Journalism will find strength in systems

“The future will be about rethinking the systems of journalism so that they build on interlocking strengths.”

We’ve reached a point where the “death of journalism” is well past old news. Things have been breaking down for a number of years. We used to have publications that covered a broad swath; now we have niche. We’ve gone from lists to listicles. Articles are supplanted by particles of news, and the death and (expected) rebirth of Circa have taken us beyond the single report and into news as fluid and ever-updating.

tom-glaisyerIf the journalism industry is going to succeed, its leaders will need to think about how to reassemble these fragments in new ways. The power and strength of journalism is when it is able to challenge other institutions that have power. In the past, this might have been The Boston Globe via a multi-article investigation à la Spotlight. In 2016, however, holding malefactors accountable might look a lot different.

This will be the year where the pioneers succeed in reassembling the parts. It seems unlikely that the power of the press will lie solely in large news institutions and multi-part series.

Instead, news with impact will involve journalism production processes that span institutions and platforms, and marry the power of the press with the powers of data and participation. Individual political claim checking is important, but interpreting the bigger picture that emerges from such evaluations — and making it relevant to communities and voters — is more important. That involves new relationships among multiple outlets and a more intimate understanding of what engages audiences where they live, work — and network.

At its core, the future will be about rethinking the systems of journalism so that they build on interlocking strengths. We’ve already seen the seeds of such projects in innovative collaborations, such as the recent pairing up of The Marshall Project and ProPublica to investigate the egregious mishandling of a rape investigation, or CIR’s creation of an investigative collaboration in New Jersey.

Such solutions help to fill the lacuna in muckraking that New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has flagged in a recent pair of columns. While many local papers have been decimated, they “aren’t the only places doing local investigative journalism,” she notes. “More and more, nonprofit news organizations, digital start-ups, university-based centers and public radio stations are beginning to fill the gap — sometimes in partnerships.”

2016 will undoubtedly be a time when the atomic unit of news is subdivided further. But it will also be the year when publishers, alongside sharp editors and reporters, come to understand the wider dynamics in which they operate. This will enable the nascent partnerships that Sullivan mentions to grow into the enduring news networks and distributed systems of tomorrow.

Tom Glaisyer is program director for the Informed Participation Program at the Democracy Fund.