Yesterday, a group of people gathered in Seattle for a fascinating discussion with my friend Jon Landay, an award-winning investigative journalist who covers national security and intelligence issues for McClatchy News. Our plan was to talk about Iraq, ISIS, and journalists in danger, then discuss the “so what” part at the end.
From the very beginning, though, the conversation took a turn toward the ultimate crisis in war reporting. In addition to the physical and mental health risks, there’s an even bigger risk: No one will care.
As journalist Tom Peter shared after James Foley’s beheading, “It’s harder to accept what really happened, which is that he died while people eagerly formed opinions on his profession and the topics he covered without bothering to read the stories he put in front of them.”
Reader apathy alone is demoralizing, but that’s only the start of the problem. With apathy comes lower readership. With lower readership comes diminishing budgets. With diminishing budgets comes the slow death of a profession. Jon easily ticked off the number of overseas bureaus that have closed in the last few years, with key stations like Baghdad and Kabul shrinking or shutting down entirely. There is no question that foreign correspondents, as we once defined them, are an endangered species.
So what, if anything, should we do about that? I heard roughly five approaches: force, encouragement, bait-and-switch, seduction, and acceptance. While each of them deserves their own separate conversation (or a hundred), I think it’s interesting to look at some examples of innovation in each category.
- Force. Try to make Americans pay more attention to existing political reporting on issues that are of major national and global significance.
This is the response I hear most commonly in places like DC, where many politicos are frustrated that so many of their compatriots do not share their interests. They want people to be more “educated,” or to feel ashamed of themselves for what they don’t know. I fully support better civics education in our schools, which gives people a baseline for understanding what’s happening around them. However, I have never seen shame-based approaches work. No one likes to be put down or drenched in unwanted content, and the good old days of families watching the evening news together are probably over (if, indeed, they were ever real).
- Encouragement. Give Americans more opportunities to interact with people from other places so they can develop an interest in global politics through personal connection.
Here we public efforts like the Fulbright exchanges and the Peace Corps, non-profits such as MovingWorlds and OneWorld Now, and new projects such as the Stevens Initiative, which create meaningful opportunities for Americans to experience other cultures. This is a fantastic way to win hearts and minds, but it takes major investments of time and resources. It’s also a demand-side solution over which media institutions have little influence.
- Bait-and-Switch. Be responsive to the content market, even if that means that hard news is buried under piles of LOLcats (and maybe be grateful that you got placement under a trending story like Kim Kardashian’s derriere).
This is especially hard for our most dignified media brands to swallow. However, content sites that fear not clickbait, like HuffPo, BuzzFeed, and everything run by Gawker Media, may be able to subsidize great content. (BuzzFeed was recently valued at $850 million.) As one person argued afterwards, “Cat videos have simply replaced department stores. Those foreign bureaus never paid for themselves.”
While the question of whether listicles can fund the Baghdad bureau remains unanswered, I have yet to find anyone who will argue that hard news ever paid for itself. As Mathew Ingram wrote last year, “News has always been subsidized somehow.” There have always been benefactors, sensational headlines, horoscopes, funny pages, sports pages, classifieds, and entertainment pullouts that kept households subscribing even when they never looked past the front page. I mean, I was a nerdy teenager, but I spent at least as much time on the Sunday crossword as I did in the international section.
Now that media outlets know which content is actually drawing readers in, and can track their movements on the site, they are equipped with all kinds of fascinating information. I am immensely curious about this. How many people get to Buzzfeed via Kim Kardashian and end up reading about Kim Jong Un? What about the other way around?
- Seduction. Cover the same content, but adapt the style and approach of reporting to what is most likely to reach people and compel them to engage, even if that’s an infographic or a Vine.
Some old-school publications, like the New York Times, have embraced data-driven journalism (remember when Five-Thirty-Eight was a blog?) as well as more experimental storytelling, such as the famous article “Snowfall.” These projects are not cheap, but there’s no doubt that they influence the conversation.
In this category, we also have entities like Vice News, which, while not exactly investigative journalism, does leverage its correspondents’ authentic responses to create a point of connection to the audience. Whether the reporter is a white hipster dude conversing with black Ferguson residents or an Iranian-Canadian woman interviewing an old Afghan man who trains fighting dogs, these correspondents are at ease in a wide variety of living rooms. Vice’s approach is authentic–and it’s helped the company achieve a valuation of more than $2.5 billion.
Then there are humor-based approaches. Whereas traditional media spent the early aughts scoffing at the reported 21% of people ages 18-29 who got their news primarily from Jon Stewart, perhaps they should have been grateful for The Daily Show and the genre it inspired. Stewart protege John Oliver has charmed people into caring about important-but-dull subjects like net neutrality and state-level legislation.
Let’s not forget TheSkimm, either, which presents the key headlines by daily email in a kicky, Millennial voice. Sure, it’s not investigative journalism–but it is creating social demand for more informed conversations.
- Acceptance. Let go of the idea that everyone needs to have deep knowledge of everything.
This is perhaps the most controversial approach, but it’s worth exploring. There is a good case to be made that business news, scientific discovery, technological innovation, and even social trends are just as important to the future of the world as global politics.
This approach doesn’t advocate that we give up on political awareness, simply that we place it in the context of everything else that’s happening. We must accept that if we want people to be following Ebola, ISIS, Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria, we will have to compete with Bill Cosby, record snowfalls in Buffalo, and celebrity Instagrams. If a worthwhile story on refugees doesn’t rise to the top of the headlines, maybe that is okay. There are still people out there who want that content and will find it (and/or fund it).
There are other media innovations we had little time to discuss, like tapping Twitter for breaking news. Just this morning, there was a horrible attack on a volleyball game in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, which Buzzfeed picked up from the Twitter feed of former BBC correspondent Bilal Sarwary. No foreign correspondent could have broken that news as quickly. Granted, Sarwary was probably not paid by Buzzfeed or anyone else for his content, but without the breaking news, the odds of any news organization undertaking an investigation of the incident are almost nil.
This discussion left me with a few nagging questions. I am pro-innovation and admire agile organizations that respond quickly to shifting demands. As an entrepreneur and a creative, I have had to get used to the fact that there are some things nobody will pay me to make. No business that fails to give its customers what they want can survive.
However, I also care deeply about civic health. The kind of journalism Jon and his colleagues practice requires deep investigation. It is threatened by the thickening bubble of secrets and security clearances in the federal government as well as by apathy. A threat to journalism is a threat to accountable government, which is a threat to all of us.
No one has yet found a way to solve all of these problems, but plenty of people–from Edward Snowden to Michael Bloomberg–are trying new approaches to keeping the public informed. We may not be able to save old-school journalism through any amount of creativity, but I find myself increasingly in the category of people who think that’s okay. Americans are curious, innovative, and civically minded people. All we have to do to save the best of journalism is to keep moving forward.