News organizations: how do you get throughout feedback from your community?

I assume that the idea of ‘letters to the editor’ was once a representative and effective means for news organizations to receive feedback from their community.

I’m not certain it remains so. For one, those can of course only be sent in for what has already been announced. I also get the sense not many reporters really listened or could gauge the preponderance of feedback.

The rise of quantitative surveying helps, though of course surveys are also not necessarily representative. We at Technically Media do our fair bit of surveying, after events and annually too. We also host regular curated groups of readers and (importantly) those we aspire to be readers of ours.

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Three emerging approaches to local journalism

It’s no longer quite right to say journalism as a whole is imperiled by the internet-age. In the last decade, powerhouse national outlets have made the business model leaps. Other important and influential national and global organizations gather and produce valuable information for the civic good. Their concerns are now with truth and partisanship and objectivity. These are heady issues but they’re not directly revenue problems.

This is different from publishers with a geographic focus; previous business models don’t comport simply with web-powered scale. Local journalism is very much in crisis. I know this personally and professionally, so I follow trends closely with an applied viewpoint

I’ve long thought that we at the news organization I cofounded a decade ago are something of an outlier, trying to approach local reporting through a for-profit, multi-local strategy. (I wrote here about why Technically Media is not a nonprofit). Recently though I’ve noticed that we may fit into one of three broad approaches I see tackling local news.

This is made clear by the strengthening of the country’s superstar national commercial journalism providers as the collapse of the dominant local forms continues apace. Web-powered scale has laid bare that national and local outlets are in entirely different categories. 

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There was a crowd of us, now we are almost none

From an eyewitness account of the Black Death of the 1340s:

“There was a crowd of us, now we are almost none. We should make new friends, but how, when the human race is almost wiped out; and why, when it looks to me as if the end of the world is at hand? Why pretend? We are alone indeed. You see how our great band of friends has dwindled. Look, even as we speak we too are slipping away, vanishing like shadows. One minute someone hears that another has gone, next he is following in his footsteps.”

[source; first spotted in this video at 33:42; not Agnolo di Tura]

(Photo by Mads Rasmussen via Unsplash)

Advice for journalists graduating into a recession

New journalists, I graduated May 2008, and though I actually think this moment is even more challenging than then, let me share a few thoughts I wish someone told me then.

It’s ok to consider a job outside journalism. Your skills (writing, analysis, research) are portable. We do want people to shuffle to growth industries. You can bring journalism thinking and support elsewhere.

But the economy is presently stalled and many of you are true believers, so let’s talk.

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Journalists as a ‘community directory of last resort’

Journalists fill such a unique role in communities. As a mirror, we show the best and the worst. We also often serve as a kind of directory of last resort.

I want to tell you something incredible, yet familiar, that happened recently.

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Thoughts on tax status and journalism

Journalism is the messy art of connecting that which is true with that which can be understood. I’ve defined it in other ways before. However you define it though, practitioners like me tend to assume it is important. We work to maintain it.

In the past few months, I’ve taken a critical look at that assumption, that journalism matters. One way I’ve done that is thinking about the types of organizations that produce whatever it is that journalism is.

In periods of economic change, when institutions or processes or elements of culture are lost, challenging the assumption of importance matters. It’s a crucial step. Are we trying to hold on to this thing because of tradition or because something functionally has import?

Political philosophy is rich with debate over what crucial societal functions should be enshrined into government, or maintained by charitable organizations and what the free market can do best. With the economic disruption confronting how journalism is produced, this question is relevant again.

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Notes on ‘The Invention of News’ by Andrew Pettegree

The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.

It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.

Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.

Find my notes below.

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More Americans are coal miners than local journalists

It helps to understand economic change by comparing stories.

Naturally the visualization of the soot-covered coal miner is an evocative image of blue collar industry. Almost immediately as that image became a tool during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, it became a political football.

To put the size of the coal industry in context, we were reminded that the middling fast food chain Arbys employed more people than the entirety of the coal industry. Turns out, though, more journalists have lost their jobs than coal miners. To understand job losses in news-gathering then, researchers asked, are journalists today’s coal miners?

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Local and national media: once no difference, and now the central difference of newsrooms

One of the many economic ripple effects of the global scaling of the web has been an enormous rift between place-based and place-less news organizations.

As recent as the early 1990s, the business fundamentals of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer weren’t all that different. They were all advertising and subscription businesses that used a newspaper model as its strategy, leveraging thick newsrooms to gobble up a high comprehension of readers in its audience segmentation.

The web has transformed this into what seems very obvious to you today. Despite the geography in their names, the Washington Post is read globally for insight into U.S. government affairs; the New York Times is read globally by an affluent tribe that identifies with its brand and the Philadelphia Inquirer is read regionally by those who want to access that geography’s largest and most influential newsroom.

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Media Funders: Value the difference between Creation and Distribution

This post will draw a very bright line between the Creation and Distribution of verified information for communities, and argue for that distinction’s importance for understanding today’s news-gathering and journalism climate.

One of my favorite pieces of business-reporting conventional wisdom is that everything in the economy is cyclical. It just depends on how big the circle is this time.

That goes for business building. As early web entrepreneur Jim Barksdale famously put it, “there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”

Information gathering (what we roughly call “journalism” today) has been a strategy for businesses for half a millennia. In its early commercial forms, the act of gathering that information and the act of distributing it were essentially two different businesses. In Barksdale’s parlance, they were “unbundled.”

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