It’s said the stock market climbs a wall of worry. Equally so, society. And for the past several years, there’s been great concern about journalism. The common wisdom is that, with newspapers significantly weakened, citizens no longer get the information they need about their communities, and public officials who would be held accountable by the watchdog function of a healthy press are having a field day.
Undoubtedly, having large, financially healthy news organizations means they are strong enough to take the risks that produce big stories. But I believe there’s reason for optimism about the future of journalism.
I recently attended the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s 47th annual Golden Quill Awards—the main event for journalistic excellence, in which news media from 29 counties of Western Pennsylvania are judged by out-of-town journalists.
I admit to a self-serving motive for discussing the Quills. For the fifth year in a row, Pittsburgh Quarterly’s writers and artists won the magazine category—this year winning 13 Golden Quills and all but four of the magazine awards. I’m a journalist by trade, not a promoter. But I believe our magazine is something that doesn’t exist in most regions, and our contributors deserve credit for that. For a list of winners and finalists, go to www.pittsburghquarterly.com.
I mention the Quills, however, for other reasons as well. I believe local journalism is entering a new phase of dynamic and unprecedented strength. That may be an eyebrow raiser, but let me explain.
This year the Quills highlighted numerous examples of outstanding newspaper journalism, including the Post-Gazette’s series on regional air quality and the Tribune Review’s coverage of homicides in African-American communities. Conversely, there are new Quill categories for new journalism: Multi-media news, Continuing Blog, Most Creative Use of Technology, and Online Video.
When you attend the Quills you see this variety of outstanding journalism, but you also understand how many media outlets we have. We don’t have two daily newspapers in this region; we have more than 20. There are also the weeklies, radio and television stations, scores of magazines, online-only publications, and countless bloggers. So between traditional sources and new ones, I believe there’s more local information now than ever.
There’s also more interest in news now, not less. It’s just not all in the same few places anymore. This audience dispersal is driven by advertisers being able to tailor their messages to smaller, more specific groups, rather than to a mass media audience of which only a small portion is their target. In some respects, this new mosaic of journalism resembles local news a century ago, with cities having different papers for different ethnic and business constituents, often in different languages. The truth lay somewhere in the mix.
Of course, this new model means it’s more difficult to reach community consensus. It’s not easy to agree if we only get news designed for our point of view. Perhaps this explains the difficulty our politicians have reaching agreement.
Finally, to complete the current picture, there are two local journalism efforts under way that represent a new model entirely —namely, public interest journalism funded by philanthropy.
The project that’s gained a great deal of attention among local journalists is financed by The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Knight Foundation. This local effort intends to spur citizen journalism and also produce investigative journalism. Declaring that “the competitive model is dead,” this initiative is creating a kind of journalism cooperative in which local media will be encouraged to make story deposits and withdrawals into a joint news bank—a central Web site designed both to disseminate news and provide “content” for struggling media.
The second initiative is much smaller, but it is supported by five other local foundations. It is directed by the Regional Indicators at pittsburghtoday.org and its mission is to augment the statistical information about Greater Pittsburgh published on pittsburghtoday.org with in-depth journalistic projects that examine key issues for regional progress. The stories will be disseminated through a variety of local media.
In all, I believe we’re seeing an evolution in how communities get their local news. The financial model built on mass audiences is weaker, and its survival is unknown. What will replace it, however, is beginning to take shape.