Parachute journalism goes away for good

“The reasons are as practical as they are ideological. Travel is dangerous and many places are simply inaccessible to outside journalists. Sources are understandably warier than ever about meeting strangers to talk about a story.”

In the absence of local staff, many news organizations have for decades relied on a foreign correspondence model known as parachute journalism.

The term evokes a vivid image: An out-of-towner arrives by air, perhaps without much preparation or knowledge. Upon landing, he or she does their best to manage local language, currency, transportation, and communication, all while likely nursing jetlag. The parachute journalist might rely on a “fixer” — a local journalist with knowledge and connections who may not receive any credit on the final product. Or the visiting reporter might go it alone, inevitably missing critical context and possibly key facts.

The final story is then likely to present a distorted picture back to the community being covered, potentially inflaming existing fault lines within the community, while amplifying stereotypes and misconceptions to a larger audience.

But there has always been a better way: local reporting done by people living in or near the community, bringing knowledge, relationships, and nuance to journalism that “checks out” with the people it’s about.

And 2020, this Dumpster fire of pandemic, economic recession, and political failure, may have finally burned up the parachute once and for all.

The reasons are as practical as they are ideological. Travel is dangerous and many places are simply inaccessible to outside journalists. Sources are understandably warier than ever about meeting strangers to talk about a story. And many of the events that once may have invited an outside reporter to travel now happen online.

So what remains are people and communities themselves, most accessible to reporters who know the places where they live. It isn’t news to a local outlet — whether it’s in Detroit, Des Moines, Lagos, or Hyderabad — that local reporting acumen builds trust and credibility, which supports audience development and ultimately the organization’s bottom line.

But The World’s Longest Year is opening up a new reality for national and international journalism organizations who see that if local news disappears, so does the backbone of democratic society. As pioneers of collaborative journalism have been saying since at least 2017: Partnerships, not parachutes.

In the U.S., we’ve seen organizations ranging from INN and LION Publishers to The New York Times, ProPublica, and Frontline get behind local news as advocates and partners. For news organizations that haven’t launched yet, the Tiny News Collective, a new partnership between News Catalyst and LION, will be “providing the tools, resources, and commonwealth of knowledge to help people build sustainable news organizations that reflect and serve their communities.” And we at Report for America are proud to partner with more than 200 U.S. newsrooms in 2021, including 35 LION members.

Globally, the Solutions Journalism Network is partnering with African newsrooms to support nuanced solutions coverage of health, science, and development while Énois is supporting Brazilian newsrooms to create more diverse and inclusive news ecosystems. The Local News Partnership between the BBC and the U.K.’s News Media Association has supported more than 100 local news organizations to publish thousands of public interest stories.

And a variety of philanthropic funders are making the transformation possible by focusing on local presence and expertise while catalyzing relationships and facilitating research.

Luminate, for example, supported ICFJ and Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University to produce a sweeping global report, “Journalism and the Pandemic.” The report offered a clear picture of the compound challenges, including journalists’ physical and mental health, economic threats, and COVID-related disinformation.

But as the report reads:

Still, there were some bright spots. Forty-three percent of the respondents said they felt there was increased audience trust in their journalism during COVID-19’s first wave. And 61% said they felt more committed to journalism than they were before the pandemic. There was also evidence of stronger community investment in journalism and increased audience engagement in reporting during the period. These comparatively optimistic findings may be key to reimagining post-pandemic journalism as a more mission-driven and audience-centered public service.

Whatever we face as journalists and as members of society in 2021, we will face it where we live. And increasingly, we will face it together, with parachutes off.

Kevin D. Grant is co-founder and chief content officer of The GroundTruth Project and vice president of strategic initiatives at Report for America.

In the absence of local staff, many news organizations have for decades relied on a foreign correspondence model known as parachute journalism.

The term evokes a vivid image: An out-of-towner arrives by air, perhaps without much preparation or knowledge. Upon landing, he or she does their best to manage local language, currency, transportation, and communication, all while likely nursing jetlag. The parachute journalist might rely on a “fixer” — a local journalist with knowledge and connections who may not receive any credit on the final product. Or the visiting reporter might go it alone, inevitably missing critical context and possibly key facts.

The final story is then likely to present a distorted picture back to the community being covered, potentially inflaming existing fault lines within the community, while amplifying stereotypes and misconceptions to a larger audience.

But there has always been a better way: local reporting done by people living in or near the community, bringing knowledge, relationships, and nuance to journalism that “checks out” with the people it’s about.

And 2020, this Dumpster fire of pandemic, economic recession, and political failure, may have finally burned up the parachute once and for all.

The reasons are as practical as they are ideological. Travel is dangerous and many places are simply inaccessible to outside journalists. Sources are understandably warier than ever about meeting strangers to talk about a story. And many of the events that once may have invited an outside reporter to travel now happen online.

So what remains are people and communities themselves, most accessible to reporters who know the places where they live. It isn’t news to a local outlet — whether it’s in Detroit, Des Moines, Lagos, or Hyderabad — that local reporting acumen builds trust and credibility, which supports audience development and ultimately the organization’s bottom line.

But The World’s Longest Year is opening up a new reality for national and international journalism organizations who see that if local news disappears, so does the backbone of democratic society. As pioneers of collaborative journalism have been saying since at least 2017: Partnerships, not parachutes.

In the U.S., we’ve seen organizations ranging from INN and LION Publishers to The New York Times, ProPublica, and Frontline get behind local news as advocates and partners. For news organizations that haven’t launched yet, the Tiny News Collective, a new partnership between News Catalyst and LION, will be “providing the tools, resources, and commonwealth of knowledge to help people build sustainable news organizations that reflect and serve their communities.” And we at Report for America are proud to partner with more than 200 U.S. newsrooms in 2021, including 35 LION members.

Globally, the Solutions Journalism Network is partnering with African newsrooms to support nuanced solutions coverage of health, science, and development while Énois is supporting Brazilian newsrooms to create more diverse and inclusive news ecosystems. The Local News Partnership between the BBC and the U.K.’s News Media Association has supported more than 100 local news organizations to publish thousands of public interest stories.

And a variety of philanthropic funders are making the transformation possible by focusing on local presence and expertise while catalyzing relationships and facilitating research.

Luminate, for example, supported ICFJ and Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University to produce a sweeping global report, “Journalism and the Pandemic.” The report offered a clear picture of the compound challenges, including journalists’ physical and mental health, economic threats, and COVID-related disinformation.

But as the report reads:

Still, there were some bright spots. Forty-three percent of the respondents said they felt there was increased audience trust in their journalism during COVID-19’s first wave. And 61% said they felt more committed to journalism than they were before the pandemic. There was also evidence of stronger community investment in journalism and increased audience engagement in reporting during the period. These comparatively optimistic findings may be key to reimagining post-pandemic journalism as a more mission-driven and audience-centered public service.

Whatever we face as journalists and as members of society in 2021, we will face it where we live. And increasingly, we will face it together, with parachutes off.

Kevin D. Grant is co-founder and chief content officer of The GroundTruth Project and vice president of strategic initiatives at Report for America.

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