The Calls Coming From Inside Journalism

Given the importance of journalism to a well functioning democracy, there are many opinions on the fix to its significant challenges. While journalism has seen an increase in the attention being paid by citizens during the pandemic and its need could not be better demonstrated during these dynamic and dangerous times, the flight of ad and subscription revenues has also hastened. This leaves daily newspapers in an incredibly tough spot that shows no sign of letting up. Governments have been called upon to play a role in the solution, as well as the tech giants that have served as the destination for journalism’s revenue flight. In thinking about the risks to journalism for this episode of @Risk, I wanted to take a different approach by looking inside journalism for solutions. For this, I turned to two industry thought leaders, Nana aba Duncan and Jeff Jarvis, to talk about the lesser discussed internal threats to the sustainability of the journalistic enterprise. Perhaps not all of journalism’s challenges are owing to dramatic shifts in the external landscape; maybe, like in the urban legend, the call can be (partially) traced to inside the house.

I am not an expert in journalism. As a volunteer, I chair The Walrus’ Board of Directors, as disclosed on the podcast. The Walrus produces an award-winning general interest magazine and daily instances of exemplary journalism digitally, as well as provocative events and podcasts. The Walrus was established as a charitable organization with an educational mandate in 2003 at the start of the downward trend in ad revenue in magazines. I have not been selected as Chair due to any specialized knowledge or expertise in journalism. I am in this role because I care about journalism but have no hand whatsoever in the journalism at The Walrus.

And it was that same care for journalism that led me to this examination of journalism’s internal threats on the @Risk podcast. Jeff Jarvis is the author of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News, What Would Google Do?, and the Kindle Single: Gutenberg the Geek. He blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com and co hosts the podcast This Week in Google. Jeff is also the Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. He too cares deeply about journalism and it’s clearly his business.

Jeff diagnoses the source of journalism’s challenges as a refusal to change. Notwithstanding news organizations’ reluctance, he sees the transition as already having started and predicts there will be a huge amount of disruption over a long period of time before the ideas of his students and the successful brave experiments already underway take hold and rise up from the ashes.

Scott Galloway has an idea for journalism that he shared recently in his newsletter, No Mercy / No Malice. In this week’s missive, Scott takes aim at the television cable news outlet, CNN. Cable news struggles with the same ad revenue decline that print journalism does. Galloway’s prescription for the “sh*tty” news business (his words!) is to double down on digital and move to a subscription model. Once it makes that change, Galloway points out that CNN could mimic the successful strategies of the New York Times (paywall + verticals) or the Washington Post (benevolent billionaire) but it’s his suggestion of combining CNN and Twitter that has people talking. Galloways is a shareholder of Twitter and no fan of its part-time CEO, Jack Dorsey. After reading No Mercy / No Malice for close to two years, I have come to think of Twitter as Galloway’s version of Jerry Seinfeld’s frenemy, Newman. But I digress …

The Twitter News Network is an interesting idea. It builds upon people’s natural tendency to take their news to social media platforms. And it could help CNN make the shift from unidirectional pushing of stories to becoming a news platform that better reflects the public conversation and is more of a participant than judge — which is a direction that Jarvis thinks the journalism industry should pursue.

Jeff is no fan of governments taxing the tech giants with a view to sending that revenue to struggling journalism organizations. He sees it as a dangerous threat to freedom of speech and an impediment to the change that must happen inside news organizations. The Galloway proposal makes for strange and potentially profitable bedfellows and takes government out as a middleman. That’s a huge plus! But TNN requires both Twitter and CNN to think differently about their purpose, as well as their place in the marketplace. See Jarvis’ earlier point: change is hard, particularly in journalism but less so in the tech world.

It’s CNN’s “extraordinary human capital” that caught Galloway’s attention and sparked his creative ideas for its salvation and it’s human capital — more specifically the experience of racialized leaders in media — that serves as Nana aba Duncan’s research focus. In addition to being a William Southam Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, Nana aba is an award-winning broadcaster and the founder of Media Girlfriends, which started as a podcast and has grown to include peer mentorship, events and a $14K scholarship for women or non-binary students in high school, college, and university looking to pursue tech, communications or journalism studies. Who is an enabled to perform journalism is an equity issue and an indicia of the health of our democracy and it also is an influence over the journalistic product.

Duncan points out that it’s not just the makeup of newsrooms that needs to change — to include more underrepresented voices inside and leading media organizations — but also the very concept of objectivity that’s baked into journalism. Duncan points out that service to so-called objectivity sometimes prevents good and important stories from being told about the Black community and creates barriers for Black journalists to do their best work. Is there a straight line between journalism’s lack of diversity and its financial problems? It’s hard to say. But it’s never easy to run a successful business and it’s much harder to do if you don’t attract the best people, keep the best people and provide them with the conditions in which to thrive.

Both Jarvis and Duncan are hopeful because they see beautiful glimpses of the future in students and blossoming experiments in the digital universe. As a reader and listener, I am too. Looking inside for solutions is stubbornly more difficult than pointing the finger at an outside enemy. Notwithstanding that, like getting old, change is hard but it sure beats the alternative.