We Media – Game Changers: Awards and conversations with Winners from KnightCenter on Vimeo.

WeMedia Miami speech as delivered March 10, 2010

I’d like to start by thanking Andrew Nachison for bestowing a fancy new title on me.  In his announcement that the Banyan Project and I had won the balloting for the Game Changer Community Choice Award, Andrew referred to me as “journalism and democracy visionary Tom Stites.”  Whoa!  When I first saw that a new image of myself suddenly formed in my head.  The title strikes me as something to strive for rather than to claim.  So I hope that what I have to offer you this morning will prove at least somewhat worthy of it.

Right at the outset is a good place for full disclosure:  So far, the Project – which includes me and the 26 remarkable people who make up Banyan’s advisory board – has been all thinking and talking and planning, which is to say we’ve been working through our visioning phase.  Our conceptual work reached critical mass a few months ago and we’re just now ready to enter our “doing” phase.

We’re laying plans for pilot sites in three cities that will help determine whether our distinctive approach to journalism – we call it Relational Journalism, and I’ll tell you more about that in a bit – will help us find out whether our approach can change the game in the real world.  Basically, we’re setting out to do four things that will activate a wholly new model for journalism and, most fundamentally, strengthen democracy:

First is to deliver trustworthy professional journalism, through the Web, to a huge, ill-served public.

Second is to publish the journalism through software that pulls people into deeper civic engagement and, at the same time – third –

Invites rich feedback to editors that makes the readers co-creators of our journalism, and, finally and fundamentally,

Make sure Banyan’s distinctive journalism is so relevant to the public it serves that it helps them make sounder life and citizenship choices.

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But my mission this morning is not just to tell you about Banyan but also to seize this opportunity to urge all of us to join together to change the game called the future of journalism by stretching its boundaries, by widening its horizons, by enlarging its discourse, and, most important, by grounding it in the huge needs of our wounded democracy.

The future-of-journalism discourse is urgent and intense because journalism’s crisis is so wrenching and the stakes are so high.  As everybody here knows from lived experience, the discourse is charged with tension between the worldviews of old-line journalists on one side and of bloggers and citizen journalism advocates on the other.  All journalists thrive on conflict, and maybe that’s what’s keeping the future-of-journalism discourse so dangerously narrow, so binary.

The danger is that neither camp seems even close to a breakout moment where it will ride to the rescue and deliver the journalism that democracy needs.  In fact, I see little hope that the two camps combined can ever deliver what democracy needs in an era when so many antidemocratic forces, particularly multinational corporations that are larger than many nations, are threatening to overpower We the People.  Please take a moment to think on this:  What’s the trajectory you see?  Starting from the perspective of democracy’s needs, do you detect any evidence of a coming journalistic breakout, anywhere?

So, to broaden the discourse, let’s set the binary conflict aside, start with a blank slate, and ask ourselves:  What journalism problems does democracy demand that we solve?  Let’s see how wide the horizon of possibility really is.  Let me name some problems all of us are tackling or could be tackling.  Whenever I mention one you find important, raise your hand, let me hear from you:

  • Who’d raise their hands for getting the news covered reliably and consistently at the community level?
  • How about strengthening investigative journalism in this wildly corrupt era?
  • How many think we need to find new revenue streams to replace vanishing ad revenue?
  • And who’s in favor of eliminating biased gatekeepers?
  • Anybody here think we need to create new, sustainable business models?
  • Who’s for ensuring that journalism serves the ill-served, that it gets people in all walks of life engaged with the news, and not just the affluent?
  • Anybody think it would be good if we could find ways to re-employ discarded professional journalists?
  • How about finding ways for bloggers and citizen journalists to make money?
  • And who thinks its would be good to open ways for more community people to express themselves through journalism?
  • Anybody think it would be good for democracy if we could find ways to neutralize the great flood of commercial, political and religious deception and propaganda that poisons our culture – and our journalism?
  • And would it be good for democracy if we could do journalism in ways that strengthen civic adhesion?

Judging by the hands that went up, these are all things that can help create the healthy glow that an informed electorate gives to democracy. I’m sure that if we opened up for discussion the fine minds in this hall would add several more.

So what’s the most important problem I’ve not named?  Go ahead, shout out your nominations.  Come on, don’t be bashful.

[Engage with audience for less than a minute.]

Well, here’s my nomination:  Re-establishing the public’s trust in journalism.

The poll results on trust just keep getting grimmer.  Last June, Gallup’s annual survey of confidence in U.S. institutions found only 25 percent of respondents saying they had “a great deal of confidence” or “quite a lot of confidence” in newspapers, down five points in five years.  Only 23 percent expressed confidence in television news, down seven points over the same period.  Both are now half their highest Gallup confidence level.  Half.  As for blogs, people don’t adhere to ones they don’t trust – it’s the nature of the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the niche of the public that trusts and adheres to news-related blogs – largely political junkies and policy wonks, labels I gleefully claim – is a tiny fraction of the broad public that democracy so needs to be well informed.

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Trust is one of what I think of as the Big Three problems facing journalism.  I’ll get to the other two shortly.

Re-establishing trust is No. 1 on my list because it if trust is poisoned, its toxin infects all of journalism:  How informed can the electorate be if people have scant confidence in the journalism they’re getting or, worse, ignore it altogether because their distrust is so deep?  The citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor, a stalwart Banyan advisory board member, is working on an antidote for this through a book to be titled Mediactive.  Dan’s aim is not only better journalism but also helping people learn to engage with it in its myriad forms and to master the skill of sorting out the reliable from the blivet.  This is crucial, but I fear that not enough people will go to the trouble to learn new skills.  So democracy still needs at least some reliable journalism that’s worthy of people’s trust.

No. 2 on my list is already the main focus of the discourse and needs no elaboration from me:  That’s creating sustainable business models.

And No. 3 is way outside the discourse, but profoundly important to democracy.  That’s serving the ill-served.

These are all terribly challenging problems.  That’s why it’s so important for us to stretch the game called the future of journalism, to widen the way we think.

Now here’s a happier thought:  If you solve the Big Three problems, many if not all the others on our list might very well be solved in the process.  Take a look at this new grouping.

This was presented on a PPT slide

Big Three

1)  Re-establish Trust

  • Gatekeepers
  • Neutralize propaganda

2) Sustainable Models

  • New revenue
  • Jobs for journalists
  • Income for bloggers

3) Serving the Ill-Served

  • Hyperlocal
  • Investigative journalism
  • Community contributors
  • Civic adhesion

I can’t promise you they’d all resolve this neatly, but knowing where to focus your effort can be a big help.

–0–

So let’s revisit the current narrow discourse about journalism’s future.  How are the legacy media doing with the Big Three problems?  And how are the bloggers and citizen journalists doing?

Let’s start with No. 1, trust. To the bloggers’ credit, they’re devoted to a model that structurally eliminates biased gatekeepers.  But, sadly, it’s clear that the tide of distrust is coming in faster than the bloggers and everybody else in journalism can bail it back out.

As for No. 2, sustainable models that support original reporting, some newspapers will surely be with us in five years or even a decade from now.  National papers with upscale readerships are the strongest candidates to remain sustainable, followed by community papers in prosperous suburbs.  But is there any reason to believe that what’s left of the weakened survivors will be able to regain and sustain the role in democracy that newspapers, with all their warts, fulfilled at their heyday?

NPR looks indefinitely sustainable.  So does PBS.  But quality network news, except for certain newsmagazine shows, is at least as hollowed out as the newspapers.

On the Web, Talking Points Memo seems to be self-sustaining, even growing, and Huffington Post might be, but both appeal almost entirely to the political junkie/policy wonk elite.  Brave new metro Web journalism nonprofits such as Voice of San Diego and the New Haven Independent, plus newer models such as the Chicago News Cooperative, show little sign of having found the path to a sustainable financial future.

And as for the third of the Big Three, serving the ill-served, journalism as a whole just gets feebler and feebler.

Four years ago, at the Media Giraffe conference, I devoted a whole keynote speech to laying out how metro newspaper publishers, in their need to serve their receding rosters of display advertisers, purposely aim their papers to appeal only to upscale readers.  I don’t have time to recap this today, but Pew polling numbers provide disturbing evidence that a disproportionate number of less-than-affluent everyday citizens have, not surprisingly, given up on the newspapers that have given up on them.

The new metro Web journalism ventures tend to do high-quality coverage that largely follows the approach of the metro dailies but reaches many fewer people – and with a narrower range of stories.  And the blogosphere, modeled as it is on a market, is a supply-and-demand equation whose “buyers” so far constitute a small and elite niche.

Network television news still reaches a broad market but it’s shrinking.  Cable news offers nothing local, and its ideological focus keeps intensifying.  Demagogues do not serve, they exploit; too much of cable news causes a misinformed electorate, not the informed electorate democracy needs.

No one has expressed the problem of the ill-served more succinctly than Ralph Whitehead, a Banyan advisory board member who’s a senior professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on the sociology of working people.  In an email that was part of our visioning process, Ralph wrote:

“So far, the response to the crisis in the journalism business has been devoted almost entirely to the absolutely necessary but not nearly sufficient task of figuring out how to continue to serve the upper tier of the income distribution.”

And he added,

“It is now time to start thinking about how to serve the other two-thirds of the country too.”

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This brings us back to the Banyan Project.  It’s a pleasure to discuss the project in Florida, where banyan trees are common enough that the name of our project doesn’t elicit as many puzzled looks as it does in Massachusetts.  The photo up there is only one part of a single banyan tree; the biggest ones cover two to three acres.

I picked the banyan as the main metaphor for our project because it’s a biological expression of some of the powerful principles that govern the Web:  It’s a network that grows from an originating node, the main trunk, and it grows in the ways that work best for it in its environment, with the least possible central control.  This is exactly what we have in mind for Banyan journalism.  We want its nature to be congruent with the nature of the Web.  There’s great efficiency in that – and great potential for not only delivering journalism to readers but also for bringing them together in online communities where they can organize to take action on issues of shared interest.

If legacy forms of journalism are Plan A and new Web forms are Plan B, our model is Plan C.  It starts as an A-B hybrid but also includes many other familiar ways business is done outside of journalism.  And it aims to solve all three of the Big Three problems.

Two of the Big Three are enshrined in the Banyan value proposition:  That it will serve the broad public of less-than-affluent everyday citizens with journalism that they experience as relevant to their lives, respectful of them as people, and worthy of their trust.

That addresses serving the ill-served and being trustworthy.  To solve the third big problem, the sustainable business model, we will rely on six revenue streams, with advertising in a secondary role.

Let’s build this model from the ground up:

We start at the bedrock level, with integrity.  We understand ourselves to be operating in what we call the Integrity Economy.  Here’s how that works:  The motive force of any economy is demand for scarce resources.  In our information-glut era, awash as we are in advertising and other manipulative messages, and with conflicts of interests everywhere we look, what’s scarce?  Integrity is scarce.  People yearn for it, and they value it hugely when they find it.  Integrity ensures trustworthiness, a safe harbor in a cultural sea of deception.  This sense of safety is what will attract people to Banyan’s journalism, and monetizing the value people place on its integrity is what will make the model sustainable.

Atop this bedrock we need to erect an entity to own and operate this venture. With the guidance of advisory board member Gar Alperovitz, the University of Maryland political economist who founded the Democracy Collaborative, we decided on a consumer co-operative.  It will be owned entirely by its end users, in this case its readers, the same way food co-ops are owned by their shoppers and credit unions are owned by their depositors.  In advertising-dominant publishing, conflicts between advertisers’ and readers’ interests are baked in.  Because the Banyan co-op is owned entirely by its readers, such conflicts are baked out.  Co-ops have inherent integrity.

Primary among the model’s six revenue streams will be a large number of tiny payments that result from unlocking the intangible value of the integrity that will draw many readers of our journalism to buy a co-op share.  The journalism will be free to all who wish to read it, and will be our main marketing magnet.  We believe people will buy co-op shares because they value not only Banyan’s trustworthiness but also the sense of belonging, self-worth and civic potency they get from engaging in the Banyan online community. Our selling of such intangibles is akin to Mercedes Benz’s selling of status.  We’ve also drawn up a list of tangible co-op benefits to test through the pilot sites to see if people will pay for them.

To scale to engage the huge public that Banyan seeks to serve, it will ape both the biological banyan tree and the Web, spreading naturally with the least possible central direction.  After the kinks are worked out of the pilots, we will start negotiating with groups of journalists all across the country about turn-key franchises that provide software, national ad sales, and back shop services.

So are you wondering when I’m going to get to the journalism?  Yes?  Well, we start with community-level sites that engage the lives of everyday citizens at the experiential level.  As soon as possible after funding is secured, we plan to launch pilots, one after the other, in three cities with very different cultures in states with different laws – Boston, Kansas City and Chicago.  These community news operations would consist of an editor, two staff reporters, and three interns from the journalism program of a local college or community college, plus some freelancers, stringers and co-op member/volunteers.

News coverage will focus on community power centers of all kinds in the limited areas the pilots will serve – not just official bodies but also, for example, community development financial institutions and major churches.  Starring roles will tend to go to local schools – rarely to the school superintendent.  Service journalism will call on community expertise – for example, doctors at neighborhood medical clinics.  Standing features will address personal health, education, personal finance, employment, and related service areas.  Columnists, writing as bloggers, will cover politics and public transit as they relate to the pilot community.  The sites will offer videos and slide shows as well as text, plus standard features such as calendars of events.

As the venture scales and revenue grows, we will add other categories of journalism one by one – metro, state, national, investigative – till every Banyan community gets a comprehensive report of relevant and trustworthy news, every bit of it edited to meet the value proposition.

So how is this journalism relational?  Our software will set a new standard for rich and plentiful feedback from the readers, ensuring strong public participation in the journalism that the professional staff produces.  This feedback will give editors unprecedented opportunity to cover the news in ways that respond to readers’ expressed wants – and to understand their less-articulated needs well enough to deliver other news they’ll find meaningful without knowing they wanted it.  This is journalism from the readers up, not the usual journalism from the experts and institutions down.  What could be a sharper departure from the ways of legacy journalism?

There’s also a deeper relational structure:  Since only readers can be co-op shareholders, and it’s the shareholders who elect the board that hires the editors, Banyan’s professional journalists are accountable to the readers – its editors are still gatekeepers, but in this structure it’s their job to tend the gates in behalf of the reader/owners.

And what about the promised civic engagement?  This is relational, too, but in another dimension.  Our Web developers will be alchemists, mixing the best ideas from social networking and political campaign sites to create easy-to-use civic networking tools that invite people to join together to pursue solutions to issues they care about.

All these disparate pieces snap tightly together to make the Banyan model.  This diagram is oversimplified because it does not show the myriad relationships that connect the chunks – a full diagram would look a lot like a network schematic.  The ideas are laid out in much fuller detail at our website, BanyanProject.com.

But will Banyan work?  All wholly new business models are wildly risky.  Will this really prove to be a sustainable Third Way, a thriving Plan C?  If I told you I was confident that it would, that would be a signal for Dale and Andrew to get the hook and drag me off the stage.  But I can tell you that the advisory board and I are confident that we’ve developed a model that’s sound enough to test in the real world.  And I can assure you that I’m going bust my butt to do everything I can to make it succeed.

Thinking about this along with very smart advisory board members for two and a half years has been fascinating, but I’m much more a doer than a thinker.  I particularly love start-ups.  So I can’t wait to dive in, to launch the pilot sites, to tweak them and refine them – and to see what it takes to make this wholly new model flourish.

–0–

The reason I’m standing here today is that more than 3,700 people saw enough hope in Banyan as a Plan C to want to cast votes for it in the Community Choice Game Changer balloting.  But even if our venture proves sustainable and fulfills all that hope, it won’t be enough.  Our democracy is weakened by many powerful forces, and it needs lots more help than a fully realized Banyan could deliver.  Democracy needs not only Plan C but also Plans D, E, F, G, H, and on and on – a whole alphabet of plans.

So here’s a little journalism Mount Rushmore from the last century: Henry Luce of Time Inc., invented newsweeklies in the 1920s; Barney Kilgore of The Wall Street Journal, who invented national newspapers with multiple printing sites in the 1950s, and Ted Turner of CNN, who invented cable news in the 1980s.

It would be breathtaking hubris to claim that Banyan will ever make such a list.  But I’ll bet that somewhere in this room, given all the fine minds gathered here, at least one idea is incubating that will.  Maybe several.  So let’s all aspire for journalism’s Rushmore.  Let’s think in terms of a whole alphabet of ideas for attacking the Big Three problems in service of We the People.  I love the WeMedia view that “almost nothing has been invented yet.”  As Doc Searls likes to say, in the history of the Internet we’re only a few seconds out from the Big Bang.  We have a huge distance to go.  Our real challenge is to find out what fully realized Web journalism will look like.

Would fully realized Web journalism change the nature of journalism?  Would that be so bad? American journalism has already changed many times – pamphleteers, low-circulation mercantile sheets, political organs, the penny press, the so-called objective reporting of what is now the mainstream media, blogs, cable news demagoguery.  These changes came about because of advances in technology and shifts in the culture.  The crisis that brings us all together in this hall is such a moment.  The established forms are crumbling before our very eyes.  We’d better respond to the challenge by coming up with new and better forms, or we can pucker up and kiss democracy goodbye.

So we have a lot of work to do.  So much is at stake.

Thank you.

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