How to invest in closing America’s “information voids” and digital divides

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(Graphic by New York Times)

In the same way that poor diets affect our physical health, America’s infodemic is being fueled by poor information diets. About 2,100 newspapers have folded since 2004, driving a ~58% decline in newsroom employment.

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Digital outlets have not replaced the jobs or journalism reporters produced and editors verified.

Now, the New York Times reports thatpink slime” outlets are filling the information voids left behind, with the emergence of pay-for-play digital outlets that launder partisan attacks for a few dollars an article and digital duopoly of Facebook and Google dominates the digital advertising markets.

None of this is new nor, in 2020, can we really say that no one saw this coming.

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Clay Shirky was brutally honest about the fate of the newspapers back in 2014, after he “thought about the unthinkable” in 2009.

In an essay that accurately predicted the ongoing trend in the industry, Shirky asked the crucial question that keeps people who believe democracies depend on a robust, independent free press to inform publics engaging in self-governance: “who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?”

His answer remains instructive:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

There were good ideas in the Knight Commission’s report on the information needs of American democracy, but it’s hard for me to argue that the polluted social media and cable news ecosystems of today are meeting them, given the collapse documented above.

In 2020, there is still no national strategy to catalyze that journalism, despite the clear and present danger absence poses to the capacity of the American people to engage in self-governance or the shared public facts necessary for effective collective action in response to a public health threat.

Investors, philanthropists, foundations, and billionaries who care about the future of our nation needs to keep investing in experiments that rebuild trust in journalism by reporting with the communities reporters cover using the affordances of social media, not on them.

Publishers could build out new forms of service journalism based upon data that improve access to information, empower consumers, patients, and constituents to make better choices, and ask the people formerly known as the audience to help journalists investigate.

We need to find more sustainable business models that produce investigative journalism that don’t depend on grants from foundations and public broadcasting corporations, though those funds will continue be part of the revenue mix.

As Shirky said, “nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.”

Finally, state governments need to subsidize public access to publications and the Internet through libraries, schools, and wireless networks, aiming to deploy gigabit speeds to every home through whatever combination of technologies gets the job done.

The FCC, states and cities should invest in restorative information justice. How can a national government that spend hundreds of billions on weapon systems somehow have failed to provide a laptop for each child and broadband Internet access to every home?

It is unconscionable that our governments have allowed existing social inequities to be widened in 2020, as children are left behind by remote learning, excluded from the access to the information, telehealth, unemployment benefits, and family that will help them and their families make it through this pandemic.

Information deprivation should not be any more acceptable in the politics of the world’s remaining hyperpower than poisoning children with lead through a city water supply.

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