Journalism for What? A User-First Approach to the Future of News

As we debate the future of news, we need to keep in mind what this debate is really about. We need to ask ourselves, “What is it we’re trying to save, protect or foster?” Or asked another way, “Journalism for what?” Identifying what we mean by journalism and why we care about its future is central to figuring out what solutions might get us there.

The most common response to these questions is that journalism is fundamental for our democracy. It’s hard to argue with that, but how does it help guide us toward a new vision for news?

In the fall of 2009, Bill Mitchell (who leads the Poynter Institute’s Entrepreneurship and International programs) was a fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and this question was at the center of his research. Up to this point, Mitchell had been – like many others – studying new business models for journalism, but had found nothing that he was convinced would sustain a new era of robust civic journalism in the digital age. So he turned his attention away from “the how” of journalism and instead focused on “the why.”

In the paper he wrote for the Shorenstein Center, Mitchell proposes a new way of examining the future of news and a “user-first” model that re-centers our debate about the people journalism is meant to serve. “The best prospects for sustaining journalism in the future are rooted in the most important stakeholders of its past and present: that collection of readers, viewers and listeners also known as users,” he writes. Whatever happens with nonprofit news, online journalism, crowdsourcing, hyperlocal sites or media policy, “intervention is needed at the ground level,” in communities and with people.

Mitchell applies this “user-first” approach to a number of the central debates happening within journalism right now, including:

  • Paid Content: Shift the debate from what publishers might charge to what users actually want;
  • Ads: With ad supply swamping demand, advertising that interrupts users—as opposed to serving them—can’t last long;
  • Partnerships: Sustaining local news is not just about revenue. To survive, news organizations will need to partner with all of journalism’s stakeholders; and,
  • New Ventures: “If you’re going to be in the news business, you need to be in another business, too.”

For Mitchell then, the question is not how to pay for the news, it’s how to “find ways to affix new values to news.” Mitchell is careful here to use the plural, highlighting the fact that there are multiple kinds of values we have to address in a “user-first” model for news. “Values play several roles,” he writes. “There’s public value in the economic sense of public good. There’s the civic value that news brings to community members who need independently reported facts. And there are journalism values—accuracy, fairness, transparency—that differentiate quality news from unverified rumor and guesswork.”

At about the same time Mitchell was at Shorenstein, I wrote a blog post seeking to shift the debate to focus more on the question of values. “Similarly, conversations about the future of journalism spend far too much time focused on the question, ‘What’s the cost of journalism?’ instead of the question, ‘What’s the value of journalism?’” I wrote. I end that post arguing that, “by shifting the conversation to the value that local news organizations provide, we get closer to finding actual solutions to the problems facing journalism.”

Mitchell takes that idea and expands on it exponentially. Mitchell quotes a 2006 essay from media analyst Robert Pickard, in which he notes that, “News organizations today are experiencing a continuing crisis of value destruction and if they are to sustain themselves, they must find ways to create new value to replace that which is being destroyed.” For Mitchell, a “user-first” framework can help guide news organizations in rebuilding value through new ways of relating to their readers (through models like co-ops and membership programs) and new ways of relating to each other (through partnerships and collaborations).

In my earlier post, I wrote, “Time and time again, however, we have seen that cutting costs means cutting value. We may need to address the cost of journalism, but if we do so without also considering journalism’s value, then we are doomed to kill the product we are trying to save.” Mitchell ends his paper with the issue of cost-cutting. He shows that not only does a “user-first” approach reframe the way we think about the future, it also can help guide the difficult decisions newsrooms have to make right now.


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