The Devil’s in the Details
How we’re radically rethinking not just what we do but local news itself (and why that matters)
Heads up: For context, the “I” in the following refers to me, the publisher of The Devil Strip, a monthly arts and culture indie alt mag serving Akron, Ohio in both glorious print and digital formats. This local news manifesto originally appeared in our Jan. 2018 issue.
Maybe you already assumed that was true, and I understand why, but I count myself among those stubborn folks trying to nurse it back to health. Thing is, most of us have overlooked the biggest problem. It isn’t “fake news”, bias, the Internet or bad journalists. Frankly, the vast majority of reporters, anchors, editors, photogs and producers I’ve known care deeply about their community and their craft. Even (and especially) my friend Chace, who drives a replica of Ecto-1 and dresses up like a Ghostbuster for fun.
No, local media is dying in some places and dead in others because you don’t own it. (I mean, the royal you. Like, all y’all. Us. We. Not just the individual reading this, but hey, you too!)
Here’s what has to change if local news is going to survive — and why it matters.
#1) LOCAL NEWS SHOULD BE OWNED BY THE COMMUNITY IT COVERS. (ex. — The Bristol Cable [UK])
How do you hold the news accountable?
Write a letter to the editor! Complain on Facebook or Twitter! Call the newsroom!
Meanwhile, the executives you want to reach are headquartered far away and answer to shareholders whose chief interest in your city is finding out how much profit they can extract from it.*
Yeah, it’s fun to imagine sticking it to the man by cancelling your subscription or getting that sweet trickledown vengeance when you quietly boycott their advertisers, but that only compounds the problem. When the bottom line hurts, they cut overhead (aka — fire people) and the product just gets worse.
That’s not knocking business — just pointing out what should be obvious. Companies exist to make a profit so community impact comes in second, at best, every time.
*see “Learning to Love Lower Profits” by Philip Meyer (1995)
#2) LOCAL NEWS SHOULD PRIORITIZE ENGAGING THE COMMUNITY OVER INFORMING IT (BUT NOT IN LIEU OF INFORMING IT)
As media scholar James Carey writes, “The press, by seeing its role as that of informing the public, abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of our culture.”
We gatekeepers assume we know more than our audiences. Topic-by-topic, that should be true if journalists are doing their job, but when it comes to what we choose to cover, reporters, editors and producers need the community to know what the community needs. Merely combing social media for ideas is just eavesdropping, not dialogue.
Though imperfect and understaffed, The Devil Strip gets the most of our wee resources by orienting around our community, using events — Live at Lock 4, Signal Tree, Drink Tank and 2018’s secret projects — to bring people together so we can learn and collaborate. Our mission is to connect people to their neighbors, our city and a greater sense of purpose by sharing stories about what makes Akron unique. Which brings us to…
#3) LOCAL MEDIA SHOULD FOCUS ON REPRESENTATION AND INCLUSION IN THE NEWSROOM AND IN THE NEWS ITSELF.
There are few places you’d want to live if you judged them by even a week of news reports. But a community is so much more than its political conflict, crime, tragedy and bad weather. To genuinely reflect that, you have to value art and culture as much as you value hard news. Otherwise, we’re inflicting damage with a double-edged sword wherever we swing it.
For instance, if most of your experience with people of color comes through the news, you probably don’t think highly of them. Likewise, when the default definition of leadership results in mostly seeing straight, white, Christian men, you may develop the false belief that they make the best leaders.
Meanwhile, we don’t see many of the women, Muslims, LGBTQIA folks, immigrants and people of color who didn’t wait for permission to affect change in our city. (SEE: #TheAkronWeKnow series)
The best first step is having inclusive newsrooms that reflect the diversity of our community in meaningful ways so those voices aren’t just in the room but also have the authority to be heard when stories are selected.
#4) LOCAL NEWS SHOULD WORK FROM OUR NEIGHBORHOODS UP
Our eyeballs-based economy makes advertisers the center of attention so news outlets cater to clicks, likes, shares and comments. Simultaneously, we give up depth and breadth for ease and efficiency because we have fewer reporters to satisfy daily demands for stories. That and our reliance on the actions of officials are why so much news comes from press conferences and press releases. Local news would have you believe most cities are populated almost entirely by elected officials and people accused of crimes.
We need watchdog reporting, no doubt, but I believe the most exciting stuff with the greatest long-term impact begins in the cracks and crevices. So that’s where we should start too.
#5) LOCAL NEWS SHOULD IMPROVE THE COMMUNITY AND HELP MAKE YOU HAPPIER
Maybe in Akron, where the weak are killed and eaten, this sounds silly and goofy. But really, if news orgs do the other four things, the community will improve because the community will be involved in crafting the story it tells about itself. Besides, I want to live in an Akron that’s improving and I want to be happier — don’t you? If so, that should shape our news coverage.
At a minimum, we should be producing news alongside our communities instead of at them. Thus the silly, goofy part of The Devil Strip’s mission: connecting people to a greater sense of purpose. Think of it like a big umbrella — up top, the big goal is making Akron a little better than before and underneath, we’re bringing together people who do things that excite and fulfill them. Then we share their compelling stories so folks know where to go when they want to find us freaks and weirdos.
And a virtuous cycle is born.
SO… HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?
We’ve been researching, discussing and playing with this for over a year, finding examples and ideas in other industries. Here’s what we’re borrowing to make our own stone soup.
- Human-centered design — Instead of online polling to gauge interest in topics (or to give morning anchors something to discuss), we’ll host editorial town hall meetings, producing story ideas alongside our community. We’ll structure the org this way too, hosting public conversations that bring the ideas into focus through conversation with the people we want to serve.
- Asset-based community development — We’ve adapted this mindset to develop news coverage that’s based on our city’s strengths as well our potential.
- Creative placemaking — This uses art and culture to make relatively low-cost, low-risk investments that transform physical spaces into places that help communities grow. Our take is narrative placemaking, which uses the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to create change.
- America’s co-op craft breweries — One share, one vote. These breweries are owned by their communities and are run democratically. Plus, they get access to member events and can help the master brewers develop recipes. This spring, we’re becoming a local news co-op, which will be the first in the US, as far as I can tell. That means the people of Akron will own The Devil Strip and determine its future as I become the Editor-in-Chief (so you can’t get rid of me yet).
- The UK’s co-op pub movement — British pubs are dying faster than American newspapers (for real though), but a movement there has used the co-op model to save at least 52 pubs that otherwise would have closed. Once we make our local news co-op work in Akron, we’ll help other communities do the same.
If it sounds like a lot has been decided, it has and it hasn’t. I know we’re going to do this, but we need your help. If it’s just what Chris Horne thinks is awesome, at best I’ll get some things right and a lot wrong. That’s why I’m sharing this now. I’d rather be wrong when everything is still on paper than after we’ve brought it into existence. Like Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
So Akron, punch me in the face! …metaphorically speaking. Let’s talk instead of punch. My email is email@example.com if you have thoughts right now. If you want updates, details and a heads up when we have a public meeting, go to thedevilstrip.com/co-op to sign up for a special newsletter.