Before Communities Need News, They Need Information

Yes, we need accountability journalism to fill the gaps caused by the business crisis of the press. But we also need to fill gaps that existed long before that.

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

Most news, we often forget, is something of a luxury good—consumption tends to increase with leisure time and is not essential for survival. Some information, on the other hand, is a necessity: Where can I find food and shelter? How do I obtain unemployment benefits or avoid eviction? Lately, when and where can I get vaccinated?

A new white paper from Outlier Media, a pioneering Detroit organization, vividly illustrates this distinction, and calls attention to organizations, including Outlier, which, as the paper states, are “built for people when they need information” rather than being “built for people when they are just curious.”

Sarah Alvarez, author of the paper and Outlier’s founder and editor, writes that,

Legacy local media, along with many newer news organizations, have not sufficiently questioned whether people need their journalism more than they need information essential to their everyday jobs.

I think this is emerging as a critical distinction in building (and rebuilding) local news in this country.

Who doesn’t have home broadband?

Many analyses of contemporary news trends implicitly assume that broadband in the home is ubiquitous, as it generally is for those writing the analyses. But that assumption simply is not correct. According to a 2019 Pew study, more than 40% of those with annual incomes below $30,000 lack broadband in the home—and that income group includes about one fifth of the country. Among Hispanics, those without home broadband comprise just under 40%; the proportion is about the same among those in rural areas, while about one third of Black Americans lack home broadband. Relatedly, smartphones provide the primary internet access for about a quarter of those in the lowest income quintile, as well as for similar proportions of Blacks and Hispanics.

Outlier, and other local organizations like Flint Beat in Michigan, City Bureau in Chicago, Documented, an immigration-focused newsroom in New York, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, the Oaklandside in the Bay Area and inewsource in San Diego, operate based on a deep awareness of facts like these, and with missions that include helping to fill information gaps. One very practical result: much of Outlier’s content is delivered by text message. As the white paper notes,

There is almost nothing less of-the-moment than SMS technology…. What is notable about a newsroom using SMS is how universally accessible the technology is and how service-oriented it can be.

It can happen anywhere

A powerful illustration came with the February storms and resultant power outages in Texas. For a brief time, a much wider circle of Texans found themselves both without the connectivity to which they had been accustomed and in need of critical information for meeting basic needs. The Texas Tribune and Austin American-Statesman stepped quickly into the breach with an SMS service. It was a reminder many of us may have needed of how millions of our fellow Americans live every day.

Some disclosures are in order: I have been a big fan of Outlier for some time, and have occasionally informally advised them. At some point in the future, that advice might become more formal. There is a generous acknowledgement in the white paper that I encouraged Outlier to write it. Also, as part of Outlier’s second mission of undertaking accountability reporting, Sarah Alvarez has just been selected as a participant in the next cohort of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, although I was not involved in that selection.

At this point, these local information services are almost all quite small. They remain far from filling the information gaps in their communities. But they are growing, and they are trying, and they are aimed at an urgent need. Frankly, these efforts need money to scale, and lots of it.

Market failures, new and enduring

For nearly 15 years now, there has been an increasing awareness of the market failure in investigative journalism in this country, and a growing acknowledgement of the important role that nonprofit initiatives can play in filling that gap. It has been my privilege to play a part in that. In the last five years, we have seen that the greatest remaining needs along these lines are at the local level, and, again, a number of us have begun making strides in that direction, although there is a very long way still to go, as there is at the national level.

That journey looks forward, but also frequently back to the damage wrought by the business crisis of the press that followed the rollout of consumer broadband in the first decade of this century.

What the Outlier white paper reminds us is to look also to communities whose most important information needs were never met during even the so-called golden age of newspapers, and for whom the broadband rollout never came. These communities were being left behind by the previous news ecosystem. It is imperative, as we rebuild, that we not leave them behind again.

Leave a comment