When Everyone’s a Publisher, Who Will ‘Convene’ The Public?

Last week, Richard Hart of MDC, Inc., kindly came to speak to my Public Affairs Reporting for New Media class. He led us through an illuminating conversation about the nonprofit’s recently released report on the Triangle’s “Disconnected Youth.” (PDF)

At the end, I raised this question: If government is already publishing a lot of raw data online, and if organizations like MDC are already put together in-depth, relatively objective analyses of public policy issues like this, then what does he — as a former journalist and the nonprofit’s communication director — think is the role for journalists? How do we fit in to his overall communication strategy for this report, I wondered.

That was a good question, Hart said. He noted that his primary focus now, after an initial and relatively small media hit, was convening small groups of influential and interested area leaders from various sectors to discuss how to implement some of MDC’s recommendations.

That made me wonder: Should journalists be doing that? Presuming we think that the subject of high school dropouts is an issue that is relevant and important for our audience, how much effort should news organizations be putting in to creating conversation around content that is created elsewhere? Should journalists be conveners?

This really isn’t that new of a question. The civic journalism movement of the 1990s advocated the convening of reader panels. Much of online journalism’s emphasis on interactivity, distributed reporting and other user-generated content has its roots in the civic journalism movement. In fact, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism eventually became J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism .

But the civic journalism movement pre-dated the “We the Media” movement, in which the people formerly known as the audience and the people formerly known as the sources all began pushing content on to the Web and competing directly with each other for direct communication with each other. In a world of Facebook groups and Twitter followers, the idea of gathering a representative sample of your community and putting them in a windowless conference room for 90 minutes with all the Chex Mix they can eat seems rather lifeless.

That’s partly because even though these reader panels are conversational, they’re still relatively static when compared to the flow of conversation that happens online. Reader panels, like polls, can only take a snapshot. Online community literally gives life to an issue.

Online, journalists can use social media to promote ideas, engage the audience and facilitate new connections between audience members. The “panelists” of an online community can come and go as their interest in the conversation grows or wanes. And, as the audience reacts to the topic, the conversation changes.

In our class, we’ll be exploring this issue in depth. The state’s dropout rate is one of those stories that many newspaper readers — wealthy, civicly engaged — see as a story about “those people.” Can we use social media not only to surface voices of people who have first-hand experience with the dropout issue, but to connect them directly to people who do not have first-hand experience with it? Can we create a conversation aimed at finding solutions and a deeper and broader understanding of the effect that high school dropouts have on North Carolina’s civic and economic climate?

For example, I’d like to try to use YouTube to create a sort of hybrid between StoryCorps and the CNN/YouTube debates. I want to see and hear people who know each other and people who don’t know each other asking questions that help all of us better understand the issue. That is a lot to ask from an audience that is composed in large part of kids who don’t have technological access or aptitude. And it’s a lot to ask of an audience that — despite the ease of online publishing — remains remarkably passive.

(Don’t believe me that even the future news audience is made up mostly of people who want to consume news rather than produce it, then try this: Ask some college students which of the following they would chose if they could only have one– the ability to reader other people’s Facebook status updates or the ability to update their own status. My bet is that 90 percent would choose passive monitoring of others rather than active publication of their own voice.)

I do think journalists should be conveners. I think they should practice authentic conversational leadership. I think that part of every beat reporter’s annual review should be the size of his or her online social network, and how they work the network to uncover new facts and to better describe patterns and structures of influence.

In the ongoing conversation about whether the nonprofit business model can save public affairs journalism, let me suggest a three-pronged agenda — based on this very cursory case study of MDC’s Disconnected Youth report (PDF) — for those of you who care about the future of news:

  1. Push government at all levels to become more transparent by publishing documents and data on the Web in structured formats that can be used to connect the government’s information with other data and publishing tools.
  2. Use existing NGOs — partisan and nonpartisan alike — to produce in-depth analytical reports about information for which there isn’t a sufficient private market but that are critical to a functioning democracy. NGOs and their funders will be motivated by their desire to set the public agenda around topics of their concern. They are not interested primarily in the popularity of their ideas.
  3. Private news organizations remain in the business of audience aggregation. Journalists will compete to make analytical reports relevant and accessible to a broader audience. Their interest in aggregating audiences to whom they can sell advertising aligns well with the goal of convening diverse perspectives around an issue of public importance. Shoot, private news organizations who create online communities that make it fun or profitable to join might even be able to charge for the privilege. In other words, private news organizations charge for the private experiences they provide around a public good.

This three-pronged approach creates appropriate roles for government, charities and private enterprise.

That’s my theory anyway. Stay tuned for the next few months and I’ll let you know how it works in our coverage of North Carolina’s dropout rate.

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