Institutions or Infrastructure? The Real Opportunity for Online Journalism and Democracy
[This essay was originally published in 2010, and has been updated as of April 2021. You can read the original here.]
Want to save the news? Stop worrying about journalism institutions, and start worrying about journalists.
Much of the discussion about media and journalism is about institutions and their relationships with citizens. The issues — that journalism institutions must be transparent, accountable, and provide real value and relevance to the community — are clear enough.
The problem is, the Internet is not about institutions — by which I mean social organizations with a gestalt that is singular and self-prioritizing. Rather, it’s about peer relationships — the egalitarian multiplicity with common goals and mutual needs.
This idea of peer-to-peer relationships is built into the physical architecture of the Internet itself. When you talk about institutions as singular, therefore, you talk about intermediaries that more often than not get in the way of peer relationships.
You don’t need an institution to practice transparent, accountable, valuable and relevant journalism. You do generally need the facilitation that an institution can, but doesn’t always, provide.
And there’s the rub: Institution and practice are quite separate — indeed, in today’s media ecology, they are also unequal, which is downright poisonous to the peer relationships that animate the Internet as a radically inclusive democratic medium.
Centers of Gravity
The strength of the singular institution is beyond question: It has a superabundance of gravitas and resources. Its administrative infrastructure makes it attractive to capital. Its stellar public profile makes it a beacon for the best and the brightest. Institutions do indeed achieve great things, and are leaders of our society.
Yet, despite this admirable stature, the practice of journalism is all too often subordinate to the needs of the institution. Whether it’s a dowager newspaper, a new media interloper, or a buttoned-down journalism school, a fundamental driver of the crisis of journalism is “the institution” itself, which can underserve democracy and communities by hamstringing their social and financial capital:
- People: Institutions are often exclusive/meritocratic agencies rather than inclusive/democratic systems. Whether it’s hiring practices, financial disbursements, intern placements, or simply deciding who gets to write the front-page stories, institutions use self-reinforcing systems of referral and affirmation to maintain their position, and support the people and practices they know. This results in risk aversion, hierarchies, groupthink, “old boy networks,” and a revolving door between commercial entities and civic agencies that stifles diversity, vision and innovation.
- Money: Institutions have overriding budgetary issues and needs — usually in the form of expensive facilities, top-heavy executive salaries and sprawling administrative support systems, not to mention, in the commercial sector, shareholder demands for profitability — that trump the needs of the newsroom and the journalism practitioners. The hollowed-out newsrooms of American newspapers offer increasingly mute testimony to this profound institutional failure.
The Problem of Infotainment
As David Cohn, the founder of the pioneering journalism-crowdfunding site Spot.Us, once said: “Journalism is a process, not a product.”
It’s that process — that PRACTICE — of journalism by individuals and communities, more than by any institution, that defines the opportunity for open, transparent, inclusive democracy in the era of the World Wide Web.
Indeed, it is the degradation of journalism into product that results in its spiraling lack of relevance in today’s attention economy: It becomes mere entertainment.
As a product, journalism has characteristics that sell it, but paradoxically also emasculate it as something urgent, important and relevant.
Journalism becomes about selling the things it makes in competition with cute memes, the output of Marvel Studios, cooking blogs, sports reporting, etc. It no longer becomes important; it is mere entertainment, merely another engaging media product.
Infrastructure as Grassroots
The answer to these problems is in the very architecture of the Internet as, again, not institutional, but peer- and community-driven.
While it’s useful to talk about journalism institutions, and important to make the most of the strengths of these institutions, one mustn’t neglect the actual practice of journalism, as undertaken by an empowered citizenry. This includes working journalists who are indeed citizens before they are part of any institution.
Consider three factors that profoundly affect the practice of journalism by citizens and communities, whether they happen to be part of institutions or not:
- Standards of practice (best practices/quality control)
- Access to resources enabling practice (material, financial and informational)
- Access to networks (to disseminate coverage and related content)
How do institutions influence these factors, both positively and negatively? What other means of social organization — co-ops, associations, affiliate networks, etc. — can leverage these factors on behalf of transparent, accountable, radically inclusive democracy?
While it’s fine to talk about reforming institutions, or creating new ones, and to take reasonable and earnest measures toward that end, I can’t help but wonder if that’s enough. Perhaps we don’t need any more institution-building.
Again: Institution vs. Infrastructure
Looking back on the last two decades of earnest but dismayingly low-impact efforts to create a new “future of journalism,” I am all the more convinced that building new institutions for news production is a zero-sum game that does little to beat back spreading news deserts or rebuilding trust in journalism practice.
At best, the current efforts towards building a new nonprofit-news “institution” result in a battle for existing donors to existing public media, mostly centered around public broadcasting. This model is class-biased and deeply neglectful of vast swaths of the American population, despite its academic-style push toward inclusion and representation.
What our democracy really needs is new journalism infrastructure — decentralized, mutually interdependent, peer-driven infrastructure that can facilitate the work of journalists, citizens and communities wherever and whoever they are.
Fiscal Sponsorship and Co-ops
One path to this end would be a distinct model of nonprofit enterprise from the centralized public-media approach — perhaps centered around fiscal sponsorship and a realistic approach to subsidy.
Another is the co-op model, particularly multi-stakeholder co-ops that approach “audience development” not so much as a matter of recruiting donors or signing up subscribers, but rather as one of community organizing akin to a political campaign.
Slowly, we are beginning to see more intent emerge around journalism practice and grassroots infrastructure.
In particular, we can see the success of fiscal sponsorship as an inspiring model. My own efforts two decades ago to found a fiscal sponsor for independent media and cultural productivity have ultimately resulted in an independent media/arts institution that over time has served hundreds of producers doing noncommercial work serving diverse cultural and information needs.
Despite this success, fiscal sponsorship remains a neglected strategy that largely succeeds through its own efforts, rather than as a result of any concerted effort by major institutions to build these powerful, high-impact resource hubs.
There is today also a small but thriving co-op movement that offers one of the first truly grassroots strategies for independent, public-interest journalism.
Olivia Henry, based out of Davis in California, has been cultivating an outstanding community conversation on co-op news media today, and you are well-advised to browse the wiki she’s developed out of her online convenings, which have included dozens of small co-op news ventures all around the United States.
Co-op and truly innovative nonprofit approaches to building new infrastructure for journalism are extant — and all need money, social capital, attention and resources.
They have emerged directly out of the needs of communities and producers, not from the imperative of institutions as social leaders.
They represent new, emerging infrastructure not just for journalism, but for our entire democracy. More power to ‘em.
Originally published at http://www.internetvoices.org.