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How to b-e-e of use: Signal Cleveland hosts second annual community spelling contest
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July 19, 2019, 10:43 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   July 19, 2019

There’s no dearth of informative content for affluent readers — see the surge of coverage of Amazon’s Prime Day earlier this week, when countless news organizations and websites trotted out their guides to the best deals and simultaneously raked in affiliate revenue. The New York Times’ successful Smarter Living section and newsletter appeal to people who have enough free time and money to not just get through the day but to hack it.

But for all of the people who have the kinds of jobs that allow them the space and flexibility to shop for the best deals on smart doorbells and stick vacuums from their desks, there are way more people for whom that’s unfathomable — and news organizations need to be doing a better job of serving them. Initiatives like the Detroit-based Outlier Media, which mass-texts local information on topics to like housing, inspections, and utilities, is, well, still a complete outlier.

“My job is to get vetted information to the people who need it most,” Outlier Media founder Sarah Alvarez told my colleague Christine Schmidt last year. “The reason I do it is to create more accountability, which is at the heart of what I think journalists should do.”

Recently, Alvarez got together with other like-minded journalists — Courtney Hurtt of WDET, Eve Pearlman and Adriana Garcia of Spaceship Media, Mike Rispoli of the News Voices Project of Free Press, and Harry Backlund, Bettina Chang, and Darryl Holliday of City Bureau — to come up with a new for journalism that they describe as an “information pyramid.” Harry Backlund, cofounder of the Chicago-based City Bureau, writes:

The image comes from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory of human development that says — briefly — that fundamental human needs like food, water, shelter and safety have to be met before we can focus on “higher” needs like relationships, social prestige and transcendent experiences. What if journalists thought about a community’s information needs in a similar framework and prioritized our work accordingly?

This is what that pyramid might look like:

At the foundation is information that has to circulate in a community for people to live: how to find housing, food, shelter, transportation and economic opportunity. In the middle of the pyramid is media that helps people and communities connect (like events calendars, school news and obituaries) and understand each other, as the best human interest stories can. At the top of the pyramid is information that appeals to more abstract desires and makes us feel engaged, intrigued or involved. Often these are stories about someone else’s needs. Pretty much all narrative storytelling, investigation and political analysis goes here — most of what we typically think of when we say “journalism.”

Modeled in this way, it becomes clear that the vast majority of journalism produced by mainstream news organizations today is perched at the very top of that pyramid.

One of the first things we noticed in sketching the information pyramid is that our priorities seem wildly out of balance: a huge amount of journalistic resources go into the top of the pyramid to serve the abstract needs of a comfortable few, completely passing over the basic information needs of a great many. Journalists routinely cover inequity as an abstract phenomenon that can be observed and remarked upon from afar, but it’s a rare media organization that would produce a guide for navigating rural poverty, or managing an opioid addiction, or handling your lease when you’re getting gentrified out of your neighborhood.

Where journalists are paying attention to concrete impact, it’s mostly understood in terms of political changes, putting focus on legislation, policy and elections. These things matter, for sure, but they are abstract—something we engage with only when we have the time to think past our basic needs. Yes, democracy dies in darkness. But so do people. Which are we prioritizing?

It’s not that journalists don’t know how to provide actionable information; we do this all the time, just only for certain people. In the era of paid-referral links, many of our most respected news sources have put journalists to work on a kind of information-concierge service for the consumer class, offering detailed recommendations for the best standing desks and smart-home appliances, but little health advice for those who work all day on their feet or juggle bills to make rent. We hear a chorus of hot tips for “smarter living,” and near silence on how to survive in America. The economist James Hamilton put it well in a panel at ONA last year, “There is no Wirecutter for the poor.”

The full post — which you might want to read in conjunction with my editor Josh Benton’s recent Twitter thread on The New York Times’ conception of “the middle class” — is here.

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