Open up the profession

“Making journalism more equitable will require a more inclusive definition of what it means to be a journalist. We’ll need to stop being precious about what we do and how we do it.”

2021 will be the year we are forced not only to confront our collective failures but to do something about them.

Our biggest failure: the total breakdown in trust between American communities and the journalists and newsrooms that are supposed to serve them. Going into the future, we’ll have to raise our standards for the relevance and usefulness of our work to the communities we’re supposed to serve.

The good news is these conversations have already begun, and we’re as ready as we’ll ever be to tackle this problem. Below are two potential outcomes on the horizon.

We’ll see more creative reinvention of what it means to do journalism and/or be a journalist.

In 2021, more newsrooms will have to face the fact that their attempts at becoming more equitable and inclusive haven’t been good enough. If we’re lucky, we may see more attention, funding, and maybe just some listening — finally! — to the BIPOC journalists who’ve made it into, and stuck it out in, our industry.

But we’ll also see that that’s not enough.

Making journalism more equitable will require a more inclusive definition of what it means to be a journalist. We’ll need to stop being precious about what we do and how we do it. If we boil our purpose and skills down to the very basics of what it means to pursue the truth and tell it, we’ll find it isn’t about college degrees, awards, writing skills, or the logos on our business cards. It’s about curiosity, tenacity, and an obsession with transparency. There are plenty of people who possess these qualities and can contribute to newsgathering if given the opportunity and compensation.

The ever-growing interest in City Bureau’s Documenters network is proof of both the need and appetite for removing barriers and bringing more people into our profession, even if part-time or temporarily. The newly launched Prison Journalism Project, which uses the “tools of journalism” to help people affected by incarceration tell stories about their communities, is another example. And in communities where we do research at the American Journalism Project, we’ve found trusted networks of neighbors developing organically to fill the gaps that their shrinking newsrooms are leaving empty. They may not be called journalists, but they’re doing the work. They need both acknowledgment and help.

If we want any hope of adequately serving all communities with local news, we’ll need to support and cultivate the assets they already have. I predict we’ll see more newsrooms embracing this idea and coming up with creative solutions to open our profession up. Equity won’t just be about finding new people who can fit into an old mold; it’ll be about fixing a mold that made it unnecessarily difficult for people to consider journalism a viable career path.

We’ll be pushed to think bigger about local news.

“Bigger” in our business can sometimes mean further from the ground, but I don’t mean zooming out.

Many in our industry have been working tirelessly to build and cultivate an ecosystem of newsrooms, the result of which has been a generation of innovative, forward-thinking journalism organizations throughout the country. And yet our work at AJP shows major gaps in the most basic information needs — and that’s because communities are quickly losing their anchor newsrooms, something we’ve yet to find a path to revive.

What’s an anchor newsroom? It’s the connective tissue in the communities it serves. It’s a high-metabolism operation, full of trained journalists who wake up in the morning thinking about all the information their communities need and how they’ll report and share it. It’s a newsroom that government, business, and civic leaders know is watching their every move; that provides a shared set of facts about a place; that helps people navigate systems and better their lives; that introduces people to their neighbors; that humanizes the outcomes of decisions; and that takes on both the glorious and the tedious work required to serve its audience. An anchor newsroom does all of this at a high-enough volume and with wide-enough distribution to make an impact.

It’s still vitally important that local information ecosystems include smaller, niche players that specialize in representing specific perspectives, covering specific topics, or doing deep investigations. An anchor newsroom, though, bears the responsibility of being the very core of what makes a group of people in a geographic area a community. It has to serve everyone and be accessible to all. And as we go into the new year with a mounting number of lost lives, jobs, and homes, and with more eyes open to injustice, we need them more than ever.

The problem with thinking bigger about an already big challenge, of course, is that bigger solutions need bigger backing. We — as in all of us, journalists, consumers, funders, businesses, civic leaders — need to support independent local anchor newsrooms as if they’re as vital as our most critical public agencies and cherished cultural institutions. Without an anchor newsroom, participation in local economies, in community development efforts, and programs for human services, education, and health, all suffer.

In 2021 and beyond, we’ll feel moved to scale our ambitions for local newsrooms to become anchor newsrooms. We’ll see that investment in doing so — whether it’s $1 or $1 million — is an investment in the social infrastructure we desperately need.

Loretta Chao is vice president of strategy and startups at the American Journalism Project.

2021 will be the year we are forced not only to confront our collective failures but to do something about them.

Our biggest failure: the total breakdown in trust between American communities and the journalists and newsrooms that are supposed to serve them. Going into the future, we’ll have to raise our standards for the relevance and usefulness of our work to the communities we’re supposed to serve.

The good news is these conversations have already begun, and we’re as ready as we’ll ever be to tackle this problem. Below are two potential outcomes on the horizon.

We’ll see more creative reinvention of what it means to do journalism and/or be a journalist.

In 2021, more newsrooms will have to face the fact that their attempts at becoming more equitable and inclusive haven’t been good enough. If we’re lucky, we may see more attention, funding, and maybe just some listening — finally! — to the BIPOC journalists who’ve made it into, and stuck it out in, our industry.

But we’ll also see that that’s not enough.

Making journalism more equitable will require a more inclusive definition of what it means to be a journalist. We’ll need to stop being precious about what we do and how we do it. If we boil our purpose and skills down to the very basics of what it means to pursue the truth and tell it, we’ll find it isn’t about college degrees, awards, writing skills, or the logos on our business cards. It’s about curiosity, tenacity, and an obsession with transparency. There are plenty of people who possess these qualities and can contribute to newsgathering if given the opportunity and compensation.

The ever-growing interest in City Bureau’s Documenters network is proof of both the need and appetite for removing barriers and bringing more people into our profession, even if part-time or temporarily. The newly launched Prison Journalism Project, which uses the “tools of journalism” to help people affected by incarceration tell stories about their communities, is another example. And in communities where we do research at the American Journalism Project, we’ve found trusted networks of neighbors developing organically to fill the gaps that their shrinking newsrooms are leaving empty. They may not be called journalists, but they’re doing the work. They need both acknowledgment and help.

If we want any hope of adequately serving all communities with local news, we’ll need to support and cultivate the assets they already have. I predict we’ll see more newsrooms embracing this idea and coming up with creative solutions to open our profession up. Equity won’t just be about finding new people who can fit into an old mold; it’ll be about fixing a mold that made it unnecessarily difficult for people to consider journalism a viable career path.

We’ll be pushed to think bigger about local news.

“Bigger” in our business can sometimes mean further from the ground, but I don’t mean zooming out.

Many in our industry have been working tirelessly to build and cultivate an ecosystem of newsrooms, the result of which has been a generation of innovative, forward-thinking journalism organizations throughout the country. And yet our work at AJP shows major gaps in the most basic information needs — and that’s because communities are quickly losing their anchor newsrooms, something we’ve yet to find a path to revive.

What’s an anchor newsroom? It’s the connective tissue in the communities it serves. It’s a high-metabolism operation, full of trained journalists who wake up in the morning thinking about all the information their communities need and how they’ll report and share it. It’s a newsroom that government, business, and civic leaders know is watching their every move; that provides a shared set of facts about a place; that helps people navigate systems and better their lives; that introduces people to their neighbors; that humanizes the outcomes of decisions; and that takes on both the glorious and the tedious work required to serve its audience. An anchor newsroom does all of this at a high-enough volume and with wide-enough distribution to make an impact.

It’s still vitally important that local information ecosystems include smaller, niche players that specialize in representing specific perspectives, covering specific topics, or doing deep investigations. An anchor newsroom, though, bears the responsibility of being the very core of what makes a group of people in a geographic area a community. It has to serve everyone and be accessible to all. And as we go into the new year with a mounting number of lost lives, jobs, and homes, and with more eyes open to injustice, we need them more than ever.

The problem with thinking bigger about an already big challenge, of course, is that bigger solutions need bigger backing. We — as in all of us, journalists, consumers, funders, businesses, civic leaders — need to support independent local anchor newsrooms as if they’re as vital as our most critical public agencies and cherished cultural institutions. Without an anchor newsroom, participation in local economies, in community development efforts, and programs for human services, education, and health, all suffer.

In 2021 and beyond, we’ll feel moved to scale our ambitions for local newsrooms to become anchor newsrooms. We’ll see that investment in doing so — whether it’s $1 or $1 million — is an investment in the social infrastructure we desperately need.

Loretta Chao is vice president of strategy and startups at the American Journalism Project.

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