Some of our amazing, innovative Social Journalism alumni from the Newmark J-School at CUNY are holding a Zoom call tonight to talk about the program and the work they’ve done because of it.
Given the state of the nation — and world — we have seen an upsurge in interest in #SocialJ and so we’ve just reopened admissions for the fall. Social Journalism could not be more relevant to the times.
I’ve spoken with some prospective journalism students lately who ask me whether this is the time they should come to school, or whether they should defer. My answer: If you wait a year, I think you’ll kick yourself.
In my life — and that’s a long time — I have never seen such a coming together of profound forces for change in society as we witness today. Systematic racism is exposed in glaring light no one can ignore any longer. That is for one thing because of the disproportionate and deadly burden on communities of color brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. And that is because police abuse is evident for all to see — not so much because of media’s cameras but because of the lens of the public, victims and witnesses, who can now share what they endure. It is thanks to the courage of a 17-year-old young woman who recorded the murder of George Floyd and posted it on Facebook that ignorance of police violence is no longer possible.
At the same time, of course, news media are challenged to their core. That is no reason to move away. That is a reason to move in. For as I tell our students every fall, it is their responsibility to reinvent and rebuild journalism, to take everything we teach and question it: How did we get here? Why do we do things this way (follow the money; follow the power)? What is the goal and reason of journalism? What are the ways we can now do it better?
Good God, if you want to change the world as a witness and participant, now is the time to do it.
Yes, it’s a tough time to go to school, as classes might start online or be interrupted. But when better to learn skills and confidence than in challenging times? Our students now will come out with untold resilience, with a need to be creative, with an ability to find new solutions, with strong motivation for their work. Lord, we need all that in the news business.
In Social Journalism, we — my brillant colleage Carrie Brown and the faculty she gathers in this program she directs — teach that journalism is not an industry with factories manufacturing a product called content to monetize with a commodity called attention. We teach that journalism is a service. I often teach the words of James Carey: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” After a half-millenium of control by the gatekeepers of media, society is finally beginning to relearn how to hold a conversation with itself. So I redefined journalism and its mission: to convene communities to respectful, informed, and productive conversation. That’s what we do.
All our #SocialJ students select a self-defined community (not a mythical demographic like “millennial”) and first observe, listen to, empathize with, respect, and reflect the needs of that community before deciding what journalism can bring given all the new tools we have. See here a glimpse of the phenomenal, innovative work done by last year’s graduates.
We are heretics who are unafraid of examining how journalism can and should be advocacy for communities, for justice, for fairness, for science, for listening. Now is that time for that journalism, social journalism.
So come hear our alums talk about their experience (I’ll put up a link to the video here afterwards). It’s not a sales session. It is an event we long planned to show off their work. But given the intersection of circumstances — the challenges in society, the changes in prospective students’ lives, the reopening of our admissions — it’s a good time to hear what they have to say. (We will also have an information session for the school for veterans coming up on June 25 at 11 a.m. ET — sign up here.) Even if you don’t come to Newmark, if you are thinking of coming to school to come to journalism, my advice is that the time is now.
If you have questions, let me know. DM @jeffjarvis at Twitter.
This piece was solicited by Ireland’s The Journal, asking essentially what the hell is happening in America. They first published the views of people of color, then ran mine yesterday.
What we are witnessing now in America is the last stand of the old, white man.
Four years ago, when speaking to groups outside the United States, I would apologize for Donald Trump. It got a laugh, until it didn’t. As an American, I must still apologize for what Trump has done to my country and what my country has done to the world by electing him. As an old, white man, I must confess it is people like me who got us here.
America’s paradoxes have come home to roost. Ours is a nation of freedoms built on the slavery and undervalued labor and lives of black people. Ours is a nation of equal opportunity that exploits the inequality of people of color and immigrants, of the poor.
The nation’s systemic racism has always been there, of course, but it becomes sorely evident in times of crisis. The COVID pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color — killed them — because as a group they have worse health care. Many of them are the “essential workers” doing thankless jobs, exposed to the virus every day. Many are poor people who cannot afford to lock down at home; they must work to eat. Too many of them lost their jobs. In my city, New York, they disproportionately live in crowded housing and must take long rides on contaminated subways to work and when they get sick the hospitals in their communities are underfunded and overcrowded.
Once it became clear that people of color and old people were COVID’s primary victims, calls came to reopen the economy, as if to say: These people do not matter.
And in the midst of that crisis, once again, a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police for the crime of being black. Any African-American can tell you that they and particularly their young men live in peril every day of a white person calling the police on them for shopping, eating, walking, even bird-watching while black — and that the arrival of police can, as in the case of George Floyd, be a death sentence.
This everyday danger became evident with social media and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack. It was not evident in mass media because those communities and their stories were sinfully underrepresented in newspapers and their newsrooms. And so, as an old, white journalist and editor myself, my confession continues.
I was raised in the sixties and I feel as if I am reliving them — with reruns of political turmoil, racial strife, riots, police abuses, even a rocket launch — and we have learned no lessons in between.
As a child of those sixties, I was raised to believe in a colorblind America, in the great melting pot. I did not learn until much later how wrong and racist that presumption was: that the nation would reach racial harmony once the others acted like us, like the white majority (although we would do everything not to let them).
Soon, by 2050, the white majority in America faces the reality that it will become the white minority and that scares them. The most frightened are the uneducated, old, white men who hold privilege and power and realize how tenuous that hold is because it is based on what they had in the past — who they are — rather than what they contribute to the future — what they can do. These are the people who formed the concrete core of Trump’s so-called base. They exploited an unrepresentative democracy designed to protect slave states — in the institutions of the American Electoral College and Senate — to get Trump elected, to get old and white men to rule the Senate, and to fill our courts for a generation to come with their judges. It will take generations to undo their damage and even if we do, we’re only back at square one: at an America still undergirded by systemic racism.
The author and Professor Ibram X. Kendi argues in his book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” that the opposite of a racist is not someone who claims to be not a racist but instead someone who fights racism, who is anti-racist. We need to become anti-racist in every American institution, starting with the political.
In this election, I first supported Sen. Kamala Harris. I was ashamed to see how political media all but erased her candidacy, for she is African-American and a woman. Then I supported Sen. Cory Booker, who is black. Then I supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is a woman. Now I am supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, who is an old, white man. He’s a good man. I pray for his election.
The only way Biden will win is if African-American women and men, Latinas and Latinos, the disenfranchised and the educated of this country come out to vote and fight for this change. He cannot take these constituents for granted. As Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., just said on TV, the scale of Biden’s response must meet the scale of the problem.
He must promise them a new America — not a return to any old America. He must offer a nation truly, finally built on freedom, opportunity, and equality with institutions — government, education, health care, employment — that right systemic wrongs. As an old, white man, I must learn how to share, to give up my power and privilege to those who have been deprived of them.
I pray for the president who follows Biden to lead this work, to finally end what we have now: the tyranny of the privileged, entitled, scared, angry, racist, fascist, old, white man, Donald Trump and those he represents.
But Donald Trump’s unfettered use of Facebook to sow division and encourage violence is not a matter of freedom of expression. There is no requirement that Facebook be his platform for noxious speech. This is a question of what Facebook stands for and what Mark Zuckerberg stands for. As I have asked before, what is Facebook’s North Star? Why does it exist?
Now is the moment for Facebook to convene its new Oversight Board — or for that board to convene itself to deliberate the issues raised and standards required to address this challenge. I don’t care that the systems and bureaucracy are not in place. This is urgent. Get on Zoom. If this independent Board does not meet on this issue of all issues, then why does it exist?
The Board has 20 smart and experienced members: leaders in freedom of expression and human rights, a former prime minister, a former Guardian editor (my friend, Alan Rusbridger), a Nobel prize winner. I would make a bad member of the Board (I was not asked) for if I were there I would be doing just what I am doing here: arguing in public for a public discussion at this critical time to deliberate Facebook’s public responsibility.
The Board isn’t necessary to do that. Facebook’s employees are starting to rise up to make their dissent heard. Zuckerberg can decide on his own or with the help of his Oversight Board, his employees, his users, and the public. But he can no longernot decide.
What is that decision? Perhaps to illustrate the choice it’s easier to take this out of the high-minded realm of freedom of expression and democracy, for that is where the company trips over itself. If Facebook did not exist tomorrow, we would find other ways to express ourselves.
Instead, try thinking of Facebook as a dinner at Mark Zuckerberg’s house. Let’s say that Donald Trump shows up. Donald starts insulting the other guests, shouting that he will bring violence down upon the heads of people who criticize him; blaming the troubles in this country on the Chinese; insulting African-Americans by insisting racists like them; attacking the journalists in the room, shouting that they’re all fake and enemies of the people. What is the host to do — and Mark Zuckerberg is undoubtedly the host? I would expect a host to ask rude Donald to leave. What are the guests to do? I would leave and never return.
So I repeat: Why does Facebook exist? Does it not have a vision for a better neighborhood, a connected world? How does it ever get there if it does not set an example? Does it have no norms of respectfulness? I don’t mean its statutes, its community standards; I mean an ethic, a moral foundation.
In disclosure, Facebook has contributed to my school to undertake various activities, including supporting others’ work around disinformation (I receive nothing personally from Facebook). I advocate that the news industry should work with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other technology companies because I do not believe we can go our own way anymore; that is the path to obscurity. I defend the platforms against ill-conceived regulation for I worry about its impact on the net and our freedoms there. I think of myself as a defender of speech and thus a friend of the internet. Others call me a friend of the platforms. OK, then, friends tell friends when they’re screwing up. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it now.
Facebook: It is time to listen to friends and foes and reconsider what you are here to do. It is time to stop hiding behind freedom of expression, especially as Donald Trump threatens that very freedom. It is time to have the courage to stand for something. What do you stand for?
I was glad that Medium killed an ill-informed post about COVID by an armchair epidemiologist. I support Twitter’s decisions to begin to add warnings to, not promote, and add fact-checking to Donald Trump’s tweets. Those are just starts, but they are starts. I will not let Google off the hook, for YouTube has much to do as well.
Facebook needs to take a stand against Donald Trump’s racism, incitement, and lies. It cannot stand apart any longer. Our nation is burning. Yes, I am saying this now that it’s my nation on fire. Should I have raised my voice sooner and louder when other nations burned: Myanmar, the Philippines? Yes.
What do I want Facebook to do? Not much, actually. I don’t think Facebook should necessarily kill Trump’s account, for Zuckerberg has a point that citizens should see what their head of state is saying. I don’t think the internet is media nor do I believe that Facebook is a publisher or editor responsible for his words; I say it’s pointless to fact-check Trump. What I do want is for Facebook to separate itself from his vile behavior. Facebook should say: We do not agree. We do not approve. We say this is wrong.
If it does not, by its silence and with its power, it endorses what Trump is saying and becomes his willing agent — every bit as much as when a major newspaper quotes Trump’s posts and tweets without telling its users when he is lying and calling on his racist allies, and every bit as much as Republicans enabling him for their ends.
Trump attacked women and you did not protest. Trump went after immigrants and you did not stop him. Trump came for African-Americans and you stood back. Now Trump is coming for you, technology companies. He is attacking Section 230, the best protection we have for the freedom of expression you all say you hold dear. Will you stand up for that and your users? That should be easy. Will you then stand up for your users who are women and immigrants and African-American? What will you stand for?
Be careful what you clamor for. You demand that platforms deal with harmful speech. Then he whose speech is thus affected unleashes the dogs of Trump. They harasstheplatform and its employees for exercising their freedom of speech. They threaten to limit freedom of expression for everyone on that platform and the net — including you.
Thus efforts to control noxious, right-wing speech have backfired as the right-wing exploits every tool used against them. The weapons Trump brandishes — regulating social platforms, limiting or repealing Section 230, redirecting government advertising, blaming algorithmic “bias,” demanding “neutrality,” defining the net as media and platforms as publishers — are things proposed by those who want to limit harmful speech online. In his so-called executive order, the Troll in Chief is using them all for his ends. Have we learned nothing from bad actors online— that every function, every lever, every precedent that can be gamed and exploited by them will be? Now Section 230, our best protection of freedom of expression on the internet, is in peril.
The more I study net regulation, the more of a free-speech absolutist I become. To think that speech is harmful is almost inevitably a third-person effect: believing that everyone else — but not you — is vulnerable to bad words and ideas and that protecting them from it will cure their ignorance. There is but one cure for ignorance: education. The goal of education is to prepare the mind to wrestle with lies and hatred and idiocy … and win.
It is worthwhile to remind us of that very argument made long ago by Franklin, Milton, and Wilkes. Sherman, set the Wayback Machine.
In 1731 Benjamin Franklin was fed up with people complaining about what came off his press — not just in his newspaper, but even in advertisements — and so he wrote an Apology for Printers, which was nothing of the sort. I’m going to take the heart of that essay and substitute modern words like platform and social media for old-fashioned words like printer to make my point: that Franklin’s point still stands. Let me be clear: I do not believe the internet is a medium. It is a platform, a platform for facts and opinions and conversation about them. That is how Franklin viewed his press, as a platform. He wrote:
I request all who are angry with me on the Account of serving things they don’t like, calmly to consider these following Particulars
1. That the Opinions of Men are almost as various as their Faces; an Observation general enough to become a common Proverb, So many Men so many Minds.
2. That the Business of Social Media has chiefly to do with Mens Opinions; most things that are posted tending to promote some, or oppose others….
4. That it is as unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas’d with every thing that is posted, as to think that nobody ought to be pleas’d but themselves.
5. Technologists are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Twitter or Facebook users, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.
6. Being thus continually employ’d in serving all Parties, Platforms naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’d in what they serve; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour: They serve things full of Spleen and Animosity, with the utmost Calmness and Indifference, and without the least Ill-will to the Persons reflected on; who nevertheless unjustly think the Platform as much their Enemy as the Tweeter, and join both together in their Resentment.
7. That it is unreasonable to imagine Platforms approve of every thing they serve, and to censure them on any particular thing accordingly; since in the way of their Business they serve such great variety of things opposite and contradictory. It is likewise as unreasonable what some assert, That Platforms ought not to serve any Thing but what they approve; since if all of that Business should make such a Resolution, and abide by it, an End would thereby be put to Free Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming and TikToking and YouTubing, and the World would afterwards have nothing to read but what happen’d to be the Opinions of the Technologists.
8. That if all Platforms were determin’d not to serve any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little posted.
9. That if they sometimes serve vicious or silly things not worth reading, it may not be because they approve such things themselves, but because the People are so viciously and corruptly educated that good things are not encouraged….
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” — John Milton, the Areopagitica
In 1638 Milton visited Gilileo, who was under house arrest for what authorities decreed were his dangerous ideas and harmful speech. Milton paid tribute to Galileo, including him in Paradise Lost, and the visit helped inspire the Areopagitica, Milton’s 1644 polemic against the licensing of books in England and in defense of freedom of expression.
The abolition of the Star Chamber in 1637 had led to the effective end of censorship and a flowering of publishing — too much publishing for the taste of authorities. In 1643, Parliament passed a Licensing Order “for suppressing the great late abuses and frequent disorders in Printing many false, forged, scandalous, seditious, libellous, and unlicensed Papers, Pamphlets, and Books to the great defamation of Religion and Government.” Might as well add tweets and Facebook comments to the list. Parliament argued, as unfortunately some do today, that there was too much speech. Bad actors, they said, “have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamphlets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents.”
Speech scaled and control did not. In England, the Stationers Company — a private, industry organization for printers — had been deputized to regulate this speech, just as Twitter and Facebook are expected to do today. The Order decreed no publication could be printed unless it was first licensed.
In the Areopagitica Milton rose up in righteous, eloquent anger in defense of speech, of debate, of learning, and of this less-than-200-year-old art of printing.
“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life … of that living intellect that bred them.” Thus, Milton said, one might as well “kill a man as kill a good book…. he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”
But what of bad books? Well, who is to decide the difference? A Star Chamber? The Stationers Company? Twitter? Facebook’s Oversight Board? The White House? Courts? Or readers? “Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter.” That is God speaking to Pope Dionysius of Alexandria in 240 A.D., according to Milton.
We learn by testing ourselves, Milton argues. “That which purifies us is trial and trial is by what is contrary…. Our faith and knowledge thrives by exercise.” He acknowledges the authorities’ fears that bad speech is “the infection that may spread” — just what we hold this fear today about internet disinformation. But he contends that “evil manners are as perfectly learned without books” and so eliminating bad books will not staunch the infection. So: “A fool will be a fool with the best book, yea or without a book; there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which being restrained will be no hindrance to his folly.”
This is Milton’s article of faith: “See the ingenuity of Truth, who, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens herself faster than the pace of … discourse can overtake her.” And: “And though the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple.”
Yet he adds a caution: ‘Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopolized and traded in by tickets and statutes and standards. We must not think to make a staple commodity of all the knowledge in the land, to mark and license it like our broadcloth and our woolpacks.” Truth is not a product to be packaged. It is a choice.
He makes two key arguments: that citizens need to learn by facing and rejecting sin (“When God gave him reason,” Milton says of Adam, “he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing”) and that no small group of men is capable of making decisions to protect citizens from those choices: “Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this country? Who shall still appoint what shall be discoursed, what presumed, and no further? Lastly, who shall forbid and separate all idle resort, all evil company?”
Milton warned of the precedents licensing would set. If we license printing, must we not then license dancing and lutes and lyrics and visitors who bring ideas? And what does Adam teach us about forbidden fruit? “The punishing of wits enhances their authority… This Order, therefore, may provide a nursing-mother to sects.” To forbid it is to spread it; that is another lesson of disinformation on the net.
Milton, like Franklin, recognizes the value of the public conversation: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” I cannot help but also call on James Carey, who said: “Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places.” In the development of the net I have come to see that what we are witnessing is a society relearning how to have a conversation with itself.
But what of nasty, hateful conversations with trolls? Should we not be protected from them?
I give you John Wilkes, the urtroll, who is also, in the title of Arthur H. Cash’s biography, The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Wilkes was, by every description, unattractive, a cur, a libertine, a smartass. He feuded with the prime minister, Lord Bute, and published anonymously a newspaper that mocked him, which “proceeded with an acrimony, a spirit, and a licentiousness unheared [sic] of before even in this country,” said Horace Walpole.
In the first issue of the North Briton, Wilkes called a free press “the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country … the terror of all bad ministers.” Says Cash: “Wilkes was in constant danger of having his ironies taken literally by humorless or stupid men.” Indeed, Wilkes and his printers were arrested and his papers seized and there were attempts to rob him of his seat in Parliament.
But he persevered and in the process, according to Cash, set many legal precedents: the end of general warrants, the establishment of a right to privacy, an enhanced right to sue the government for false arrest, in addition to a right to transparency of Parliament and freedom of the press. Wilkes did it by nastily trolling, because that was the power he had at hand. Wilkes is a hero of mine, not as a troll, of course, but as a defender of liberty.
Larry Kramer, who died this week, was also a hero of mine. He was also a troll, a power he used when it was all he had to save lives at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Hear Dr. Anthony Fauci about their relationship:
“How did I meet Larry? He called me a murderer and an incompetent idiot on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner magazine.” …
Addressing Dr. Fauci in the letter, Mr. Kramer wrote: “Your refusal to hear the screams of AIDS activists early in the crisis resulted in the deaths of thousands of Queers. Your present inaction is causing today’s increase in HIV infection outside of the Queer community.”
“I thought, ‘This guy, I need to reach out to him,’” Dr. Fauci recalled. “So I did, and we started talking. We realized we had things in common.”
How better to tell the story of the power of listening?
So what speech is it you want to control? Hate? I hate our president and say so. Lies? Who wants an official truth but the officials who set it? Trolling? We risk losing the righteous power of Wilkes and Kramer and the opportunity to learn from them.
Donald Trump is a hateful, lying troll. So what should Twitter do with him? Whatever it wants to. That is the point. That is its right as a private entity in the United States. That is its freedom of expression. It has the freedom to do nothing, to delete his tweets, to add fact checks and warnings to them, to not promote them. I think it is now doing the right thing.
Above all, what Facebook and Twitter and every technology company should be doing is deciding why they exist. I have complained that in establishing its Oversight Board, Facebook has not set a North Star, a raison d’être for the platform. Why does it exist? What behavior on it is beneficial and welcome and what is not, for what reason? They are asking the 20 wise members of the Oversight Board — its Stationers Company — to enforce a set of statutes without a Constitution. Twitter, by its actions, is beginning to write its Constitution, to decide what is acceptable and not and why. Those are their decisions to make.
So what of Trump’s people, those whom he eggs on? Well, what are the characteristics we know of his so-called base: they are uneducated, white males. White, male entitlement matters. But uneducated, that is the key. To update Milton as I updated Franklin: “A fool will be a fool with the best Twitter, yea or without Twitter.”
If we try to use official power to restrain speech on social media, we give fools the power to restrain wisdom there. That is what Trump is trying to do. We must recognize it for what it is: not a legal but a political ploy, an unconstitutional one, also unAmerican. We must fight to protect the freedom of expression, even for fools, so we protect our own. We must fight for the net.
Our house was already on fire; COVID threw gunpowder on the flames. In this piece for Tortoise, I surveyed the damage to our field. Now I will look at some hopeful sprouts rising from the ashes.
First, to be clear: There is no messiah that will save us overnight; our messiahs have all been false. We will not — and should not — return to journalism as it was; we must not lose this opportunity to rethink what journalism can be. Though I want to give them the benefit of hope, I fear the innovation required will not often come from incumbents as they are overwhelmed trying to save the business that was; but I still wish they’d try. The new journalism will not arrive big and fully birthed; it will grow from many small seedlings, many experiments, thus many failures. Patience is required.
Here I’d like to report on conversations I’ve had with three local examples I’m impressed with: Canada’s Village Media, Innocode’s transparency app, and a German paper’s experiment with delivery for stores.
Talk with Google’s senior VP for news, Richard Gingras, about local news (as I will be on June 10) and he will tell you that Jeff Elgie has the answer. I agree. He has a very good answer.
Elgie’s Village Media has the model of simple local reporting for three dozen towns of 50,000 to 150,000, some of its outlets owned by the Sault St. Marie-based company, some franchised to partners (including a few experiments underwritten by Google with McClatchy in Youngstown, Ohio, and with Archant in the UK). In Elgie’s model, the ideal town is a bit isolated, the kind of place where people are born, live, and work without commuting to the big city. Village Media isn’t perfect for tiny, uh, villages (though it has a town of 10,000 as a satellite to a neighboring market) or suburbs or big cities, at least not yet. Elgie says in his best markets residents have a local news habit; it’s easier to start a Village Media site in a town with competition or in which the paper just died, rather in one that has been a news desert.
Village Media sites provide just the value you’d expect from a local newspaper a few decades ago: town council doings, schools, crime, new businesses; it’s comforting in its familiarity. Each site has a handful of reporters covering what matters and Elgie firmly believes they should not waste time rewriting press releases; their sites post them, properly labeled. Village media provides the model and the technology.
Village Media sites are supported by — get ready for it — local advertising. It has not died. Elgie has creative offerings for local merchants beyond standard ad units, video, and sponsored content. There is directory advertising that is self-published by the local merchants, and “sponsored journalism.” That’s not as fearsome as it sounds. It’s underwriting as engaged in by public-radio stations: A sponsor is able to take credit for making it possible to offer coverage of, say, volunteerism or high-school sports or local arts. Village Media also has some programmatic advertising and — like McClatchy, Advance, and Stat — has instituted voluntary payment (read: contributions) in this crisis.
Now hold onto your hat: Even in the COVID crisis, Village Media’s revenue is *up* this April over last by more than a third, not counting growth in franchise fees.
Yes, Village Media sites lost advertisers in the shutdown. But it worked hard (like the German site I’ll mention below) to help them get customers. A major auto dealer that was ready to cancel has ended up spending more. Cities are advertising.
There are other, similar models out there. Patch in the U.S. spread like kudzu into 900 towns, blew up, and rose again from its own ashes, smaller. My area in New Jersey has TAPinto sites as well as independent blogs. In Geeks Bearing Gifts I extolled the hyperlocal blog as a building block of a new news ecosystem and then I confessed my over-enthusiasm, though there are still lots of great single-proprietor blogs serving towns. Every commentator about local news — and there are more commentators about it than reporters in it these days — is quick to complain that any model I propose doesn’t scale. Well, nothing will scale in an instant; that was Patch’s problem: thinking it could. Local is going to be spotty. For Village Media, the challenge is identifying and training the perfect local publishers; as a school, I’m drawn to help.
I’ve long taught our entrepreneurial students the C-A-R rule of media businesses: They must first build a critical mass of content before they can attract a critical mass of audience before they can get a critical mass of revenue. This meansan enterprise of the size of Village Media’s requires a low six-figure investment to get to break-even. Given that the model is proven and the revenue and margins are enviable, I see no reason that capital cannot be raised as loans to build new outlets all over the map. Think of it as a burger franchise and it makes financial sense.
What about tiny burgs that don’t fit the Village Media model? On my last trip outside New York, I got to sit down with Richard Anderson, the founder of Village Soup (no relation) in Maine and a great pioneer in online local journalism. He had thriving local digital sites and then unfortunately bought the local newspapers just before the crash and ended up selling the business. But he remains an innovator, working on how to serve towns’ needs for local government transparency and accountability without wasting time and resources on distractions. Anderson is working on an exciting idea I’ll tell you about another day, when he’s ready.
Anderson and I are inspired by a 2018 paper by Pengjie Gao, et al, that contends: “Following a newspaper closure, we find municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points in the long run…. The loss of monitoring that results from newspaper closures is associated with increased government inefficiencies.” That is, transparency is good for local towns, schools, businesses, and taxpayers. In my state we have something called Sustainable Jersey, which certifies towns on a number of criteria — including public information and engagement — and they compete to improve.
This inspired another thought: call it transparency-as-a-service. What if transparency services offered a start — just a start — on the way to a healthier local information ecosystem? What if that could be a business? What if the client is the town? Is that a conflict of interest? Sure. So is advertising. Bear in mind that Benjamin Franklin was not only the publisher of a newspaper in Philadelphia but also the official printer of Pennsylvania and the postmaster at the same time. If Ben could manage it, we can.
I was sharing this thought with a Scandinavian media executive I respect and he told me I had to talk with Morten Holst of Innocode, which provides technology for many media companies. I mentioned my thoughts on transparency-as-a-service to Holst and he showed me the Sandefjord Citizen app they’ve already built. The client is the local government. The users are a third of the population of the town. The product is local data. With the app, users can sign up for alerts when building permits are filed (the town would rather people raise objections before v. after it is issued), get data on water temperature and snow plowing (it’s Norway), and send out messages on behalf of their local clubs and organizations.
No one would say such data transparency is sufficient to assure local government accountability. Journalism is needed atop this data. The Citizen app is just one piece of an impressive, larger local strategy Innocode has. In any case, why waste journalists’ time rewriting press releases about snow plowing? Why not, too, follow the lead of Chicago’s City Bureau and make citizens collaborators in covering meetings and gathering data? The journalists should devote their time to true accountability journalism, not just filling space. The more informed and engaged citizens are in their local government, the better for journalism, the better for the town.
My point here is that we need to cut journalism up into component parts so we can start smaller. As I said in this post, one of my students argued that when faced with building from ground up, one must choose whether to build transparency or service journalism and I would add community. You want to end up with all three, but you need to start somewhere. The Citizen app is an example.
Translated: “The newspaper now brings beer. Many local papers are fighting to survive. But in the middle of the pandemic, the Mindener Tageblatt had an idea.”
I emailed the publisher, Carsten Lohmann, to learn more. What impressed me is that he empathized with the needs of his local advertisers and their customers and brought to bear what he could: his own newspaper delivery staff. The company had already decided to take a cost center — delivery — and turn it into a revenue stream. Then came COVID. Lohmann told me:
With our daily newspaper we reach about 45% of all households in the distribution area and pass through about 70% of all mailboxes. So it made sense to take other products with us on this route.
Since we have to collect business mail from our customers during the day and also deliver it for our printing plant and office supplier (a local Staples), we decided to offer this service to external customers as well.
In this respect, our logistics department is certainly already experienced. Nevertheless the project is a challenge. For example, we have invested in a new logistics software.
They have been delivering beer (it’s Germany), plus about 80 pair of shoes so far, and office supplies. Will this make him rich? Is it the elusive messiah? Of course not.
It’s not gonna make us a fortune. But it should and does help us to share our own costs with external customers and to intensify contacts with local retailers on several levels — or even to establish them for the first time. At kauflokal-minden.de(buy local — Minden) companies have registered with which we have had no business contacts so far.
This is not the only line extension the paper has developed. In 2003, it founded MR-Biketours and is now the largest provider of guided motorcycle tours to the U.S. By the way, when I told students in our News Innovation and Leadership program at Newmark about the Minden paper, my colleague Anita Zielina said the paper she once worked for in Austria, Der Standard, bought a local bread company and offered daily delivery of papers and rolls. Who wouldn’t want a nice Zimtschnecke with the news?
Many years ago, when I was still consulting, I set up a meeting with eBay and PalPal (they were still together) to investigate whether local newspapers could help local businesses sell online and deliver locally to compete with Amazon. The eBay executive said the problem was that local stores did not generally have inventory digitized, so it could not be presented for sale online. I wrote a business plan for a stores’ equivalent of OpenTable, which had to build a system for restaurants to manage reservations so those reservations could be offered online. It almost got investment and a team but then didn’t. More recently, at the Newmark J-School, we started a professional community of practice for ecommerce with a not-so-hidden agenda to convince and help publishers to open online stores (à la Wirecutter) to build a new revenue stream and a new set of skills around individualized user data. The group convinced one company to do this and it gained a new revenue stream of a few million dollars.
My point is that we need to build new journalistic enterprises, new models, new services, and new revenue in small ways. This is why I like the dialog-driven journalism of Spaceship Media, the collaborative journalism of Chicago’s City Bureau, the answers and advocacy that come from Detroit’s Outlier, the listening inherent in Tortoise’s Thinkins, the power-sharing of The City’s open newsrooms, as well as innovation from the incumbents: Advance’s texting platform Subtext; McClatchy’s and Archants experiments above, and service journalism from the Arizona Daily Star’s This is Tucson. They build a piece at a time.
At Newmark, we just announced that we are also thinking small to train individual, resilient journalists in our new Entrepreneurial Journalism program. It will prepare journalists to serve passionate communities by making email newsletters, videos, events, sites, texting services, books, and more — and to support their work by making money via Medium, YouTube, Patreon, book publishers, events, and so on. My colleague Jeremy Caplan will head the program.
None of these journalists is likely to get venture-capital funding and return 100x. None of them will instantly serve every town in America. None of them will solve all of journalism’s woes overnight. None of them is a messiah. But any of them could serve a town’s transparency needs or bring together a community to share with each other or find creative ways to earn money by serving local merchants. Any of them could rebuild journalism from the ashes as small sprouts. That’s what it’s going to take, when the fire is out.