Last September, the New America Foundation published my case study of media and information in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.
Here’s the PDF of version 1.2. An updated version 2.0 is coming soon available here.
The study is a broad overview of the ways in which people who live in the Triangle get news and information about their local communities. I looked at newspapers, broadcast TV and radio, blogs of note, online neighborhood organizing, and the efforts of universities, libraries, nonprofits, and foundations to meet information needs. Following the lead of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, I used a rubric of “information health” to consider how well all these media outlets and other sources meet the need, what their challenges and successes are, and where gaps exist.
The audience for the report was twofold: I wanted to give policy makers in Washington, D.C. a window on how media and technology policies function of a piece in a metropolitan area; I also wanted to give people in North Carolina who are producing media (or wish to invest in it) a road map.
Reaction to the first version has been wonderful. UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Andy Bechtel, a former editor at The News & Observer, published this Q&A on his blog. It’s a quick read that gives background about what the report is all about.
In October 2010, New America’s Tom Glaisyer came to Durham to lead a roundtable discussion about the case study with a small group of stakeholders at the Triangle Community Foundation. Those at the table included editors, publishers, bloggers, academics, and foundation folks. Some I had interviewed for the case; some were learning about it for the first time.
One, UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Ryan Thornburg, blogged about the conversation, responding with ideas for action and policy change.
Professional reporters, whose ranks are being mowed down by an unsustainable business model that relies on corralling an increasingly dispersed and disaggregated audience, need to organize their audience in order to lower the cost of reporting.
The Triangle doesn’t necessarily need more professional journalists. What it needs is more people who think journalistically. We need more people who can not just describe what is seen, but who are curious about what we might not be seeing. We need more people who are less interested in what they can make people think and more interested in showing them how we know what we know. Curiosity and verification are the core tenants of journalistic thinking that I teach my newswriting students, and we need to find a way to hone those instincts among all North Carolinians. At the very least, they’ll become better consumers of news and there’s a chance that some might even become better producers of news.
Ryan and I worked together to develop those recommendations into an opinion piece for The News & Observer, which ran last December.
Andria Krewson, a Charlotte Observer veteran who blogs at Global Vue, had this reaction:
The call to action is remarkable in these respects: It comes from two people in academia, without financial interest in seeing more citizen participation in the media, and it calls for journalistic thinking from ordinary people. It also focuses on North Carolina and local civic news….
What I don’t want to see from their call to action: Yet another conference. We have plenty, even in North Carolina, planned for 2011.
What I would like to see: Specific projects or small meetups, with cross-discipline teams, aimed at small slices of the news ecosystem that are uncovered now.
Then in February, N&O Executive Editor John Drescher wrote this column about the case study. Like Ryan, he engaged with the idea that the mainstream media can become stronger by finding a way for, as Ryan puts it, the tributaries to contribute. Tributaries are any source that’s not mainstream: citizen blogs, startup news sources, Twitterers, nonprofits, etc.
In our meeting back in October, we asked participants to describe themselves — and their role at the table — in five words or less. I remember John Drescher’s were: “I need more reporters.”
I agree. But given the trend is heading in the opposite direction, we also need more than reporters. Better quality information and news will depend in part on our own ability as citizens to provide it to one another, and that will require us to think journalistically, and to view the tenents of fact-finding, verification and balance as part of civic duty.