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Use the tools of journalism to save it

Use the tools of journalism to save it

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Here’s the bad news: No one is coming to save you. No business is going to swoop in and provide sustainable funding for newsrooms. No new technology is going to transform the way journalism supports itself forever. No big, incredible deal is going to build a strong foundation for the news. There isn’t a single magic bullet that will work for everyone. Even producing groundbreaking journalism isn’t going to suddenly turn your fortunes around.

But journalism is the bedrock of democracy. We need it more than ever. In 2020, for many of the most vulnerable communities in our society, high-quality journalism that shares their lived experiences will be their only lifeline. For many of the businesses whose work undermines our democratic freedoms, journalism that uncovers their corruption will be the only voices holding their feet to the flames.

Here’s the good news: Newsrooms will win. Not through radical innovation, not through magical thinking — but by taking a laser-focused approach to optimizing what they already do.

It takes a radical culture shift. The internet isn’t a broadcast medium — it’s a conversation. Instead of thinking in terms of having an audience, you need to think about building and serving a community. Instead of informing, you need to be listening. The opportunities to learn the nuances of your community and to serve it directly are unprecedented — but it takes work.

Journalists have been listening, digging up facts, and learning through empathy forever. Along with doing this work in order to report on great stories, they need to do this to holistically learn more about the people in their communities. Who are they? What do their lives look like? What do they need from your journalism? How can you serve them better? Don’t assume you know the answers — you need to go out and talk to them. Not once, but continuously. Any business that doesn’t proactively talk to its customers as its beating heart will fail.

Once you understand your community, you can rapidly test hypotheses about what your business can be. It’s not just about what your community wants; you need to intersect that demand with what you can feasibly provide, and a model that will serve as the center of a viable business. Test all three, in quick succession, with real members of your community. Make small changes based on the feedback you receive, and do it over and over again. Don’t speculate about the answers; find them out from people who know. Your community knows what it wants. Experts can help you with viable business models and feasibility questions. Just reach out and ask. Use the tools of journalism to save journalism.

There are no shortcuts. The past is littered with warnings from newsrooms that embraced quick-fix solutions peddled by vendors to suit their own agendas. Whether it’s pivoting to video, leaping head first into the blockchain, or making devil’s bargains with social networking companies, there’s no alternative to measuring the right things, talking to your community, and testing sustainable approaches to revenue. Because every community is different, nothing will definitely work for yours. The only way to find out is to do the legwork. The newsrooms that don’t will disappear.

The good news is that help is available. Hearken has been helping newsrooms listen to their communities for years. Matter — where I cut my teeth — provides human-centered bootcamps for news organizations. You don’t have to do it alone — but you do have to do it.

It’s hard work, but democracy is at stake. We’ve exhausted all the magic incantations the internet has to offer. In 2020, it’s time to get back down to business.

Ben Werdmuller is a product developer and former San Francisco director of investments at Matter.

Nieman Lab

January 3, 2020 at 04:00PM

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