Journalism Up From the Ashes
A week ago, I started my first Zoom class with our News Innovation and Leadership students — managing editors, vice-presidents, directors, and CEOs among them — with characteristic élan, asking: “How fucked are we?”
The next week, we worked together to imagine how to build local journalism anew, from the ashes. One of the students, Kim Bui, who is now on a week’s imposed furlough at Gannett’s Arizona Republic, proposed a framework for choosing how to use scarce resources: utility v. transparency. We want to do both — service and investigation — but can afford only one, a tough choice.
A fellow student, Thierry Backes, brought an example of utility journalism from his paper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, where is is managing editor. He had to miss the prior week’s class so he could launch it. München bringt’s — “Munich brings it” — maps Munich businesses that can deliver their goods and services to readers while they are forced to stay home.
The next day, I heard from one of our Social Journalism graduates, Sebastián Auyanet, who similarly responded to immediate need in his hometown, Montevideo, Uruguay, to collaborate with developers and create the means for local food merchants to use WhatsApp to offer, sell, and deliver fruits, vegetables, and other necessities to homes in their community. Now he’s helping groups in other cities bring the same to their communities.
Yesterday, I spoke with one of our current Social Journalism students, Allison Dikanovic, about her choice in internships. What she wants to do is bring to other cities the kind of service Outlier Media provides to Detroit: enabling members of underserved communities to text their questions directly to journalists to get help solving problems through answers and advocacy. This is the mission of Social Journalism: journalism as service, helping citizens and communities improve their lives, especially in crisis.
The best thing about teaching is learning from students.
My students are teaching me how to build journalism anew because that is the assignment I — well, actually fate — gave them. It’s up to you: That’s what I tell the incoming class at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School every fall. They are the ones who must rethink, reinvent, and rebuild journalism because we — the past — are leaving them burning embers. My brilliant colleagues who head the programs I’ve just mentioned — Anita Zielina in the Innovation and Leadership program and Carrie Brown in Social Journalism — give them tools to work with. It’s the students who will build a new future as the news industry we have known gasps in neverending crisis. And I just spoke with another brilliant colleague, Graciela Mochkofsky, who heads our Center for Community Media, about great things happening in unexpected places across the country.
At the same time that I have the privilege to work with students on these hard questions without apparent answers, I have been researching the roots of news, from the advent of movable type to the birth of the newspaper, for a book I’m working on (or trying to work on, given constant COVID distraction) about the end of Gutenberg’s age, the closing of the circle.
The newspaper was by no means a self-evident invention. The first regularly published newspaper did not come until 150 years after the Gutenberg Bible. Much had to precede its creation: movable type, of course; the establishment of broad networks of communication with postal systems across Europe; and news in many forms.
News came as poems. About 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible, one of the first printed pieces in Milan, Lamento di Negroponte, told the story of the fall of Venetian possessions in Greece in 1470. “[I]t merged entertainment and information. As for the narrative, this pamphlet did not launch a brand new textual typology, but rather followed an established genre, the chivalric poem,” writes Massimo Petta. An old form and a new technology were adapted for a current need.
News came as songs, in rhythm with rhyme, sung to popular tunes, easy to memorize and pass along — also for the illiterate — and often sung together from broadsides pasted onto walls of taverns and homes. Songs in memory were harder for authorities to censor than songs found only in print. These news songs “often reported on the more sensational stories that would today be considered as ‘tabloid fodder,’” writes Una McIlvenna.
News — indeed, fake news — came as broadsheets spreading moral panic about witchcraft. As Elizabeth Eisenstein writes, “Mystification as well as enlightenment resulted from the output of early printers.” Sound familiar? Print brought wisdom and witchcraft. The internet brings The Times and the trolls.
News came as pamphlets, also known as news books, which usually covered one event, often battles in the war against the Turks in Europe, from writers Carmen Espejo calls the precursors to journalists.
News came as official pronouncements in print: decrees from princes, bulls from popes, statutes from city councils, treaties from kings. Note that then, as now, officialdom could speak directly with the public.
News came as avvisi, handwritten newsletters for the powerful and rich, princes and merchants: terse, cold summaries of dispatches from diplomatic and commercial networks compiled at a cost. The Medicis employed correspondents and couriers and subscribed to multiple newsletters to verify accuracy. The news of the avvisi was a private good for the privileged, behind a paywall. Is that where we are headed again?
And, finally, news came as a newspaper. The first regularly published newspaper was created by Johann Carolus in 1605 in Strasbourg. He had been selling subscribers a handwritten newsletter — an avviso — but decided it would be less expensive and time-consuming to print it, reaching a larger audience. He made a fundamental business mistake, undercutting his own price, so that he — like countless early newspaper publishers — went out of business. One could argue his was the original sin of the news business.
So what should news be today with new means of communication; new ways for communities to connect; new mechanisms to hear directly from authorities; with the speed of delivery cut from six days, Innsbruck to Brussels, to the speed of light; with distance erased; with boundless data to feed our knowledge? What is journalism then? What can it be?
With our News Innovation and Leadership students, we spent a class on audacious innovation making lists of (1) new communities and markets to serve, (2) new forms and technologies to use, (3) new revenue and business models to explore, and (4) existing goals for communities and journalism. Many ideas, of course, sprung from this crisis as we all as COVID on the mind, but the ideas are meant to span a generation.
Among the communities: the unemployed (why has someone not started a service already just for those millions?) … PTSD sufferers … people who meditate … special-needs children/parents/adults … the recovered from the virus … people in retirement homes … remote workers … city people moving to the countryside … home schoolers … diabetics locally … people in recovery from addiction … clergy … gig workers.
Among the new forms: education … SMS … WhatsApp newsletters … local Amazon (see the ideas already implemented, above) … collections of health data … open-source school lessons … walking tours using shared audio to maintain social distancing … theater as journalism … collaborative public art … TikTok fact-checking … curated social media.
Among the revenue models we’ve discussed in class: commerce … virtual events … membership … coaching … consulting … contributions … masterclasses … teaching kits … book/movie clubs … private chef lessons … grants … Patreon crowdfunding for specific work … GoFundMe crowdfunding as charity … virtual real-estate sales.
This was just an exercise to expand the realm of the possible. Obviously, journalism will not be reinvented in an hour with — Silicon Valley be damned — Post It notes or whiteboards. The newspaper wasn’t invented in a day. It took a century and a half.
My friend and teaching mentor, Jay Rosen, keeps a list of the things he is constantly told on Twitter:
I will add a seventh: “New media don’t replace old media, y’know. TV didn’t kill radio.” The implication: The internet won’t, or shouldn’t, kill newspapers. Except the internet is not just another medium (that — cough, cough — is the subject of a book). It is the new reality of a connected world that changes what news can and should be. Am I giving up on old media? Not quite yet. Will they survive what could be their last existential crisis in this pandemic? We shall see.
In an essay about avvisi and the long life of handwritten newsletters — which remained successful more than a century after the invention of the printed newspaper — Renate Pieper calls upon the theoretical model of change called the “sailing ship effect,” which “describes the persistence of old technologies and their improvements even as new technologies become available.” So is there yet hope that even as internet-powered news eclipses steam-powered mass media, there will be a last, great spurt of fresh innovation among the incumbents?
Well, Pieper then points to a paper by Sandro Mendonça, which studied maritime history and found “the effect is nowhere to be found in the very case it derives its name from.” That is, modernization of the sailing trade occurred before steamships were a threat. So is that to say we’ve seen the last modernization of traditional news we are to see?
I have banged my head against the wall — and a few heads — trying to get newspaper industry to consider a strategy based on serving communities. At our Tow-Knight Center, we’ve succeeded in getting some of them to explore new consumer revenue from commerce. In the current crisis, I’ve failed recently getting them to consider augmenting their beloved paywall strategies with giving the public opportunities to contribute to the cause of their journalism, as The Guardian and the invaluable Stat News have done. With due sympathy, I don’t know whether, in face of bankruptcy and mortality, they can find the strength, time, courage, resources, and energy to try new ways.
In our discussion in our last class, after talking about the choice between utility and transparency journalism, the students endorsed the need to start the process of rebuilding with communities and their needs and knowledge. They said the only way to succeed would be by collaborating with communities and with each other. I am confident our students will build journalism anew. They already are; see the evidence above. It is from the small sprouts that new roots will grow, building journalism from the ashes.