The world of news and journalism is changing rapidly. But when we think of those changes, too often we tend to focus too much on things like convergence, digital television or the Web. Publishing similar stuff but on different platforms.
Too often, we think of those changes in terms of "us." Focusing on how we deliver the news, what's the right mix of news and how fast we can break news. We think less about how people want to relate to the news or how they want to interact with it.
So, rather than frame this discussion around the "C" word, convergence, let's frame it around the "I" word, interactivity.
From what I've seen in our work at the Pew Center over the last eight years, the "I" word - interactivity - is what will make the "C" word - convergence - work.
We need a lot more interactivity in our journalism. Judging by a poll we recently completed, most newspaper editors do too. By interactivity I don't mean only journalism that you can fetch or download or call up off the Internet.
Think about where journalism is at this moment in time:
- Readership: In 1965, 71 percent of Americans said they had read a newspaper yesterday. That number had shrunk to 46 percent by April of 2000.
- Viewership: Network TV news viewership has fallen precipitously. The percentage who say they regularly watch nightly network news has fallen from 58 percent in 1993 to only 30 percent in April 2000. Local TV news fares a bit better: Those who say they regularly watch local TV newscasts fell from 76 percent to 56 percent in that time period.
- New News Consumers: The U.S. Census numbers are ratifying for us just how diverse our nation has become in the last decade alone, showing us what many of us have already realized in our communities: Surging growth in the Hispanic and African American populations. So-called "minorities" have become or are becoming the new majorities.
The boomers are getting older, but we need to think about Gen. Y - those born between 1977 and 1995, the ones between the ages of 6 and 24 years old. They will, in this decade, become the largest generation in American history.
Generation Y is, by majority, a non-white generation. Over 50 percent are black, Hispanic, Asian or some combination. They grew up wired, multi-tasking with a mouse, homework with a CD player.
They won't want traditional definitions of news. They don't even absorb information the same way. How many of you have young kids who play Nintendo? Did you ever see how they are pulling in information from several data points on the screen, all while manipulating a controller? This is very non-linear form of information intake.
No 50-inch, linear stories for them, thank you.
What does this mean for our narrative storytelling forms, those long 110-plus inch stories we love to enter in prize contests?
* Geography: The geography of journalism has changed dramatically. One-third of the editors polled said they are covering more towns or more school districts, with at most only a handful of additional reporters.
This was just before the full wrath of the current economic climate meant further staff cuts.
That suggests that we need to develop news eyes and ears in our communities - ways for people to alert us to tune into something important going on in their community.
* Interactivity: New technology has introduced a whole new level of give-and-take in the news business. Journalism is not just about the stories that we, as journalists, want to tell our readers.
It's also about people reacting to, or interacting with, our stories via e-mail, voice mail, fax and Web chats.
And it's about people wanting a chance to tell their own stories as well, to have some kind of space to share their experiences with others.
Journalism, in many places, is turning into a two-way exchange of information in which people get to talk back instead of a one-way pipeline that was our traditional model of journalism.
Our Pew poll, "Journalism Interactive," shows near universal agreement - 99 percent of the editors agree - that it is an important part of the newsgathering process to ascertain what is on readers' minds, and 98 percent say they use that information to shape coverage.
Nine out of 10 say that future health of the newspaper business depends on more interactivity with readers.
Seventy-three percent say they are not satisfied with their level of interactivity.
Yet over the last decade, newsrooms have become a lot more interactive.
- 80 percent give readers some way of contacting reporters via email and 58 percent publish email addresses with every story.
- 44 percent publish phone numbers with every story.
- 56 percent have convened conversations about a key community issue outside the newsroom: 64 percent in venues such as town halls, 56 percent in focus groups and 44 percent in discussion groups.
- 65 percent said their reporters post queries on the Web as part of their reporting efforts.
- 72 percent offer readers opportunities to publish their own stories or ideas, 46 percent in the newspaper, 72 percent on the editorial pages, 13 percent in special "zones" and 16 percent on the Web site.
- An astonishing 80 percent said they permit roaming or beat development days where reporters can go out and learn about the community but don't have to produce a story.
- A considerable number have launched other interactions: Tip lines, forum pages, visitors in the news meeting and reader advisory boards.
The newsroom aspirations are there. The challenge is this: How do we create the reflexes to deliver?
Jessica, a woman who has one of those "new journalism" jobs at Mainetoday.com
(the online arm of The Portland Press-Herald) - she's called the online
community organizer - recently told over 100 journalists at a workshop that
they tried an experiment building Web sites for newly engaged couples. For instance,
Matt and Amy get hitched, here are their wedding plans and the gifts they wants
and the choices they have to make. This provides a little more detail than our
Much to her surprise, the next month it was their most visited site, getting over 1,000 hits. The month after, another engagement Web site was the second most visited.
What are these folks looking for? What kinds of information are people going out of their way to sniff out? And what are the ramifications for journalism?
Jessica calls this "viral content." It's self-generated and contagious; it spreads through the community. People are looking for new kinds of knowledge and new kinds of connections.
And look at how her news organization is positioning itself: As the cyberhub from which all these spokes of interest radiate.
Civic Journalism on the Cutting Edge
For the last eight years, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism has worked on the cutting edge, trying to figure out just what kind of journalists we need to be. And trying to find out just what kind of journalism we need to practice to be useful and relevant in this new era of communication.
We were founded not out of a concern that journalism was broken, but out of a concern that democracy was broken. People were not voting, volunteering, or engaging. From the very beginning, our mission has been very interactive: To create a kind of journalism that doesn't just treat readers and viewers as if they were passive spectators of some daily civic freak show. Rather, to create a kind of journalism that also positions them in stories as active participants in a self-governing society. They have a role to play. There are actions they could take if they wanted to.
Guess what? They do want to - if we will just give them some clues as to how to get involved.
Editors of regional newspapers around the country are concluding that the journalism of the future is very different from what they used to do. Certainly very different from the one-size-fits-all kind of journalism that I grew up with for more than 20 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Ivory-tower journalism is the we-know-what's-best-for-the-community kinds of journalism.
- Journalism that covers buildings - city hall, the police station, and the courthouse - instead of issues.
- Journalism that builds some great scorecard in the sky and then keeps tabs on who's up or who's down today: Democrats or Republicans, the teachers' union or the school board, the mayor or the city council.
You know what? Our readers are not keeping score.
Sure, we need to keep up with important breaking news. We need to catch the crooks and spotlight the injustices.
But we also need a New Media for a New America. We need a new kind of journalism, one that is not just a watchdog and certainly not only an attack dog. We need a journalism that can be a guide dog as well. A journalism that reflects people's desire to be part of something - a community, a special interest group, a demographic or an ethnic slice of America.
I suggest that journalists need to build this new journalism with a new and much more interactive toolbox. With one that has:
- New definitions of news: news that starts from the bottom-up, not the top- down.
- New ways to involve the public.
- New ways to diversify our Rolodex and our news reports.
- New ways to use technology.
- New interactions with the community.
We need to produce journalism that meets the public's need for information and knowledge, not just for incremental news developments.
We need a kind of journalism that covers not just the noise in our communities but the silences as well. News that they will not see splayed over every news organizations in town. And information that connects the dots and makes sense for them of things that are happening in their communities, not just yesterday, but over time.
More interactive news started in the early '90s. Today it looks almost dated. It started with polling, focus groups and town meetings.
Those efforts morphed in some news directions like study circles or roundtables. There were, for example, the action teams in Binghamton, NY, that helped the community pull itself up by its bootstraps and turn itself around economically.
The idea was to build some new listening posts for reporters and also to give people some roadmaps for how to get involved, to shoulder some responsibility, to have a dialogue or to take ownership of community problems.
One of the more interesting takes on this were mock juries of citizens in Seattle that sat, heard evidence and voted on what needed to be done to protect the future of Puget Sound.
Then, of course, there was the seminal "Taking Back our Neighborhoods" project at The Charlotte Observer that aggressively tapped into residents' views of crime in their own neighborhoods. The coverage development an early prototype of the so-called "needs lists," which offered an open invitation to the community to help out. They make it easy by giving readers a phone number to call.
The Missoulian newspaper in Montana uses six computer kiosks. They built a community survey program and installed it in junk terminals sitting in newsroom graveyards. Then they moved them around the community and asked people to answer questions.
This is a whole new definition of "man in the street" polling.
A new area for newsroom interactivity is around the subject area of failing or ailing schools.
In Wichita, voters passed the first school bond issue in 25 years after The Wichita Eagle produced some very interactive journalism. Lots of reader's questions were answered about what the schools needed.
In Savannah, a very interesting experiment is underway. The Morning News has invited citizens to think about what it would take to make their schools the best in the country by 2010. They are visiting model school programs around the country and writing about what they see. The governor has already approved funding for one of those programs.
In Baltimore and Madison, very active school coverage has triggered big changes in school training, in textbooks, and in tutoring programs.
And what's fascinating is that test scores have turned around.
Elections, too, are fertile ground for interactivity. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page's "Citizen Voices" project got more than 600 people involved in civil discussions about the future of the city and their aspirations for mayoral race.
We often think of the Internet as archiving what's in our daily news report, updating with breaking developments and having some chats with reporters on the experts.
In Portland, ME, The Press-Herald covered teen life strictly from the
teen's point of view. The story contained stunning framing and writing. They
started by inviting teens to pizza parties. They gave them disposable cameras
and posted teen photos and captions on their Web site, 20below.com.
This began the process of opening up a statewide conversation with tens of thousands
of Maine teens.
The Web offers enormous interactive potential to give legs to all that data we collect.
Many newspapers now put their school report cards online.
The Philadelphia Inquirer has posted police blotter information online. The information has empowered crime victims to come to the newspaper, to identify themselves from the data and to serve as sources for how the police were downgrading some crimes, such as rape. It also provides a place for people to find their own stories in the data.
Last year in West Virginia, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch wanted to do a statewide project that explored a future without coal. It built a groundbreaking database that showed towns and counties were frittering away $18 million of coal severance taxes on such things as dog wardens. And it posted that database online for all to use.
WebTV is very early on the scene. But this year, the very forward-thinking Wisconsin Public Television experimented with using WebTV in its election coverage. It allowed viewers with a WebTV box to link to bios, issues grids, and candidate Web sites.
Many of you probably linked to AOL's Election Guide 2000 last year. You could find issues grids by ZIP codes of local candidates. They also had virtual debates. And, yes, they had a gimmick: a Presidential Matchmaker game - fill out a form and you would be matched with the presidential candidate who best fit your beliefs. This was very interactive.
An effort now underway at the Telemundo station, KDVA-TV in San Antonio, involves installing Webcams and PCs in 10 to 20 Hispanic households. This will provide an ongoing viewer forum, personal reaction and a "man in the house" pool of respondents.
The Pew Center started by funding town hall meetings. This year we received proposals for software development all looking to engage or to interact with the community. The Everett Herald, in the state of Washington, has built a very interactive way to cover what is traditionally a very non-engaging story: port redevelopment.
How did they make this topic interactive? By creating a clickable map, building on Sim City-like software allowed townspeople to move icons around a map of the port and to participate in a conversation about the future of their riverfronts. Where should the restaurants, the entertainment, the retail shops and the industrial sites be?
Finally, New Hampshire Public Radio has experimented with not only using the connecting ability of the Web but using its calculating ability as well. It cameup with the New Hampshire Tax Calculator. Its goal was to help state residents literally compute the costs of different tax-reform measures on their own pocketbooks. I think it was an elegantly logical idea.
What you see is newsrooms combining various new technologies with old-fashioned face time dramatically changing the capacity of news organizations to interact with readers. All of this helps citizens grapple in very customized, individualized ways with public policy and community issues. And it enriches journalism.
By integrating news, with the Web and with face-to-face or cyber conversations, news organizations can help foster a sense of wholeness around what can be highly emotional and divisive issues. And it adds an energy to issues that can help people step up to the plate, get involved and take ownership of some community problems.
As with any new frontier, there are some internal newsroom arguments about how the capacity to do new things fits with their proper community role. But, increasingly, news organizations are moving quickly to experiment with new kinds of roles.
Indeed, in our recent poll, 87 percent of the respondents said that newspapers should have a broader role in the community than just printing the news. Other roles, the editors saw:
And we see newspapers trying to fulfill these roles much more interactively as they try to stake their claim in this new communications environment and build the foundation of what they think is important before other people define the rules.
- 32 percent say said they should be a news explainer.
- 30 percent said news breaker.
- 21 percent said they should be community stewards and catalysts for community conversation.