Dream bigger or lose out

I made my first one of these predictions five years ago, and I’m sorry to say I pulled my punch back then.

When asked what I wanted to see in 2019, I wrote that I wanted those of us working in news to focus on the needs of our communities and redistribute our power. It’s a good practice, but even then it was far too weak of an ask. It’s certainly not enough now.

I didn’t hope back then for much more than a little change around the edges of the news industry. I was running a two-person local news project with a completely inadequate budget, and I was overly preoccupied by everyone else’s relative strengths. But budget size is not everything. In the past few years, so many local reporters have worked themselves to unprecedented levels of burnout, only to be laid off or have their newsrooms shuttered anyway. Outside of the success and growth of a few national brands like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic, the for-profit giants of the past are failing too quickly and completely for the idea of a “news industry” to be anything but nostalgia.

In the years since that first prediction, many of us who work in local news have lost patience with looking backwards and are working instead to envision and help build healthy and resilient local civic information infrastructure. We are so far out of the gate that, regardless what anyone predicts on these pages or anywhere else, a more networked, more responsive, more representative, more resilient and less profit-motivated future is here. For-profit newsrooms and tech platforms will of course be part of this infrastructure, but there’s no need for them to be at the center.

I’ve been part of a group for the past five years that we more recently started calling FLN, for the Future of Local News. When it started, it was self-organized and very informal, but also a committed group of mostly women, mostly people of color running or serving local news organizations. We shared strategy and resources — even money. We tried to coordinate our messages about what high-quality and service-driven news and information can look like.

That group helped all of us, and so we’ve worked to keep growing it. We also started to formalize and break into working groups to build new programs and tools together, rather than just sharing the assets we already have as individual organizations. Early next year, we’ll make it official in some way, because we need more models of these peer-led communities of practice that help us learn faster, together, and make the most of our resources.

There are plenty of networks like this developing or growing all over the country, and there is room for plenty more. Some are locally based, like in Cleveland. There are coalitions changing practice together in places like Philadelphia. There are under-resourced but just as deserving networks across the South, where this liberation mindset comes from, as Cierra Brown Hinton has taught me. Some of these networks are more distributed, like the Documenters, URL Media, and the Tiny News Collective. Some are associations and intermediaries that could become networks as they lean further into collaboration and put power-building programs like Newsmatch on offer.

There is so much room and so much need for more of these networks. Over the next few years, we are also going to need to open them up to other community assets and information providers, like libraries or schools or groups of engaged citizens. We can find a way to work with these groups without compromising our ethics.

Building more resilient, more inclusive, and healthier civic information systems will of course take a lot more money, a lot more work, and policy change. But more than that, it requires culture change.

Each of us who thinks healthier civic information systems are essential for a healthier democracy and for more equitable communities needs to stop holding back. We all know we’re poised on a precipice where losing democracy and so much more is far too possible. We can no longer pull our punches when it comes to what we allow ourselves to dream and demand for our work and our world. I predict fewer of us will.

Sierra Sangetti-Daniels of City Bureau contributed to this prediction.

Sarah Alvarez is the founder and editor-in-chief of Outlier Media.

Leave a Reply