Journalism is facing a new set of challenges in this post-truth age. Political reporters are trying to figure out how to report if prominent figures issue half-truths or outright lies. There’s the sustained attack from some who call the media dishonest. For local journalism, the business model has never recovered from arrival of the Internet more than a decade ago, which removed crucial revenue from classified ads. Perhaps most concerning is the fact that some of the best journalism of 2016 appeared to not matter at all.
Journalism’s new opportunities
Sounds gloomy? Somewhat. But the good news is that change brings opportunity. Perhaps today we are watching the emergence of a brave, new movement in journalism, as was the New Journalism in the 1970s.
Karen Unland is journalist, podcaster, and media consultant who is taking advantage of emerging opportunities in journalism. Based in Edmonton, Canada, she and blogger/entrepreneur Mack Male have launched Taproot Edmonton – a member-supported home for local journalism.
We talk to Karen about about the fallout from the challenges the media faced during the 2016 U.S. election, the role of local journalism in democracy, and her own projects, including Taproot and Seen and Heard in Edmonton.
We’re doing this interview at a crucial time for journalism. Considering the difficulties the media had during the 2016 U.S. election and the constant reminder that “this is not normal” and we’re in the post-truth age – is the role of the fact-checking journalist who holds elected representatives accountable more important than ever?
It is more important than ever before to inform the public and provide the kind of scrutiny that helps democracy work. How to go about it in an effective way is a really big challenge in an environment where people believe things because they feel true regardless of whether they are demonstrably true.
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I’m haunted by Clay Shirky’s observation during the Republican convention: “We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war”. I don’t actually know how to contend with that. But we have to figure it out. Fact-checking will not persuade the people who proudly claim to be deplorable, but at least it solidifies the ground under those who oppose Trumpism. Mockery is a weapon, too, but it only reinforces your side — you can’t mock people into agreeing with you.
In the end, we have to put our trust in the power of empathy and curiosity. There are people on the edge who cannot be reached or refuse to be reached, but there are others who are reachable if they feel listened to. Jennifer Brandel is very eloquent on this point: “…if newsrooms want to be good for democracy, they need to become better at democracy.”
Journalists in the post-truth age: Be guided by what is true
More specifically, what is the role of the media when public figures or groups campaign on or push non-democratic ideas, such registries for groups of people, or certain forms of discrimination?
We have a responsibility to point out what they are doing. We have a responsibility to draw historical parallels. We must be guided by what is true, or as true as we can achieve, and not by what is popular.
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What advice do you offer to journalists, particularly those just starting out, who interview people who may view them as an oppositional force, or criticize them for fact checking or obtaining others’ viewpoints?
Your goal when interviewing someone is to better understand what is happening. So it doesn’t really matter whether you agree with the person you are interviewing. Your goal is understanding; your impetus is curiosity; your path is empathy. If someone remains utterly hostile, well, then you report that. If someone makes statements that are demonstrably false, you demonstrate their falsity.
The decline of local journalism
You were with the Edmonton Journal for more than 14 years, leaving in 2011 after four years as online editor. What was happening for you at the time and what prompted you to leave?
I loved the Edmonton Journal newsroom, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work there when I did with incredibly talented and dedicated colleagues. Towards the end of my time there, however, my job as digital editor felt increasingly Sisyphean — every day I’d move the rock up the mountain; every day I came back to it in about the same place. I would try to do what I thought needed to be done to build a future for the place while at the same time doing all the stuff I was asked to do, some of which I didn’t think was going to build a future for the place.
I agreed with Clay Shirky about what was going to happen to newspapers, and a lot of people didn’t at the time, though I suspect a lot more of them see it now. I left on good terms, without a buyout, and I will always have affection for the place I knew.
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The Internet broke the business model that used to sustain local journalism. Print advertising was scarce and valuable; digital advertising is infinite and not as valuable, and what value there is has been eaten up by Google and Facebook, who created better advertising products. With declining revenues, expenses have to go down, which means smaller newsrooms and less journalism (though some very good journalism continues to be done by the diminishing ranks of local journalists), and less reason for people to spend time (and money) on local journalism.
Non-local ownership hasn’t been great, either, partly because of the big debts those owners racked up, and partly because of the homogeneity that the search for economies of scale tends to lead to. Everything is combining to make the old way we used to fund local journalism unsustainable. So we need new ways.
Why should people care? I’m not a big fan of telling people what they should do. People do care about whether someone is paying attention to them and the things that are important to them. There are many stories that are only interesting to people who live here, and it would be good if we could find a new way to fund people whose job it is to tell those stories.
When disaster strikes, it will be covered — the New York Times and The Guardian and Buzzfeed and Vice and whoever else will descend on the city and send back dispatches to their audiences around the world. But who covers the things that only Edmontonians see as news? That’s what I care about answering.
What’s the impact on local democracy if the local media is further eroded?
Part of the role of local media is to equip voters with the information they need to make informed decisions at election time.
Part of the role is to hold elected officials to account for their decisions, to point out inconsistencies and hypocrisy, to remind them of the gap between what they promised and what they delivered, and to point out when good things happen as well as the bad.
Part of the role is to uncover the stuff that doesn’t show up in media releases or at announcements. Democracy just works better with that kind of concerted attention.
Such attention does not have to be provided only by traditional journalists. Many of us in Edmonton have been well-informed about municipal and provincial politics by Mack Male and Dave Cournoyer, for example. I’m in favour of a mix of ways to pay concerted attention to what government gets up to, and I think it would be best for all concerned if we could figure out a way for such attention-payers to get paid.
For people who care about community, growth and evolution, what can they do about the state of local journalism? How might they get involved?
Well, if you’ll permit me to be self-serving, I’d strongly suggest people buy a membership in Taproot! But that’s not the only way. If you get value from a journalistic outlet, subscribe to it and share those valuable stories. If you like what a local blogger or podcaster is doing, share their stuff but also support their Patreon, buy their merch, let their sponsors know where you heard about them.
If you have a business or an organization with a marketing budget, consider reaching your customers through some local sources — that way you can help contribute to the local media infrastructure while helping yourself, too.
New ventures in journalism
But clearly this decline is creating some exciting opportunities. In May 2016 you co-founded an inspirational initiative with Mack Male – Taproot Edmonton. What was the impetus? What’s the objective and how are things going so far?
Mack and I have been talking about the future of local media ever since we met eight or nine years ago. We have long admired and encouraged each other in our work, collaborating here and there and exchanging links that feed our nerdiness about the topic.
What switched us from talk to action was Postmedia’s massive cuts and newsroom amalgamations in four cities, including Edmonton, in 2016. It was a significant blow, and it seemed that it would not be the last (and, as we learned recently with another slew of buyouts, it was not the last). We decided we had to do something to start to replace what was being lost.
We knew that for the kind of local stories we were interested in, advertising was going to be a difficult way to generate revenue. You need massive scale to have a hope of making any money at that, and such scale is not available for stories that are mainly interesting to a subset of the population of a mid-sized city in Canada. A subscription-only service wasn’t that interesting to us either; why put a paywall around stories that you want people to read? So we set about looking for a different way, and we landed on the concept for Taproot.
Taproot is a source of curiosity-driven stories about the city, cultivated by the community. That means that we invite our paying members to express what they are curious about, by asking a how or why question about something that happens in Edmonton. They plant the “seed” of that story in the Story Garden, where other members can see it, comment on it if they wish, and express how curious they are about it. When we see a story getting a lot of attention, we ask one of our freelance writers, who are also members, to look into the story, and if they find something interesting, then we commission them to write it and we publish it for all to see.
We have more than 80 paying members, and they have come up with some fascinating questions. So far we have published three stories, with another on the way in December, and we are aiming to ramp up to weekly publishing some time in 2017. Our idea has caught the attention of future-of-media circles, including journalism.co.uk, J-Source and Story Board. We’re excited to see where we can take this.
In July 2015 you launched Seen and Heard in Edmonton, a blog and podcast about bloggers and podcasts in Edmonton, Canada. What prompted you to launch the site?
I started being aware of Edmonton’s thriving blog scene when I was digital editor at the Edmonton Journal. I deeply admired this group of people who loved writing so much that they did for free in their spare time, and I was particularly interested in those who used their space to pay attention to different aspects of the city, whether it was hockey or fashion or politics or the arts or food or whatever. Then podcasting started to come along, and I found myself listening to local podcasts as well. I’m a sucker for passion in action.
In the summer of 2015, I had an opportunity to attend a program hosted at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York. I used the program to workshop an idea to build a local podcast network to help local podcasters make some money by providing a new kind of marketing opportunity for local business.
To do that, I felt I needed the credibility of being a podcaster myself, and what better use for my podcast than to interview these bloggers and podcasters about what they did and why. So that’s how Seen and Heard developed — it’s just an organized way for me to pay attention to people who are doing something valuable, and a platform on which to build something that could generate revenue for them as well as for me. Part 1 is accomplished; Part 2 is still a work in progress, but there are some possibilities in the works for 2017.
Can you speculate on the trends in local journalism in 2017?
I think there’s going to be a lot of room for new things to grow as traditional sources of local journalism shrink. I grab onto the hopeful parts of what Erin Millar of Discourse Media predicted in the annual Nieman Labs roundup on the future of journalism. There’s a vacuum to fill; there are communities to serve; there are successes to emulate. We’ve just got to find a way to make it sustainable.
Journalist Karen Unland
Karen Unland is a teacher and consultant who is passionate about community-building and communication. She worked at the Globe and Mail and then the Edmonton Journal, before launching her company – Unland Media Consulting. She teaches journalism at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, and Writing and Editing in the Digital World, a course that’s part of the social media citation within the University of Alberta’s continuing education arm. Karen has an MA in Journalism from Carleton University, Ottawa, and a B.A. in Canadian Studies from the University of Alberta. Follow her on Twitter and find her Linkedin profile here.
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