The future of news: In the driver’s seat

The fall of many once stalwart news organizations like the Boston Globe has sparked a panicky sense of urgency around finding models to sustain journalism into the future. But we don’t think clearly when we’re panicking. If we did, we’d be talking less to other journalists and more to people like Eric.

I’m attending a small conclave at Duke University this week put together to explore new models for nonprofit media. I may be the least seasoned of all the luminaries invited (Len Downie from the Washington Post; Chuck Lewis, founder of Center for Public Integrity; MinnPost founder Joel Kramer, and more). I was reflecting on what I could contribute in the car service ride from the airport to the hotel when Eric, the driver, asked me about the state of journalism.

Eric is probably 64 or 65 and possesses a nimble, curious mind. He seems perfectly content in a job that allows him to learn, 15 minutes at a time, from academics, students and the odd journalist riding in the back of his minivan. I shared my boilerplate on the future of news (we have to try lots of things, who knows what the industry’s going to look like, etc.) and then asked him for his take. I know when to shut up and listen. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Eric is an avid news consumer. He reads the Christian Science Monitor and listens to the BBC and NPR (which means he likes what he hears on his local radio station WUNC, and thinks of it all as NPR). He thought for a moment and said, “I like NPR, and if anything I want more of it.” More of what? I asked. Well, you know, he said, “What I find exciting is I guess what you’d call interactivity.” He found it amazing that people like himself, average people who know things, are now able to share with a wider audience.

In this environment, if the media don’t open up, he said (and I paraphrase), there’s a tendency to feel like you’re the smartest one in the room, and that nobody else has anything to offer. Right on.

In simple, homespun logic Eric captured what I’ve seeking to express in five years of building the Public Insight Network, and a year at Stanford thinking about the next generation of that project. “What you’re doing,” he said, “is the only answer I’ve heard that could work.”

I’ve been to a dozen or more journalism conferences, each trying in its own way to address the changes rocking journalism. But not a single one of them has welcomed in the very people we are meant to be serving. People like Eric. So this week it’s my job to make sure Eric has a seat at the table.

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4 thoughts on “The future of news: In the driver’s seat

  1. pdavidtigan says:

    What a good challenge – Would Eric the driver be invited to this conference of luminaries? Probably not, and yet you’ll represent him there. Doesn’t this get at the fundamental problem of the newsgatherer as decider? It would be interesting to gather luminaries in one place but not let them decide what they should talk about. If the leaders and thinkers took their cues from people like Eric, they may achieve a conversation that they could not have otherwise.

  2. Interesting comments from Eric. I also caught a ride with him in from the airport, but wasn’t smart enough to draw him out. Look forward to seeing you at the conference.

  3. andrewhaeg says:

    Paul: I agree … it does get to the heart of what journalism is for, and who we’re serving. It seems to me that now is the time to re-connect with the needs that journalism serves, find out what needs are going unmet, and build the services to meet those needs.

  4. erika says:

    I love these interactions… they really give traction and hope to the ideas that you’re bringing forward in your work!

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