How do we build the journalism ecosystem we need to tell the stories that our movements need to tell? How do we make audible the voices of movement leaders and rank-and-file participants, and provide the narrative frameworks and understanding that can help social movements advance in the public sphere?
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the crisis of local news. That crisis is very real. Fortunately, it is getting greater attention of late from both local communities (more and more residents are becoming contributors to local news organizations) and philanthropy. No one would suggest that these efforts have been decisive yet—there is still a lot of building to do. But there has been movement.
Yet there is another crisis of journalism that gets far less attention, and that is the regional and national gap in what a coalition of Southern journalists helpfully termed movement journalism, or “the practice of journalism in the service of…social, political, and economic transformation.”
What Can We Learn from the Recent UPS Contract Campaign?
The recent UPS contract campaign provides a powerful example of what I am talking about. If the 340,000 drivers, dispatchers, and warehouse workers at United Parcel Service were a city, they would be the 57th biggest in the United States, just around the size of Cleveland or New Orleans. These workers handle a massive share of our logistics-driven economy. Had they gone on strike this year, it would have been one of the largest strikes against a single employer the country has ever seen. Fortunately, although this is subject to a ratification vote, it appears that workers have achieved a decent contract—with the strike likely averted.
Covering a community forged through organizing means being unafraid to ground your reporting in movement journalism.
But this discussion raises a larger question about the nature of the journalistic enterprise. Think about it. Outside of the context of a strike or threatened strike, we don’t hear about this community of package delivery workers much. When we do, only rarely is what we read or see or hear grounded in a narrative of solidarity and economic democracy rather than adopting a corporate gaze that focuses on the potential for disruption. How can the journalistic needs of this massive community and its daily struggles be met?
In the past decade and a half, there’s been a remarkable effort, led by a coalition of innovative journalists and engaged philanthropy, to reinvent the foundations of journalism for local communities. This movement, which has helped catalyze nearly 200 new nonprofit newsrooms since 2009, is driven by the idea that, in the wake of the collapse of local journalism’s traditional advertising business model, democracy at the local level faces an existential threat—and that meeting this threat requires rebuilding the foundations of local journalism, with new models for revenue and engagement.
But of course, as has been widely recognized, the crisis of democracy is national and indeed international in scope. The 340,000 UPS workers are as much of a cohesive community—if not more so—than one gathered by a circle on a map. Given the importance of the workplace as a site where civic meaning is generated, their effort to defend and expand democracy—economic democracy—is of equal and perhaps even greater importance.
The Rise of an Emergent Movement Journalism
The emerging ecosystem around local journalism emphasizes trust that is built with audiences by the journalists themselves, foregrounding their authentic connection to the community in question. Covering a community forged through organizing means being unafraid to ground your reporting in movement journalism.
While new ventures in movement journalism have emerged—my own nonprofit newsroom, The Real News, is an example—this hopeful effervescence can sometimes mask larger structural challenges. Consider the historical decline in one important sector of movement media, the once robust American labor press. This sector once comprised thousands of newspapers and periodicals. One union, the Industrial Workers of the World, alone published in 19 languages, including a Lithuanian paper based in my hometown of Baltimore. Today, this sector is barely a shadow of its former self.
Might the buildout of independent local journalism—such as the national network of over 200 local nonprofit newsrooms cited above—serve as a model for a movement journalism revival? The new philanthropic anchors of local journalism have committed to fund not just a few promising outlets but an entire ecosystem. This ecosystem, with dedicated funds and funding intermediaries, online communities, and in-person fora to share and generalize best practices, high-touch technical support providers around reader revenue, content management system development, and all sorts of other ecosystem services, has accelerated progress significantly. What might be learned from this example?
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One of the most interesting—if potentially contentious—aspects of recent coordinated investments in local journalism is the degree to which this is becoming self-consciously a project of reinventing journalism, not just saving it. The recently released Roadmap for Local News described this reinvention as a shift toward “civic information.”
What would it take to…provide a text service alerting you when there’s a picket line near you to walk in solidarity?
Darryl Holliday of City Bureau in Chicago, who has led the “Documenters” program that trains citizen journalists to report on community meetings, is very clear about the difference. As Holliday says, “I’m not big on the whole ‘save journalism’ rhetoric. I think there are a lot of parts of it that don’t need to be saved. But this broadening of the field and how we talk about journalism…I think that’s what’s going to save journalism.”
Philanthropic support has sheltered promising experiments here from immediate market pressures and allowed new models for how to connect communities with the information they need to emerge. Documenters’ armies of very part-time journalists providing basic documentation of what happens at public meetings is one. The text message services pioneered by Outlier Media, connecting residents with information about their landlords, is another.
Forging a New Movement Journalism Ecosystem for Our Times
Could similar strategies be developed or translated to movement journalism? What would it take to document every captive-audience meeting in America’s workplaces—or provide a text service alerting you when there’s a picket line near you to walk in solidarity?
We need to create spaces and new institutions that bring together movement organizers with movement journalists.
Right now, outlets like my own are focused mostly on keeping the lights on in an increasingly unfavorable algorithmic environment for content distribution. The idea that the movement journalism we all need will be sustained just by creating high-quality reporting and putting it out on social media platforms that will distribute it to a mass audience who can then support it financially seems dubious.
This makes it imperative to develop new revenue models and new sources of support. But more fundamentally, it means making sure that movement journalism is seen as a critical part of any successful strategy for systemic change—and that an ecosystem is built to match.
What does such an ecosystem require? Here are a few key elements:
- We need to create spaces and new institutions that bring together movement organizers with movement journalists and that catalyze cooperation between newsrooms.
- We need shared resources that can foster experimentation and innovation, with an eye toward sharing solutions and generalizing best practices.
- We need to develop news that movements can use—such as the text service announcing key movement outlined above.
- We need to steward intentional collaboration that connects emerging forms of local journalism—which is already elevating the voices of the marginalized, naming hard problems, and creatively pushing for systemic solutions in communities—to trans-local reporting that can help connect the dots and weave larger movements.
Above all, we need to invest in creating the journalistic infrastructure that labor and other social movements require. This means money from philanthropy, of course, but it also means movement organizations devoting resources (both monetary and otherwise) that will generate the shared vocabulary, frames, narratives, and stories that will grease the wheels of movement activity. In short, we need to invest in journalism that is unafraid to pick a side in the fight for democracy—a fight that doesn’t stop at the city or county line.