Posted by: structureofnews | May 8, 2017

For Or About?

News Jobs

There was a fascinating analysis in Politico recently about how and why the media missed the support for Donald Trump in America’s heartlands. Written by Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty, it’s a smart look at where journalists have increasingly congregated in the digital age, and – no surprise – it’s not in red states.

And if you’re not where the story is, you’ll miss the story.  And so we all did.

But that’s only half the story.  It’s not just that we – the media – missed the story; we also missed the audience.  And that’s probably as important an issue as how well the country is covered: Do we need better coverage about a group, or better coverage for that group?

In other words, it’s great if major news organizations spend the time and resources to cover the fears, dreams and drivers of rural and rust-belt voters, and so better inform their readers in New York, London or wherever.  But that’s not the same as covering those communities for people in those communities, who doubtless have a whole bunch of issues they care about that people in far-off cities don’t.

To be sure, it’s not the job of the New York Times, or Washington Post, or Guardian, to reach rural readers in Wyoming, and it’s unfair to expect them to do so.  All news organizers have an intended audience – whether it’s small and local or large and global – and can’t and shouldn’t be all things to all people.

Take even a quasi-homogeneous audience of global businesspeople: It was clear to those of us at The Asian Wall Street Journal back in the 1990s and early 2000s that you couldn’t simply take stories about Asia written for The Wall Street Journal and print them; Asian readers had their own concerns and issues and didn’t necessarily share US readers’ perspectives or priorities.  That didn’t mean Asian Journal coverage was any worse, or that it pandered to local prejudices; it just meant we covered different issues or the same issues from different angles.

That’s no different from how foreign correspondents cover events in ways that local news reporters don’t – both have different audiences who have different needs.

And it’s hard to do that if you’re thousands of miles away – the best editor in New York probably isn’t going to figure out what issues are near and dear to a reader in Montana, any more that he or she is going to figure out what readers in the Philippines care about.

As Jack and Tucker note, it’s not just geography that gets in the way, it’s mindset:

Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political. If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties.

The promise of the digital age, of course, was that information could flow far more broadly and quickly.  That’s certainly true – but it’s also true that information isn’t a stateless, neutral thing that speaks equally to all readers; stories need to be designed for an audience, and not all audiences are alike.  Yet more and more journalism jobs are clustered in a few media centers, far away from audiences that could use more journalism about their issues.  That’s partly the result of the decimation of local news organizations and local business models, as much as it is the rise of bigger, winner-take-all news media.

Where newspaper jobs are spread nationwide, internet jobs are not: Today, 73 percent of all internet publishing jobs are concentrated in either the Boston-New York-Washington-Richmond corridor or the West Coast crescent that runs from Seattle to San Diego and on to Phoenix. The Chicagoland area, a traditional media center, captures 5 percent of the jobs, with a paltry 22 percent going to the rest of the country.

Not that this is an easy thing to solve.  At a recent meeting of a key funder of independent journalism, one of the key questions that came up was why readers/voters in such areas seemed to ignore issues brought up in the national press.  One of the participants, the editor of a non-profit investigative site in Germany, pointed out that it’s because many readers were focused on local issues that the national press just didn’t cover.  And that when they started chasing down local angles to issues, readers were much more receptive.

As an op-ed writer in the New York Times pointed out in a piece about why his father votes for Le Pen:

Today, writers, journalists and liberals bear the weight of responsibility for the future. To persuade my family not to vote for Marine Le Pen, it’s not enough to show that she is racist and dangerous: Everyone knows that already. It’s not enough to fight against hate or against her. We have to fight for the powerless, for a language that gives a place to the most invisible people — people like my father.

Yet we can’t – and shouldn’t expect national news organizations to start focusing on local issues, and not least because local audiences quite possibly don’t trust them in any case.  Instead, it may well be up to groups like the Institute for Nonprofit News or the Lenfest Institute and other funders/entrepreneurs to help foster local news coverage, whether by non-profits or commercial entities.  In other words, it’s less of an issue for any individual news organization, and much more one about the news ecosystem.

It won’t be easy, as Jack and Tucker point out, even while noting that Fox News is a New York-based entity that has successfully built an audience in the heartland:

It’s hard to imagine an industry willingly accommodating the places with less money, fewer people and less expertise, especially if they sense that niche has already been filled to capacity by Fox.

But it’s also clear that we need much more journalism – both about, and for, these communities.

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