The Ford Foundation and Dot Connector Studio recently published Reconstructing American News, a first step towards outlining what those who fund journalism and helm newsrooms can do to create a more inclusive and sustainable media industry.
The analysis spurred a number of responses from journalists and industry leaders, engaging with issues raised within the report—such as media equity, disability inclusion, financial innovation and the role of philanthropy, among others—to identify solutions to the many intersecting problems.
Below are highlights of some of the responses we have received thus far. Our hope is for the report to continue to inspire further analysis and productive conversations about the role of journalism and the future of media. We encourage you to respond in the comments below or take part in the conversation on social media using #News4All.
“What Do We Want to Relinquish?”
Steven W. Thrasher, PhD, Daniel H. Renberg Chair of Social Justice Journalism, Medill School, Northwestern University Faculty member, Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, Northwestern University
What do we want to relinquish?
I want for journalism, academia and spaces which overlap between the two to relinquish the defensive posturing so many journalists of color are forced into taking. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction," Toni Morrison has written. "It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being."
In journalism and academia, writers of color waste an enormous amount of time and energy explaining from a defensive position their reason for being, their feelings, their ability to do their work, regardless of their subjectivities or objectivities. What I admired about how the black New York Times writers (and other Times journalists) rallying against the Tom Cotton op-ed, “Send in the Troops,” is that those writers went on the offense. They were not defensive. They broke the social media rules of the Times. They weren't asking for permission. They spoke their truth[…] ready to take any reward or consequence from speaking their truth. Remarkably and unusually, they were not punished for this, but heard.
We need more of this: more forceful declarations of what we believe—without permission or a committee telling us it is OK to speak what we know to be true.
“We Need to Transform the Way the Work of Reporting and Producing Media Is Structured”
Alice Wong, disabled media-maker and founder of the Disability Visibility Project
When I think of media equity and the future, I believe we need to transform the way the work of reporting and producing media is structured. How are the actual processes and expectations of qualifications, time, and labor leaving people out? How does the pressure to be productive become toxic and repelling? Media organizations that value equity need to create stories that are accessible in every format (e.g. captioned videos, transcripts for audio), provide flexibility in the way stories are produced and hire people with extensive relationships in communities that are underserved and underrepresented.
“Journalism’s future is its talent, not its institutions.”
Ken Ikeda, CEO, Association of Independents in Radio
Journalism’s future is its talent, not its institutions. We need to challenge the latter for accountability around operating culture, investments, and meaningful action. At the same time, we must build the infrastructure to reduce their power as brokers of opportunity, audience and distribution.
There is no talent pipeline issue; there is simply little will to make major structural changes to how national news is created. Reporters and producers who live outside New York City and Washington D.C. struggle to build durable careers, and so can’t count on making a living covering the communities where they live. Ready and extraordinary talent has been consistently undervalued in the news industry. By valuing the ground-level expertise of reporters instead of their experience in the current national news industry—we will give them power to tell the stories they know matter to their communities.
We are in a moment of change and the movements we see rising are best understood through the lens of local perspectives and diverse experiences. We are betting on that kind of talent and expertise to create journalism’s future. If we succeed, we will see a different class of stories and storytellers informing the country and revealing new revenue paths and investment.
“Redraw and Expand the Unbalanced and Very White-Biased Frame…of American Journalism.”
Marsha Cooke, senior vice president, Vice Impact
This time of awakening provides opportunity to redraw and expand the unbalanced and very white-biased frame that has been the context of American journalism, and of our broader collective understanding of who we are. Collectively, we still express more compassion for dogs than we do for the struggles of human beings, particularly black folks, who continue to suffer disproportionately for the sin of their skin.
What do we want to create that informs us all with true competency and calling? A new or revised canon for journalism: one that finally explodes the myth of “objectivity” and replaces it with a commitment to explore events and issues in full factual context, rather than a simplistic “he-said/she-said” mode. Achieving “balance” in reporting by simply allowing all parties to say/assert whatever they want makes no journalistic sense, when one “side” presents falsehoods—sometimes euphemistically labeled as “alternative facts.”
I also want us to do more to (un)cover the “plight” of white folks, who range from silent, fearful and alienated at home to “woke,” to armed, seething and organizing for a second civil war on the internet. Dig deeper, for the white perspectives that remain unspoken, but are deeply held by millions—those in the much-discussed Trump base and beyond. And talk a bit more to all those young white “allies” who are protesting: their change of hearts and minds and engagement distinguishes this time from past protests, where black folks dominated. Yet I’ve heard little from them in coverage and commentary.
“Who is Journalism For?”
Lam Thuy Vo, senior reporter, BuzzFeed News
The biggest often unanswered question in journalism seems to be the one that asks: who is this for?
When reading a news article it’s hard to decipher whom the author is addressing. What does the imagined audience for each piece look like? What tone did the piece try to strike and was it appropriate for the intended audience?
The arrival of the internet has undone so many of the ways in which journalism used to function: it has decimated local institutions. It has smashed our business models to bits and has brought about systems in which a lot of us feel the pressure to chase clicks from drive-by readers, maybe with the hope to convert them to paying subscribers. It has made it hard to truly hear our audience because of all the yelling that our stories provoke. The noise drowns out voices in the middle—voices that don’t shout, voices that need a bit of time to process—making it hard to really understand the totality of who is actually present to watch or read.
I often imagine my audience for each story as a neighborhood, except that it may be a digital village built by the hands of people who saw each other and wanted to set up camp in the same space.
Is there room for a kind of journalism that sustains itself by serving one village? Is there journalism that can survive with the contributions and hard-earned respect of that one village? Is there a journalism that is aggressively inclusive in the voices it highlights, which also involves the hard work of proactively listening to people who are not always naturally drawn to the public square that is social media? A village where people will listen and honestly debate because they know us, have seen us in the neighborhood and may disagree with us, but are willing to stick around because they know we are invested in each other’s lives?
I wonder what a little experiment like that could look like.
“The challenge…[is] to actually build an infrastructure for nonprofit journalism financing that doesn’t currently exist.”
Steve Katz, publisher, Mother Jones
In the past, the commonsense understanding was that [journalism] was a transactionally driven commercial enterprise. Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen the commonsense definition shift to journalism as a public good, analogous to the hospital or art museum in a community.
Now we may be heading into a new commonsense definition of journalism as a cause. I began thinking this way when the Committee to Protect Journalists started counting the hundreds of police attacks on journalists, and how this made real the inflammatory language coming from the White House and on social media. When Maria Ressa was convicted, when Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo explicitly took a pro-democracy stance and adopted the color yellow, the color of democratic resistance, for its pages.
This goes way beyond the “public good” definition. It forces us to substantially reconsider what journalism is and how it functions, and to whose benefit. This report’s centering of equity is, I think, a leading edge of this shift in philanthropy.
We’ve talked a lot about how challenging it is to find affordable loan capital for our work. That’s why we focused on philanthropy and the Moment campaign to fund growth. Our financials don’t work for traditional private investment capital, and there simply is no functioning capital market for nonprofit journalism. Yes, there are specific cases where a “venture philanthropy” approach has been put into play, but these examples are largely idiosyncratic and don’t solve for scale.
The challenge isn’t simply to bring in existing private capital. It’s to actually build an infrastructure for nonprofit journalism financing that doesn’t currently exist.
“It's the Culture!”
Tracie Powell, program officer, Racial Equity in Journalism Fund
I keep seeing job postings from news organizations advertising reporting and editing roles covering race and ethnicity. Isn’t that always the go-to following major civil unrest? The thing is, no matter how many journalists white-led news organizations hire to cover race in America, nothing will really change inside, or outside, these newsrooms until and unless the media outlets’ organizational culture changes.
One black leader had barely started in her new role when a white male editor, resentful of his new boss’ presence, threatened to sue the organization for racial and age discrimination. The news outlet’s board of directors settled despite knowing that their new hire hadn’t been around long enough to have had any kind of an impact, positive or otherwise. Worse, board members undermined the black journalist in the process.
If news organizations are serious about wanting to attract and retain talented people, if they really want to reach new audiences, if they really want to produce content that builds trust and credibility, then these white-led news organizations really need to stop doing the same old, same old and expecting a different result.