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July 11, 2018, 9:13 a.m.
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54 newsrooms, 9 countries, and 9 core ideas: Here’s what two researchers found in a yearlong quest for journalism innovation

“Our angle on the current state of journalism is this: The crisis of journalism and legacy news media is structural, and not just a matter of technological challenges or broken business models.”

Editor’s note: Per Westergaard is a longtime editor-in-chief and CEO of a range of Danish regional, national and digital titles. Søren Schultz Jørgensen has worked as a journalist and editor at several Danish news media during the last 20 years. Last year, they undertook an international inquiry into the state of newsroom innovation; here’s what they found.

The news media most successful at creating and maintaining ties with their readers, users, listeners and viewers will increasingly be media that dare challenge some of the journalist dogmas of the last century: the dogma of arm’s length; the dogma of neutrality; the dogma of objectivity; the belief that journalists have a special ability to find and choose what is important for citizens. And not least: the basic idea, that journalism is primarily about transporting news and information from A to B.

For journalism to be relevant for citizens in the future, it will to a large extent need to challenge these deeply rooted professional dogmas, thus creating a media landscape that is more varied, more lively, more organically open to the citizens and much more diverse than the news industry we have seen for a hundred years.

These are some of the conclusions in our book, The Journalistic Connection, published in Danish this past March under the title Den journalistiske Forbindelse. The book is the written result of a yearlong research journey, undertaken in 2017, through nine European countries and the United States, visiting and studying 54 media companies pioneering new ways to connect with their audiences and communities.

We identified nine different ways by which news media in the Western world are currently trying to forge closer ties and stronger relations to their communities and audiences. Below, we’ll take a look at each of the nine ways. First, however, we need to clarify the purpose and the ambition of our journey.

Our angle on the current state of journalism is this: The crisis of journalism and legacy news media is structural, and not just a matter of technological challenges or broken business models. When citizens of Western societies, to a deeply disturbing extent, turn their backs on original news journalism, spend less time on news on radio and television, buy fewer newspapers, and express a growing distrust of media institutions, we need to submit the core content of the news media — journalism itself — to a critical review.

Today’s core questions for news media — old or new, small or big, privately or publicly owned — must be social and cultural: How can journalism regain its relevance, meaning, and trusted prominence in society? How can journalism reconnect with citizens?

These were the questions that guided our journey, starting at home in Denmark, where we researched an initial list of 120 media that could be rewarding to visit — new media, legacy media, born-digital, radio, television and printed newspapers. We sorted through that list and ended up with just over 50 of the most interesting and innovative outlets in the international media landscape today.

The outlets were selected because they try out new ideas, in areas such as journalistic engagement, cooperation, listening, and activism. But at the same time, they’re able to demonstrate that new ways of connecting with and engaging citizens create better results in terms of user satisfaction, circulation, audience, or earnings.

The journey in the U.S. took us through New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Austin, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle. The European leg of the trip led us through Spain, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

Half of the interviews were conducted in the U.S., the other half in Europe, with the ambition of gathering inspiration, ideas, and strategies that both American and European news professionals can mirror themselves in and — hopefully — learn from. We need to learn from the best on both sides of the Atlantic to a much greater degree.

As mentioned above, we identified nine ways — or movements — through which news media are pushing their journalism in a more engaging, cooperative and community-oriented direction:

1. From neutrality to identity

Many news organizations are working intensely on sharpening their own profiles and identities, challenging the dogma of neutrality and fleeing away from the catch-all omnibus news ideal for several reasons. The need for a clear media identity grows when online news content is spread in small, unidentifiable bites across the Internet. Also, in order to make people relate to and identity with you, you must show them what you stand for. Show them who you are, and from which perspective — geographically, socio-demographically, or politically — you view the world. Prime examples of news media working with their identities in this targeted way are the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen (The Class Struggle), the regional online news site Voice of San Diego and The Evergrey in Seattle.

2. From omnibus to niche

Niche media’s ability to create relevance for users — and to mobilize both interest and willingness to pay — is far greater than the ability of the omnibus media. And apart from a very few media with global reach (e.g. The Guardian, BBC, CNN), all news media can be considered niche operations. However, many broad-reaching legacy media hesitate to openly show and communicate which niche audience they seek to engage. Maybe because the democratic value of niche media is somewhat controversial: creating strong bonds among a homogenous audience instead of bridging different communities. Nonetheless, targeted niche media like the Seattle-based tech site GeekWire, Berlin-based youth site Ze.tt and the intellectual daily Information in Copenhagen show that is possible to create both quality journalism of high public value and cater to targeted audiences at the same time.

3. From flock to club

Gathering people around the news media, in clearly defined communities — clubs — is a strategy gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. This implies transforming what were formerly known as subscribers, users, or readers into members, that must either register or pay to join the inner circles of the crowd around the news media. Spanish El Diario and French Mediapart have put membership models at the heart of their identities and their journalistic operations. Many American media companies — from legacy players like The New York Times and the Gannett group to online startups organized in the News Revenue Hub — follow the same path.

4. From ink to sweat

Many media companies are pursuing new ways to create physical journalism in the form of public meetings, festivals, events, and stage plays. Live and engaging. And yes, they consider it journalism. French daily Le Monde has made physical live events an important way to engage with citizens and to generate new revenue. The same strategy is used by The Texas Tribune, which carries out a variety of small and big events yearround. Danish startup Zetland regularly sets up journalistic shows around the prominent theaters in Copenhagen.

5. From speaking to listening

The legacy media business often has the character of a walled fortress more than of an open and accessible house. But both in the U.S. and Europe, news organizations are increasingly opening up — physically and mentally — in order to be more accessible to the citizens they serve. More than anything, this means listening to citizens and creating more transparency in editorial matters. This can be done through direct personal dialogue, through physical presence in communities, or through the systematic use of small and big data. The listening solutions developed by Chicago-based Hearken are now used by public radio and TV stations in the U.S. The regional German newspaper Braunschweiger Zeitung, which brands itself Bürgerzeitung — the newspaper of the citizens — listens through extensive use of physical meetings in local communities and by each day dedicating editorial resources and columns in the paper to cover questions asked by readers.

6. From arm’s length to cooperation

In order to maintain independence and neutrality, modern journalism has kept its distance, holding everyone outside the newsroom at arm’s length: citizens, interest groups, public institutions, private corporations, decision makers. However, this pattern is clearly changing. More and more newsrooms are involving citizens directly throughout the journalistic process: from ideation to research to delivery of independent content to the subsequent debate of published stories. The Dutch online site De Correspondent, German Correctiv, and ProPublica in New York are prime examples of organizations that have refined this co-creation process — without giving up editorial gatekeeping. They have all also pioneered cooperation with grassroots, NGOs, and public institutions — as well as with other media companies — as a way to create a both substantially deeper and more engaging journalism.

7. From own to other platforms

It weakens business opportunities of the news media and their journalistic control when they put their content on social media. That seems to be the common consensus in the news industry. Using social media is a double-edged sword, but handled in the right way — maybe more as a way to cooperate than distribute — social network technologies have big potential to enhance and deepen engagement, while at the same time creating stronger journalism. David Fahrenthold’s Twitter-based research on Donald Trump’s charitable giving, earning him and The Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize, is the golden example. The Wall Street Journal’s use of Snapchat Discover to cover the lives of Americans hit by the opioid crisis in the U.S. is another.

8. From problem to solution

Even the most hardcore investigative journalists have discovered they gain greater impact if they add a solution-oriented level to their work. Constructive journalism simply creates more engagement among readers, users, viewers. They read more, they are more likely to share content, and they express more interest in knowing more about the issue when the piece has a constructive angle. The Danish public broadcaster DR has refined this type of journalism over several years, thus improving ratings and reach of its TV news. In the U.S., the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting integrates a solution-oriented element in many of its investigative projects — even arranging solution summits for the stakeholders around some of the problems its deep-digging journalists have uncovered.

9. From observers to activists

Several news outlets — established as well as new ones — are testing whether they can create a new relevance to their readers, users, and viewers through activist campaigns or journalistic advocacy. This move is particularly controversial for many journalists — and clearly not a strategy suitable for all types of media operations. However, a campaign-oriented approach to journalism has successfully been used as a way to engage and create action among citizens for European news media such as The Guardian, Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, and the Danish regional newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende.

Our book describes and analyzes all these examples and many, many more, in depth and detail. If there’s a common denominator for the 50-plus news organizations we’ve met and studied — apart, of course, from striving to connect with citizens in new ways — it’s their focus on innovation and experiments.

All the new digital publishers we’ve met seem founded on the courage and ambition of radical innovation. But also, in the legacy media institutions we visited, there seems to be a new understanding of the need for dramatic change and open-ended experiments.

This is why we find no reason to preach one particular model of journalism for the future. All the experiments and ideas unfolding in the current media landscape on both sides of the Atlantic indicate that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of different models, all of which carry a hope for journalism in the future.

POSTED     July 11, 2018, 9:13 a.m.
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