Many news organizations are shifting their business models from advertising to audience revenue. This means asking for more money at a time when an increasing number of people have less. The model only works if they can appeal to and serve more audiences -- including audiences that have been historically excluded from positive interactions and mutually beneficial relationships with newsrooms. Many newsrooms are under-practiced at building quality relationships with audiences, especially those that have been poorly served due to race, gender, education, or income.
I started exploring the class aspect of journalism a few years ago not because I have an academic background in such subjects, but because 2/3 of my lived experience was spent in deep poverty. The last third has been spent behind the curtain, in newsrooms, seeing and being part of editorial decisions that are being made about how our newsrooms interact with people experiencing hardship, how we portray them, and how we serve—or don’t serve—their information needs.
The genesis for this aspect of the Membership Puzzle Project’s research is investigating how news organizations can begin to build pathways for meaningful, mutually beneficial relationships with audience members who haven’t been able to participate in the traditional financial exchange because they lack the means to do so. What does it look like for someone experiencing hardship to become a member of a news organization? In talking to people in the industry who are tuned into serving these audiences, I found that the road to inclusion must start long before asking communities to invest their time or money into news organizations. The focus for my current exploration is primarily domestic, but globally, 10 percent of the world’s population lives on less than $1.90 per day according to World Bank estimates.
The United States has the highest rate of child poverty among all the rich nations. The top 1% of the U.S. owns 40% of the wealth. According to Pew Research, 40 million Americans live in poverty while 30% of Americans live in low income households. The Federal Reserve Board says that 40% of Americans couldn’t handle a $400 emergency expense without borrowing or selling something and one quarter of adults skipped taking medication last year because they couldn’t afford it.
If you work in a newsroom, I hope you’ll take note of this observation from legal scholar and NYU professor Philip Alston, the special reporter sent by the United Nations to examine income inequality in the US:
I have been struck by the extent to which caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor have been sold to the electorate by some politicians and media, and have been allowed to define the debate. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers. As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain. To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough.
Similarly, the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty, a project that seeks to help people “achieve a reasonable standard of living with the dignity that comes from having power over their lives and being engaged in and valued by their community,” wrote:
In America, there are at least three narratives about poverty and mobility that are widespread, inaccurate, mutually contradictory, and harmful: (1) people in poverty have no one to blame but themselves for their circumstances, (2) people in poverty are helpless victims of a larger socio-economic system in which they have no agency, and (3) truly exceptional “rags-to-riches” stories prove that the American dream is available to anyone willing to work hard enough for it. The continued popularity of these misleading narratives constrains our ability to better understand poverty in America. Absent that understanding, it is difficult to motivate and design effective policies to support people on pathways out of poverty.
Instead of defining poverty strictly in monetary terms, we must acknowledge that poverty is also profoundly characterized by a lack of power, and by a lack of belonging and social inclusion.
Your own experiences as a journalism creator or constituent may validate what numerous studies have found: that news media has played a key role in creating these inaccurate perceptions of economic hardship or in neglecting those audiences, leaving them vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation. In the 2001 report Media Images of the Poor, Heather E. Bullock, Karen Fraser Wyche, and Wendy R. Williams found that in the U.S. “classist stereotypes about the characteristics and behaviors of poor people are pervasive.” They noted that “by dedicating very little broadcast time or print space to stories that openly discuss class privilege, class-based power differences, and inequalities, the poor are either rendered invisible or portrayed in terms of characterological deficiencies and moral failings.”
Recently James Hamilton of Stanford University and Fiona Morgan of Branchhead Consulting examined the information lives of low-income audiences. Their report Poor Information: How Economics Affects the Information Lives of Low-Income Individuals found that “poor people get poor information, because income inequality generates information inequality. People with low incomes are less likely to be sought out by many advertisers, spend money on subscriptions, participate in politics as voters, or connect with others through the Internet or social media. This translates into less content meant to aid their decisions or tell their stories.”
This complicated history requires news organizations to reckon with our industry’s past as we attempt to move forward to a more inclusive future: one where newsrooms invest in communities as we ask our communities to invest in us.
Providing a better class of journalism
If there is a case to be made for people with few resources to support newsrooms with either their money or their time, it must start with demonstrating the kind of journalism that warrants such support. This means publishing and broadcasting coverage that is distinct enough to warrant habit-building, reliance, and payment. As this project’s director Jay Rosen has written, “no one ever became an enthusiastic member of a commodity news site.”
Sarah Alvarez is the founder and lead reporter at Outlier Media in Detroit. At Outlier, the primary mode of engaging with and reporting for audience members is through a one-on-one SMS texting dynamic. Sarah, taking a note out from debt collectors’ and marketers’ playbooks, purchases cell phone numbers in batches and uses GroundSource to text number holders to see if they need information regarding their living situations. Her work started with and still mostly centers on housing topics but increasingly includes utilities. The work to date has been funded by grants and Sarah is exploring a partnership with Detour Detroit in which 20% of the revenue from individual memberships would support Outlier Media. Detour will get to run investigative journalism pieces for the newsletter readers and Outlier will gain financial support from Detour readers.
Sarah’s philosophy for her work is that it has to be of real utility to the people she serves. “I want the information to be valuable and actionable...you could use that information to be able to create accountability because now you know who your landlord really is, now you know that this place is really in tax foreclosure,” Sarah said. If the information Sarah uncovers isn’t immediately useful to individuals but may be an opportunity for accountability reporting, she reports out a broader story and publishes it with a traditional news site.
The only way to truly serve our communities, Sarah said, is to do the work they deserve. “I love working for my audience [members] because they're demanding and I want to be doing really good journalism. And I cannot waste their time. I cannot come with bullshit. I can't come with stuff they already know,” Sarah said. ”Work to serve the most demanding audience. We're not going to get there unless we actually push and try to do something differently.”
And it’s not enough to experiment with same old editorial approaches that haven’t been working. Sarah compares the process to some of the lazier tropes that have persisted in publishing, such as the erroneous idea that magazine covers featuring people of color don’t sell. Sarah mentioned Beyoncé, who said that when she was starting out she couldn’t get magazine covers because she was told that black people can’t sell magazines.
“These are beliefs that people have that they're not willing to test. And then when they do test it, they test it badly. They're not coming with Black Panther. You know, if you're going to test this, come with Black Panther...You've got to come with your A-game.”
Mike Rispoli is the director of Free Press’ News Voices project, which works to empower local communities to participate in journalism to better serve their needs. He works with newsroom staff, community groups, and organizers to center local journalism on civic health, accountability, and accurate representations of marginalized communities.
Mike pointed to the need to ensure that produced journalism isn’t more of the same “this problem exists” kind of narrative that doesn’t serve people living through those circumstances.
“We empower people by covering tough issues that can change things, but people who are living in those conditions already know about how messed up things are. If I lived in a property where the landlord doesn't fix anything, there's asbestos, there's lead paint, a story about that condition doesn't actually necessarily empower me. What that does is that hopefully points out something that other people in other positions of power didn't know and then could hopefully act on,” Mike said. “That's good but that also doesn't speak to people who are living in that condition. So then the next thing needs to be, how are we then producing coverage that actually does create that empowerment? And what does that journalism look like? Because if you just tell people, this is how things are, they're like, 'Yeah, I already knew it was fucked up, why are you telling me it's fucked up? I live it every day. This doesn't do anything for me.'”
Mike is frustrated by the hesitation he sees in some newsrooms to cover news that communities need or ask for, as if they’re convinced that such responsiveness is akin to advocacy or lack of objectivity.
“They say ‘well, we don't say those things because if we write it that way, we're being seen as advocates for one thing. And we can't be advocates, we just need to tell things how they are.' Like, 'Well, that's a really shitty answer. I'm telling you what I need, you telling me that you can't provide it.'” (Emily Goligoski wrote for this project that we’re yet to see instances of members over-stepping or reporters letting them have special sway over coverage. Still, to quote the Coral Project’s Andrew Losowsky, “we need to ensure that [paid] member-like access is given to people who don’t yet have either the resources or the desire to support the organization”).
Jiquanda Johnson is the founder and publisher at Flint Beat, a local newsroom covering Flint, Michigan. As a longtime journalist who’s covered Detroit for 17 years, Jiquanda has watched the change in how older newsrooms report on low income communities, succumbing to losses in ad revenue and then cutting important local coverage.
“Flint Beat exists because the community asked for it,” Jiquanda said. “It was me being out in the field working for my former employer and residents saying that they wish they had something that just focused on them. Residents saying things like they got tired of just reading about the water crisis. They got tired of just reading about fines. Flint had so much more in news.”
Jiquanda said she can’t let metrics like pageviews drive her work, because her focus is serving communities themselves, no matter how small. “I don't rely on how many clicks I get and pageviews. I can't and do what I do, because I can write a story that only one neighborhood in Flint really cares about. But that particular neighborhood, that ward, those people, they care if the councilperson pawns his laptop. They care if dogs are running around their neighborhood like crazy. It might not be anybody else that cares,” Jiquanda said. “But that's my audience and those are the people I'm writing for.”
Before asking for any investment, newsrooms need to reframe their approach and produce coverage that serves community needs. Next, I’ll look at how we might foster more meaningful interactions between these news organizations and community members - and to redefine what is and isn’t “newsworthy.”
Emily Goligoski, Ariel Zirulnick, David van Zeggeren, Jessica Best, and Lukas Kouwets contributed to this post.