How do we (market) teach that journalism matters

Submitted by newsecology on Wed, 03/04/2009 – 1:27pm

Session Convenor: Bill Densmore

Session Reporter: Jenn Hemmingsen

Discussion Participants: Jeff VanderClute, Michele McLellan, Jeremy Iggers, John Hamer, Kat Powers, Tom Stites, Susan Moeller, Hannah Miller, Kelly Puente, Tom Honig, Laura Emerick, Anne Anderson, Jenn Hemmingsen, John DeVries, Leslie Clark

These notes were prepared by breakout session participant Jenn Hemmingsen and are organized with an introduction, and then consideration of two key questions raised:

  • What is journalism and what kinds of information do communities need?
  • How do we make sure the public recognizes the value of this information?
  • AUDIO — An audio recording of the sessions was made with the permission of the participants and you can listen to it (or down an MP3 podcast) by following THIS LINK.

Bill D: What we have is not only a supply problem; we also have a marketing problem.

Jeff VanderClute: is here to listen.

Michele McLellan: A lot of people are stuck thinking we have to save the news industry, when really what we have to save is journalism.

Jeremy Iggers: marketing is tied to the idea that news is a commodity. Maybe we should be conscious that we’re not talking about that here. Maybe the word journalism is too constricting. We’ve got much more powerful tools now.

John Hamer: Trust is so important to our value. We’ve got to make that part of the equation.

Kat Powers: Marketing is what she does to get people to her web site. She wants smart, cheap ideas to take home.

Tom Stites: wants to take away a sense of how journalism can be set aside from the general meaning of the word media. We have to separate it out from “blather” if we’re going to get people to value it.

Susan Moeller: is looking for smart ideas. Platform matters less at this point.

Hannah Miller: wants to talk about themes and groups to reach out to. We are writers; we should be able to figure out the answer.

Kelly Puente: Wants great ideas to help her paper

Tom Honig: is remembering the old Johnny Carson show where poor scientists would try to come out and get ribbed by Don Rickels. We’ve got to shake people up and say “this stuff is important”. Have to advocate our stories – not the sites – market them before and after they come out.

Laura Emerick: is getting the sense we aren’t valuing “legacy media”. There are great people in print, but management has failed them. How do we sell that to the public?

Anne Anderson: wonders if we don’t need a better definition of what we do before we talk about marketing at all.

Jenn Hemmingsen: is uncomfortable about the term marketing. She thinks we need to do a better job of teaching people about our standards and practices and listening to their response.

John DeVries: says there’s a school of thought that journalism should be a funded public service commodity.

Leslie Clark: says Albuquerque just lost its second newspaper – she’s here to get ideas about how to fill the void left from losing them.

Question 1: How do we convince the public that journalism is important? Wait a minute, what are we talking about when we say journalism? What kinds of information do communities need?

Short answer: pocketbook issues, monitoring and checking of authority, engagement connections, aggregate clout, framing questions, how to use the system – rules of the game, community and consumer safety, entertainment, witness to history, record of culture.


Michele thinks that sometimes we know so clearly what we want to celebrate that we don’t really connect with citizens. Maybe we need to be better about eliciting that from the community. When she was an ombudsman, sometimes she felt like the staff and the readers were living in parallel universes.

Tom H. says his readers over 50 read the paper as an act of civic responsibility – they’ll plow through stories. Younger ones don’t so much. Younger readers have more of an attitude of “Show me, every time, that this is something I need to read.”

Susan says we aren’t clear enough about why it matters to readers. Reporters have to really sell the story.

Hannah: Somehow as a society, we’ve transitioned from citizens to taxpayers. “We used to have to care because everyone was important. Now we only care because it’s about our money.”

Jeremy: It’s difficult because readers remember what papers (star tribune) used to be and they miss it.

Bill: so there’s a visceral understanding of that (what journalism is)?

Jeremy: among older people.

Bill: Is there a broad overlap between the civic needs of 18-34 and of older people?

Jeremy’s sense is that a lot of 18-34 year olds aren’t interested in civic issues

Kat: but when they have kids in the public schools, they care. They care about Barack Obama.

Michele says young readers engage — they just do it in other ways.

Kat: Is constantly trying to pull people in. The 18-35 year olds are used to that. We’re more used to pushing information out to the public and watching that make a difference.

Bill: Does the community need us to teach them how to engage in civic life?

Kat: Young people are creating their own ways to engage. Facebook, live journals, things they happen by. You need to look for different forms of civic engagement. She provides knowledge about how to get involved. No one reads it. But when she blogs it and posts it to facebook, it gets picked up on another blog, etc.

Bill: So is there anything about engagement that’s a core function of journalism anymore?

Kat: when you comment, or forward, you’re engaging with the paper.

Jeff: The change is in who is driving the engagement.

Michele: Still are engaging around data.

Tom: Refers to the Wash post column by Wire writer bemoaning lack of Baltimore cops coverage – the problem is that the reporter wasn’t out there patrolling. They were covering the stories but not meaningfully.

John: sometimes the media get it wrong. When that happens, people lose trust. There’s not a great outpouring of community grief over the death of the Seattle P-I. He hears it all the time – that the paper thinks it’s their job to tear down icons.

Jeff: Are there emerging ways to do the monitoring? Historically this role has been aggregated. Maybe there will just be smaller bits floating around. “Maybe we can provide some organization, but we have to fan out.”

Michele: Thinks professional journalism of the future could signal a willingness for more partnerships. In the past we’ve rejected people as not being up to our standards. Now we have to ask – what is it that other people can do? What are the things that professional journalists have to do? If you want to partner with your community, you’ve got to guide what it is that pros need to do. “I think a lot of people are developing citizenship in stepping in and trying to fill this void.” Break down the idea of watchdog. There might be people in the community who are perfectly capable of getting documents and putting them up online.

Laura doesn’t see these community groups banding together and bringing down Richard Nixon. The way these things happened is because of the tremendous institutional clout.

Anne: We take for granted that people are more knowledgeable than they are. 12% of the population doesn’t even use a bank. People don’t know how things work – they don’t know the rules of the game. One of our roles is to explain things in more detail to help people to function in society.

Bill: clout can be negative when it’s too concentrated. But if there is none, it weakens people’s ability to challenge authority. What’s the balance? Does the community have any stake in how the journalism functions?

Question 2: How do we make sure the public recognizes the value of this information?

Short Answer: Inventory needs, develop joint projects, send staff out as representatives to talk about how decisions are made and how they can participate, ask for the public’s help, join with other people on the inside who are sticking out their necks, show vivid examples of what journalism is.

What are the information needs of communities given the above parameters? How well are the local papers doing this? How can citizens help with that? When they fail, acknowledge that failure and see how they can help.

A lot of newspapers today can’t meet all of these needs because of limited resources. If the community thinks it’s important enough mightn’t they help with that?

Michele just got an e-mail from a small town editor who is now using community content for arts coverage. In many of these communities, people are already identifying the gaps and trying to fill them. Newspapers can see these people as rivals, or they can partner with them.

Jeff: “It sounds like the word ‘marketing’ just got tuned into ‘education’”

Tom S. hears us promoting newspapers. If we are going to promote journalism instead, what’s the speaker’s bureau? Are we talking about a product or a form?

Bill thinks it some kind of new citizen-based entity armed with a belief that journalism is important. He wants them to lobby “incumbent” media organizations.

Tom: our trade associations are connected to products

Hannah: No one’s ever run a campaign for journalism before

Tom H: the vanishing newspaper is what’s on people’s mind

Bill: If there’s an audience that wants journalism, there should be a business that provides it.

Tom H: but the truth is media companies are not doing the job

Laura: It’s not that they don’t want to

John H: thinks they weren’t doing it even when they were making money. They were fat and lazy.

Hannah: Common Cause is freaking out because they’ve realized their watchdog work will be useless if there are no newspapers to run their investigations. Everyone is freaking out because there is no public dialogue to affect. The more concentrated power becomes in the country, the greater the need. The reason her generation don’t read newspapers is because the media rolled over on the Iraq war.

Tom H: yes, but the mainstream media also came up with secret prisons in Europe, Walter Reed.

Bill says it’s Hannah’s job to fix this. He’ll push and help her.

Hannah says newspapers won’t change until there’s leadership and a push from inside. And journalists have to stop being arrogant.

John H: Reads a Wole Soyinka quote from the courtyard: “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

Tom H. Could there be an established media advocacy group?

Tom S. We need vivid examples. Show journalism in the process of being valued.

Bill: so what do we call this movement?

Some ideas: Journalism matters, New reporter, Save the news, Story (something), Charting the Information Future, Vox Populi

Send your campaign name ideas to: hmiller [at] media [dot] democracy [dot] net

About Peggy Holman

Peggy Holman supports organizations and communities to uncover creative responses to complex challenges using innovative engagement processes. The Change Handbook, co-authored with Tom Devane and Steven Cady, documents many such processes. The book is the considered the definitive resource for leaders and consultants working to increase resilience, agility, and collaboration in organizations and other social systems. Peggy co-founded Journalism that Matters in 2001 with three journalists to support the pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology. Peggy’s latest book, Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity, supports people facing disruptions to invite others to join them in realizing new possibilities.
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