We Always Needed Something New: Journalism Meets World

    by Benjamin Melançon
    July 15, 2008

    Where will today’s journalists will find tomorrow’s jobs, Amy Gahran asks, and partially answers, in a recent Idealab post. She opened by quoting Alan Abbey, a commenter on her Poynter blog, discussing journalists’ job losses:

    this downturn does feel similar to the widespread closures of coal mines and steel mills 25-30 years ago. What can we do with our outdated skills?

    If we in the media had covered the economic downturn and widespread closures of coal mines and steel mills 25-30 years ago with more care, respect, and investigation into how economic and political systems affect people, we would have much more of a basis for understanding and changing our own situation now.

    Indeed, the textile and other factory closures following NAFTA fourteen years ago, and home foreclosures and increasing hunger today, are sad expansions of the lack of opportunity that affects many people all the time— a large majority globally.


    By not looking at how decisions by government and business officials affect our lives, let alone how we could make decisions and take action ourselves, traditional media has failed the country (and the world). In the words of Jon Stewart speaking on CNN to the hosts of Crossfire four years ago, most of our media are “hurting America“.

    My Knight-funded project, Related Content, will help people make raw connections between events and policy and ideas to change things, but more is clearly needed.

    If journalists are to save more than ourselves, and rise to our historic charge to help make the world better for all, we need to show connections between people and policies the world over at a very deep level.


    David Sasaki took on three obstacles to a global conversation in an excellent post, also to Idealab, but he skipped over the biggest one, which didn’t make his list, as too big: time.

    The solution to having more information and people than there is time, of course, is known as journalism and the editorial process. Having an elite – our broadcasting corporations – choose what this common knowledge will be has not turned out too well. The fragmenting of some people’s attention to many sources with smaller reach (and the tuning out of any explicit news-seeking by many more) hasn’t changed the fundamental situation.

    We can turn filtering news and information over to the experts on what is important to people— namely, the people. We can do this by giving everyone an equal voice in deciding what we most need to know with a form of editorial jury duty.

    What does this have to do with working journalists?

    A media system that serves people’s needs just may be supported by people.

    Moreover, covering and uncovering what matters will need more reporters than creating the words, sounds, and moving pictures to encourage people to buy consumer products (and to buy into plans for our passivity).

    There isn’t any any business model for this yet, but people like Idealab’s David Cohn are already on it.

    More important to the broader point: the problem of getting resources to flow to more people for more reasons is not unique to journalism or journalists. The global economy has been failing the majority of the world for, well, ever since it began.

    News flash: Now economic unfairness and failure is threatening a few more percentage points of the population, namely you and your friends.

    To take a microcosm: how has the situation for most people in the most powerful country in the world failed to improve materially since about 1973?

    A big part of the answer is that it wasn’t fair in the 1970s or before, and since then those with the most power and spare capacity to hire professional liars and bribers have managed to make thing much more unfair.

    This can only happen with a media that ignores facts like extreme wealth for some and curtailed life chances for many more. This can only happen with a media that avoids stories with such epic themes as justice in favor of cultural sideshows.

    No, the media are not singular. But the media that most of us get, that filters through the popular consciousness most fully, has failed us.

    We always needed something new in media. If journalists are to help bring the new, are to save ourselves and help save the world, we need a radically expansive vision and ambition.

    We need to put connecting people – each other – to take control of our lives at the heart of what we do. In more journalistic language, we need to provide information that makes possible organization in better and more human ways.

    Not just for humanity, but for ourselves.

    Welcome, journalists, to the rest of the world.

    Tagged: economic failure inequality journalism organization poverty power unfairness
    • Related: Ten points about the survival of journalism.

      What’s missing there is the crucial point that we can do better than the past. If all we do is recreate the underpinnings of journalism for “the past 200 years” to meet changed conditions, conditions will continue to change outside our control and roll over all us.

    • Also related: A Critique of Global Voices

      That’s a must-read for Idealab: definitely sets a standard for thoughtful self-criticism, from another project receiving Knight funding.

      I’d meant to do more of a round-up of posts like these on and off Idealab but got stuck on my own tangents.

    • Thanks for the links Benjamin. In fairness though, lack of time was the very first (the zero?) obstacle I mentioned:

      What is preventing this expansion from taking place? Time, of course. Whoever cruelly restricted us to just 24 hours in a single day, with nearly a third of them spent with our eyes closed, did not want us in direct communication with the other 6.5 billion of us scattered around the planet.

    • Yeah, sorry– victim of the cutting room floor. Originally I quoted that so I’m glad you put it here– condensed it, poorly, to: “didn’t make his list, as too big” !

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