Why write about “reasons for optimism” when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence we can make things better. As I like to say, it’s another day of opportunity.
Quality journalism takes time and is expensive. It requires a subsidy. The advertising subsidy is gone, so we have to look elsewhere.
In the world of journalism business models, where there is extreme uncertainty, we have to embrace experimentation and innovation. We need to make incremental improvements rather than looking for big major solutions. We have to keep plugging away.
That’s why I am inspired by what journalists are doing around the world. Joyce Barnathan, the outgoing president of the International Center for Journalists, captured this spirit in her recent farewell message.
Things are bleak, she acknowledged. Journalists and media organizations are under attack around the world. Misinformation campaigns flood our news feeds.
However, she added, “I have never been one for gloom or doom. I urge us all not to give in to dark scenarios. When I look back, I also see tremendous progress. In a pandemic with rampant disinformation, often perpetuated by top leaders, many people came to appreciate trustworthy journalism, which is needed to keep us informed, to help us make smart decisions, to hold our officials to account . . . .”
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“When I look at the work of journalists in our global network, I feel optimistic. I see that investigative journalism is strong, despite dire predictions of its collapse when I first started at ICFJ in 2006. In the U.S. we have seen the rise of distinguished nonprofit journalism groups such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project. Witness, too, the phenomenal investigations by our international partners, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Eastern Europe and Connectas in Latin America, among others.” (Disclosure: I have been a paid consultant for several projects of ICFJ.)
Let me add my own note of optimism. Small media startups are filling the gaps left by large media organizations that cut staff, coverage, and quality to protect profit margins. Much of the innovation in journalism has come from the bottom up. True, some established media brands have found new ways to produce quality journalism that are less dependent on advertising. But many bold innovations are percolating up from below.
I have been tracking media startups for the past decade. In May I presented a paper, “Collaboration, not competition: the new global business model for public-service journalism” (to be published by GEDISA in 2022). The paper identifies a dozen collaborative projects among 5,000 media organizations in more than 100 countries. In various ways, all of them are focused on finding new ways to achieve sustainable models for producing quality journalism.
The members of these organizations share resources for training, news production, distribution, and administration. This reduces costs and accelerates innovation. Some of the best-known of these collaborations are the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ.org), which produced the Pandora Papers; the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), with 350 media members; the European Journalism Centre (EJC), with training materials in 15 languages; and the Solutions Journalism Network, with 177 members in 13 countries.
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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which produces the annual Digital News Report on more than 40 countries, would be more optimistic if he saw more cash investment from the publishing industry. In his 2022 forecast written for Nieman Lab, he pointed out that the publishing and broadcasting industries in OECD countries made pitifully small investments in research and development compared to other industries.
Invest in tools and talent, he urged. “If the global newspaper industry alone invested just 5% of revenues in R&D and 2% in formal training [the industry averages for the OECD], that would be billions of dollars dedicated to figuring out the future.”
Realistically, the journalism industry fell so far so fast that it will take a long time to bounce back. The Poynter Institute’s Kristen Hare has reported on hundreds of newspaper closings in the past two years. Balanced against that, she found more than 50 local newsrooms that launched during the pandemic.
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In another Nieman Lab forecast, Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, saw signs that nonprofit journalism was “finally building scale“. He cited examples of media initiatives designed to replace local coverage lost in Baltimore, Chicago, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
“In 2022 and beyond,” Friedlich wrote, “we will see more serious business funding for nonprofit news, more M&A activity, and greater use of commercial business models. We will see deep-pocketed funding for nonprofits — including women and BIPOC-led enterprises. There will be acquisitions and alliances by nimble public radio stations. Commercial local news properties will convert to nonprofit control or will seek more significant philanthropic support.”
I tend to share Friedlich’s optimism. Most of the grass-roots efforts get little coverage, while we see plenty written about the vulture capitalism ruining the quality of local journalism.
On the positive side, we have these recent news items:
I confess to being optimistic, cautiously so. If we become pessimistic, we might see any of our own efforts as pointless, futile, a waste of time and energy. So I keep looking for examples of people who are producing quality news products, in spite of all the forces deployed against them. Some people call optimists “cockeyed”, but I like to think of them as visionary. I see them as future friends and collaborators.
Remember, it’s another day of opportunity.
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