I want to use journalism to save the civic life.
NEWS & THE SINGLE STORY
My first writing gig was at The 11th Hour, an alt-weekly in my hometown that showed me how local media can be special. When you have a platform, even a small one, you can create a commons where people meet, establish a shared understanding, form shared values, discover shared purpose and adopt a shared identity. For local media, these are your neighbors and your town, which creates a real kind of magic, an alchemy that starts with story.
The story that matters most is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves, which is as true for cities as it is the humans who inhabit them. That story guides our behavior. Though journalists think of individual reports as our product, it’s really the corpus that shapes our civic narrative, which influences whether we put down roots and invest ourselves in our cities.
While we talk a lot about balance, we often report as though communities are 95 percent crime, controversy, tragedy and bad weather. That’s how we pay the bills. As a result, local news is full of factual reports that seldom tell the truth of a place and its people.
That’s what we do with The Devil Strip — tell the truth about our city, complicate the narrative about its people and create a commons that connects the disparate parts of town, whether neighborhood, sector, status, industry or interest. In doing so, we have helped ease more Akronites into civic engagement by making it as simple as choosing local sources for food, art, retail, music and entertainment over national, mass consumer options. Not all the time, but more. And then more. Until they’re so local they run for mayor.
The Devil Strip became a convener, curator and vehicle for Akronites to do their thing, to find validation and their people. By my estimate, we’ve published a quarter-bajillion stories about folks who make Akron unique, and roughly 97.4 percent were produced by non-journalists — more than 125 writers, photogs and illustrators who were otherwise as unlikely to appear in legacy local media as the Akronites we feature.
Collectively, they’ve shifted our civic narrative by showing, not telling, their neighbors Akron has a lot to offer. That makes the city more appealing for those who want to do their part, which helps others see you don’t have to leave Akron to make lifelong friends or find meaning and fulfillment.
FLIP YOU. FLIP YOU FOR REAL.
Every town has its usual suspects, the folks who weave our social fabric and make our places more resilient. Peter Kageyama, an Akron-raised development consultant, calls them “co-creators” because they, “unofficially, are making their communities better, more interesting, more lovable places.” Most just emerge or luck into it. But what if we could cultivate more co-creators?
Nothing is better suited to do so, I think, than local journalism. However, for this or any of our best ideas to stick, we must grapple with the old business model because rumors of its disruption are greatly exaggerated.
After The 11th Hour, I went to a corporate daily and later two corporate TV stations, where I became unhappy with local news. Lots of smart, creative, passionate professionals forced to poke the public in the lizard brain. Because eyeballs. That’s the old business model, which beached itself on the Internet and wants us to roll it back into the ocean.
I call it the old business model because it’s an artifact of the Industrial Age, but it’s still our modus operandi. It’s merely dressed up in digital to disguise the fact it functions like the penny press did 185 years ago: attract a mass audience whose attention we can sell. This will eventually smother what we love most about journalism when either the old business model ditches us for something cheaper or it, like the Borg, assimilates us.
Though I knew The Devil Strip had to be different, I didn’t plan to make money differently, which is necessary to both keep the lights on and protect our pro-local, human-centered values. With ad sales, we’ve survived on the kindness of small businesses and nonprofits who support our mission. But it’s not a model for sustainability, let alone growth. I want a newsroom with dozens of journalists in it. I know it’s possible.
For the last couple years, I’ve wanted to remake The Devil Strip as a community-owned local news cooperative. In 2019, we will design it with the people of Akron. Like nonprofit news, the co-op model replaces the profit motive with community well-being as the driving factor. Like memberships, not subscriptions repackaged as memberships, the co-op provides a structure for participation and engagement. With our community as our publisher, The Devil Strip can guarantee the decisions, control and money stay local.
This is, for us, about more than building a better mousetrap. We want to create virtuous cycles that replace the vicious cycles that have damaged the institution of journalism and in the process, hurt our communities. For local journalism to continue evolving, we’ll need a business model that reinforces our values instead of fighting and eroding them.
Chris Horne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, followed on Twitter @thischrishorne or summoned with the right amount of bacon and bourbon.