May 17, 2015

Soup kitchens of the information superhighway — journalism's inequity problem


One of the best things that has come out of the futurist vision for journalism has been the idea of the “information needs of communities” — a bland, technocratic but ruthless turn of phrase, full of demands and expectations.

Demands for information enfranchisement. Expectations of equal access, and of relevance.

Yet information inequity is persistent and widespread in the United States, and around the world.

Market-based models for news production can cover a lot of ground, can go deep with diverse communities — but they are full of economic imperatives that all too often keep the watchdogs of the public interest on short leashes.

Information inequity is the outcome of this. Communities and issues are neglected by an economic model that simply can’t deliver coverage of a spectrum of public-interest issues with the consistency and ambition that a democratic society demands.

There’s that word again. Demands.

One can be optimistic about journalism’s prospects, but without factoring in the demands of information enfranchisement and the problem of information inequity, that optimism for the future becomes Panglossian.

The best of all possible journalism futures may yet be ahead, but right about now our democracy would really benefit from some soup kitchens on the information superhighway.

More to the point, the emerging nonprofit news sector needs to focus on charitable purpose and public service in order to build the foundation for more robust public support of their information services and practice.

Yet they’ll need investment to do so. People who care about journalism’s role in our democracy need to invest in productive capacity for journalism producers working in and with neglected communities.

To fully address the issue, nonprofit journalism organizations and their advocates need a new set of tools for understanding, advocating for and advancing their mission, including:

  • A rigorous and replicable assessment model for identifying, measuring and prioritizing the information needs of communities — and likewise for the most needful communities, a key diversity issue.
  • Some quantifiable standard for what constitutes a meaningful public-interest outcome for journalistic enterprise. Otherwise, there’s no accountability around philanthropic and entrepreneurial priorities.

Building out this knowledge base can produce a solid foundation for reimagining — and investing in — public-interest journalism as a baseline community service rather than a competitor in a product- and attention-driven marketplace.

Information inequity is a complex problem that requires us to reassess our business models and focus on charitable purpose and public service.

More than a worthy challenge, successfully confronting the information inequity of our media economy is a point of breakthrough that opens up new prospects for journalism as a driver of civic enfranchisement — and new opportunities for building healthy new relationships between relevant, trustworthy news media and the communities they serve.