Future of journalism ≠ future of newspapers ≠ civic engagement
There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the future of journalism, and I thought a couple of pieces in the past few weeks made nice bookends showing why this hand-wringing is pointless.
1. The Christian Science Monitor worries “Is the death of newspapers the end of good citizenship?”
2. Street Fight worries Does Hyperlocal ‘Engagement’ Work — And Can it Be Monetized?
The first piece posits that daily newspapers are crucial to an engaged and informed citizenry. This is a theme we’ve seen frequently in the recent years. No argument there, but the premise goes further to try making a cause-effect connection between daily newspapers’ decline and a decline in civic engagement, which sure seems like it could be a case of a correlation, not a causation. (I would point out that these pieces are usually written by daily newspaper reporters and assigned by daily newspaper editors. This isn’t some kind of conspiracy – let’s acknowledge that the work they do is important. ).
And then it cites New Orleans, where the daily paper went less-than-daily. But it points out that The Lens has been picking up some of the journalistic slack in New Orleans, though it doesn’t mention the fact that local civic and business leaders have stepped forward to beef up The Lens. Contrary to the CSM headline, it sure looks like a city’s civic engagement can survive the economic troubles of an individual paper.
The Street Fight piece represents the other kind of hand-wringing, basically “Sure, journalism is springing up in local communities, but is it economically viable?” (A timeworn theme of those at the national level covering trends in local news.) And this piece offers examples of strong civic engagement supported by independent news outlets. So that’s the other bookend that doesn’t make sense in light of the first. CSM worries that civic engagement is dying because of dying newspapers. SF worries that there’s plenty of civic engagement but who’s gonna pay for it.
The most likely reality is this: Civic engagement ebbs and flows for many reasons. (See “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam). Historically, not everybody has been engaged, and not everybody will. Journalism plays a role of both the cause and effect of local civic engagement – not always for the better. Daily newspapers in the 1990s actually began recognizing how they undermined civic engagement by their coverage practices, like focusing on problems, not solutions, or simply covering last night’s meeting decisions – both of which made citizens feel powerless. Taken that way, the existence of a daily newspaper wan’t entirely a positive driver of civic engagement.
Looking forward, I expect civic engagement will continue to have its own life of ups and downs; traditional and startup journalists will continue to enhance, undermine, or simply follow those ups and downs; and citizens at the high end of engagement will find ways to support journalism’s role.
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