It is not news to note that along with traditional working-class occupations, one of the hardest hit business and employment sectors, even before the recession, is the traditional news media. Rocked by, to use a favorite business journalism cliché, a “perfect storm” of technological innovation, shifts in consumer habits, and of course declining advertising revenue, reports of the death of the traditional newspaper may not be greatly exaggerated.
The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s latest report, The State of The News Media confirms that newspapers lost 26 percent of ad revenue in 2009, for a three-year total loss of 41 percent. And the projections for the future are equally grim. The report suggests that, for newspapers, “the metaphor that comes to mind is sand in an hourglass. The shrinking money left in print, which still provides 90% of the industry’s profits, is the amount of time left to invent new revenue models online. The industry must find a new model before that money runs out.”
As my colleagues and I have noted before, the consequences of this revenue bleed are dire, for both information and, indeed, democracy. After all, original reporting, as Pew confirms, still comes primarily from these same traditional outlets that are faced with dwindling resources.
Meanwhile, as newspapers devote more emphasis and resources to online journalism, the Pew Project suggests, their focus shifts to “disseminating information” rather than “gathering it, making news people more reactive and less proactive.” The report rightly notes that this shift grants more power to newsmakers, who, through press releases and press conferences now take their own accounts directly to the public “in a less vetted form, sometimes close to verbatim.” Such accounts also quickly become fodder for commentary via the web. Absent from many of these news opportunities is the supplemental reporting that “would unearth more facts and context about the events,” so that “while technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.”
And yet, despite these important concerns, one of the brightest spots in the otherwise bleak forecast for media is community journalism– and this is where the convergence of the media and the economic meltdowns gets interesting. While traditional media continued a steady decline over the past year, citizen and community media expanded.
As Michele McLellan points out, community journalism projects are evolving as hybrids between old and new media, between professionals and citizens, and between for profit and not-for-profit groups, resulting in the creation of “exciting experiments that will help shape the future of news, information, and civic engagement.” Increasingly, projects like Oakland Local and YSU’s thenewsoutlet.org explore means to “mix community building with professional standards of reporting.”
Indeed the “perfect storm” cliché might just hold weight for the ways in which media and communities, particularly recession-hit working- and middle-class communities, might work together to redefine their futures and affect positive change.
Recent studies and anecdotal observations reveal some interesting albeit conflicting findings of the effects the current recession on community building and engagement. Taken together, even with the contradictions, these trends might point to some opportunities for media and for the communities they serve. For example, while the Civic Health Index gathered by The National Conference on Leadership charts a decline in civic engagement defined by traditional metrics of participation in volunteer organizations, the study also finds that a re-definition of civic engagement to include tangibles like food and shelter, what might be termed “working-class issues,” makes the picture more complex. The study finds that
Even though they are disproportionately affected by the economic downturn, low-income Americans are still finding ways to give back to their communities. Thirty-nine percent of respondents with an income less than $50,000 reported helping others by providing food or shelter, compared to only 27 percent of Americans with a higher income. Overall, 50 percent of Americans gave food or money to someone who was not a relative, while 17 percent allowed a relative to live in their home and more than one-in-ten took in non-relatives.
Annie Gowen of The Washington Post chronicles a sense of renewed solidarity in one D.C. neighborhood in which neighbors were banding together to respond to the problems of foreclosure, increased crime, and blight caused by the recession. The sources she cites indicate that technology and an active younger generation, one comfortable with the tools of media, might actually increase engagement, a finding confirmed by the aforementioned Civic Health Index, which finds that “Millenials who use social networking sites for civic purposes are far more likely to actively engage in civic participation in their communities.” In fact, this group leads the way with a 43 percent community service rate.
News organizations, partnering with community groups, universities, and other not-for-profits must increasingly become catalysts of civic engagement in order to remain viable in the shifting news economy. Journalists are well positioned to take the lead in this new information/organization ecosystem by realizing and returning to their strengths: helping to set community agendas, guarding accuracy in reporting and transparency in government, and gathering and presenting information in ways that serve the members of the community. Academics, particularly those involved in media, community-based research, and working-class studies, can contribute to this revitalization by helping community members identify ways to use new and traditional information technologies for community change and greater civic involvement.
So while the traditional newspaper may in fact be dying, media outlets may also be reborn as something far greater and far more useful. By taking active leadership roles, traditional news outlets and practitioners can transform the role of the professional from that of competitor with citizen journalists and “upstart” outlets to that of mentor, or better still, partner in the retooling of the information needs of their communities. The community information needs of the digital age will best be met by innovative partnerships between traditional and new media and community organizations and universities, as creators and delivers of content take cues from news consumers, who increasingly integrate content from multiple sources to stay informed and relevant.
Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies