“Our angle on the current state of journalism is this: The crisis of journalism and legacy news media is structural, and not just a matter of technological challenges or broken business models.”
One year ago, two researchers set out on a journey, on a quest for newsroom innovation—travelling across 9 European countries and the United States, and visiting 54 innovative media companies—trying to figure out the current state of journalism, from the trenches.
The year-long journey took them through New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, Austin, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle in the U.S. And the European leg of the trip led them through Spain, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
The researchers—both veterans of Danish media—are Per Westergaard and Søren Schultz Jørgensen.
Per Westergaard is a longtime editor-in-chief and CEO of a range of Danish regional, national and digital titles. Søren Schultz Jørgensen has worked as a journalist and editor at several Danish news media during the last 20 years.
Concerned with the crisis of journalism and legacy news media, they felt the need to submit the core content of the news media — journalism itself — to a critical review. They figured that today’s core questions for news media — old or new, small or big, privately or publicly owned — must be social and cultural:
How can journalism regain its relevance, meaning, and trusted prominence in society? How can journalism reconnect with citizens?
These were the questions that guided their journey. They researched an initial list of 120 media organizations that could be worth the visit — new media, legacy media, born-digital, radio, television and printed newspapers. They finally whittled down the list to 50 of the most interesting and innovative outlets in the international media landscape today.
“Half of the interviews were conducted in the U.S., the other half in Europe, with the ambition of gathering inspiration, ideas, and strategies that both American and European news professionals can mirror themselves in and — hopefully — learn from,” says Per Westergaard and Søren Schultz Jørgensen. “We need to learn from the best on both sides of the Atlantic to a much greater degree.”
We identified nine ways — or movements — through which news media are pushing their journalism in a more engaging, cooperative and community-oriented direction.
They share the conclusions in their book, The Journalistic Connection, published in Danish this past March under the title Den journalistiske Forbindelse.
In it, they identified 9 different ways by which news media in the Western world are currently trying to forge closer ties and stronger relations to their communities and audiences.
Here’s a snapshot of the findings they shared.
1. Many news organizations are working intensely on sharpening their own profiles and identities, and the need for a clear media identity grows when online news content is spread in small, unidentifiable bites across the Internet.
2. Niche media’s ability to create relevance for users — and to mobilize both interest and willingness to pay — is far greater than the ability of the omnibus media. And apart from a very few media with global reach (e.g. The Guardian, BBC, CNN), all news media can be considered niche operations.
3. Gathering people around the news media, in clearly defined communities, is a strategy gaining momentum on both sides of the Atlantic. This implies transforming what were formerly known as subscribers, users, or readers into members, that must either register or pay to join the inner circles of the crowd around the news media.
4. Many media companies are pursuing new ways to create physical journalism in the form of public meetings, festivals, events, and stage plays. Live and engaging.
5. Both in the U.S. and Europe, news organizations are increasingly opening up — physically and mentally — in order to be more accessible to the citizens they serve. More than anything, this means listening to citizens and creating more transparency in editorial matters.
6. More and more newsrooms are involving citizens directly throughout the journalistic process: from ideation to research to delivery of independent content to the subsequent debate of published stories.
7. Using social media is a double-edged sword, but handled in the right way — maybe more as a way to cooperate than distribute — social network technologies have big potential to enhance and deepen engagement, while at the same time creating stronger journalism.
8. Journalists have discovered they gain greater impact if they add a solution-oriented level to their work. Constructive journalism simply creates more engagement among readers, users, viewers. They read more, they are more likely to share content, and they express more interest in knowing more about the issue when the piece has a constructive angle.
9. Several news outlets — established as well as new ones — are testing whether they can create a new relevance to their readers, users, and viewers through activist campaigns or journalistic advocacy. This move is particularly controversial for many journalists — and clearly not a strategy suitable for all types of media operations.
The book describes all these with examples and analysis in depth and detail. According to the authors, if there’s a common denominator for the 50-plus news organizations they have met and studied, it’s their focus on innovation and experiments.
All the new digital publishers we’ve met seem founded on the courage and ambition of radical innovation. But also, in the legacy media institutions we visited, there seems to be a new understanding of the need for dramatic change and open-ended experiments.
And so, in conclusion, Per Westergaard and Søren Schultz Jørgensen declare, “This is why we find no reason to preach one particular model of journalism for the future. All the experiments and ideas unfolding in the current media landscape on both sides of the Atlantic indicate that there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of different models, all of which carry a hope for journalism in the future.”