The future of local news is “civic information” — not “declining legacy systems,” new report says

A WhatsApp group that gives immigrants information on social services. An analysis of the bus lines in Detroit, conducted in partnership with Detroit residents. An online memorial for New Yorkers who died of Covid-19. Local residents documenting public meetings. Office hours and “pop-up newsrooms” in public libraries.

Projects like these, which focus on giving people information they need to make the places they live better, are the focus of a new report, out Thursday, that calls on local journalism’s would-be saviors to focus their energy and funding on collaborative efforts, startups, and community groups — not on legacy news organizations.

“Too much time and energy has been spent propping up and mourning the declining legacy systems,” the report’s lead authors — Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green, City Bureau’s Darryl Holliday, and Free Press’s Mike Rispoli — write. All three, of course, run or are part of media organizations that operate squarely outside of legacy media. (Disclosure: Green is my close friend.)

The opportunity now is to shepherd and accelerate a transition to this emergent civic media system. This new ecosystem looks different from what it will replace: while the commercial market rewarded information monopolies, what is emerging now are pluralistic networks in which information is fluid, services are shared, and media is made in cooperation with the people it seeks to serve.

The Roadmap for Local News” was built on conversations with more than 50 local news folks, leaders of nonprofit news organizations, and funders. Many of those same people met last week in a summit at the former Annenberg Estate in California, an event written up here by Lenfest’s Jim Friedlich, a funder of the project.

(Former ProPublica president Dick Tofel offered some criticism of that meeting, and the initiative, here. “If the upshot of all this is more money for great journalism, that’s all to the good,” Tofel told me in an email. “What I hope can be avoided are especially two things: a new bureaucracy doling out a pool of funds, and a centralized support mechanism. Both, in my view, would tend to inhibit experimentation and innovation, of which we need more, not less.”)

The report focuses on “civic information” and “civic media,” defined like this:

Civic information: High-quality, verifiable information that enables people to respond to collective needs by enhancing local coordination, problem-solving, systems of public accountability, and connectedness.
Civic media: Any practice that produces civic information as its primary focus.

The authors write:

Civic media practitioners are united by a vision of a world in which people everywhere are equipped to improve their communities through abundant access to high-quality information, on urgent health and safety emergencies, the environment, the people and processes of local government, and daily social services like healthcare, education, and transportation. In this vision, the community librarian facilitating conversations around authoritative, trusted digital news is as celebrated as the dogged reporter pursuing a scoop.

They call for “a new level of investment to the civic media field,” with “leaders in philanthropy, journalism, and democracy” “[coordinating] work around the goal of expanding ‘civic information,’ not saving the news business.”

The goal should not be to save legacy businesses that remain in decline, but instead to meet the civic information needs of all individuals and communities.

The report also stresses the need for more open-ended funding (“including conversion of project-based funds to general operating support”), shared services and infrastructure, and major public policy initiatives.

It will require investing significantly more into our current public media system, creating new forms of public funding, and passing a suite of other policy solutions at all levels of government to create the conditions for local civic information to thrive.

Coauthor Holliday also delved into some of the report’s themes in a thread.

We won’t emerge from this by “saving” the old system. We need to accelerate the transition to a new system centered on community info needs & news products that help people act & solve local issues

A participatory public good that’s worth investing in. Yes, I made a chart

— Darryl Holliday (@d_holli) February 2, 2023

The development of the report was funded by the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Democracy Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Walton Family, and American Journalism Project. You can read the full thing here.

NEW: I helped a bit with this, and am very happy to see the focus of this effort on the information needs of communities. It’s not about “saving” organizations. It’s about solving problems. #localnewsroadmap

— Chris Krewson (@ckrewson) February 2, 2023

I’m not saying this bc I am one of them. But I have colleagues at McClatchy, Gannett and others who work on many of these premises within difficult systems. They deserve to be cheered on.

Go ahead and hate these companies, they still hold power and house good souls.

— P. Kim Bui (@kimbui) February 2, 2023

Image from City Bureau’s Documenters Network.

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