Future Forum Cheat Sheet: Why Journalism Is Like Really Bad Parenting (And How We Can Fix It)

The face of journalism is changing. The wave of new media has brought with it more chances for us to get involved in our world, whether that’s by signing an online petition, backing a Kickstarter campaign or sharing a news story with our social media circles.

For journalists, there’s a new goal: don’t just advocate for a cause, drive your readers to action.

During the recent Ashoka Future Forum, we heard from some of the world’s most prominent media influencers about why journalism’s current business model is broken; how to get readers, viewers and listeners to buy in; and what makes audiences act on the causes they care about.

Ideas are Worth Sharing

Absorbing new information isn’t what it used to be. Knight Foundation, co-sponsor of the Future Forum, has it right: “Democracy thrives when people are informed and engaged.” But seven years ago, engagement in news and media was still a radical concept, which is likely why the first iteration of TED Talks’ business model flopped. Or, perhaps more accurately, it just didn’t sell.

“The best thing that happened to TED was that the TV networks turned us down,” said June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media. Her product—taped lectures—was considered “too intellectual” for TV. Even in the face of failure, Cohen knew TED Talks deserved to be viewed by a larger audience, so Cohen and her team turned to online channels without knowing exactly how they would be funded—because the goal was to spread ideas, not to make money.

Cohen understands a core truth of human nature: people want news that makes them feel powerful. What TED was offering was a new kind of information, a kind of thought leadership that could challenge audiences to see the world differently.

Once the TED brand was established and great ideas were being shared with millions of viewers, people wanted to be a part of the action. They began to demand a seat in the room—attending the conferences became an experience people would pay for.

“While there is little question that the future of news won’t be free,” wrote The Atlantic‘s Rebecca Greenfield, “the bigger question is just how many paying readers are out there.”

That’s not an easy question to answer, but based on TED’s success, there are certainly more than we think.

Old-School Journalism is like Really Bad Parenting

At least David Bornstein—the mastermind behind Dowser.org, the New York Times “Fixes” blog, and the new concept of solutions journalism—thinks so. Bornstein’s perspective on modern journalism at the Forum made the room sit up and listen.

Old-school journalism, he said, is like a parent who points out their child’s shortcomings every day at the breakfast table, hoping that doing so will help their child become a better person.

“You wouldn’t do that!” he told the audience. “We shouldn’t in journalism either. Society will become better when you show it where it’s going wrong, and how, and how it can do better.”

This is where his idea of solutions-oriented journalism comes into play. We should highlight positive deviances from society. For example, a school in the Bronx you would think would have a high drop-out rate but does not, or a program in that is addressing homelessness in San Francisco much better than other cities.

The mission of solutions journalism is to produce “rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.” Solutions journalism is about showing readers what society can be and how it can get there, not where it falls short. It inspires hope and, ultimately, action.

Journalists have classically tried for this elusive engagement piece with a bad news bias. They’ve attempted to tug on heartstrings with stories about poverty and pain, but failed. We get burned out by bad news. It’s time for journalists to inspire upward, forward motion among their readers.

“Journalism is the only business that hasn’t responded to changes in consumer tastes,” Bornstein said.

Here’s the Rub: The User Experience

So the biggest question concerning media today still remains: “How do you get an audience to take the next step, and is it appropriate to do so?”

If people are willing to pay for solutions journalism and new ideas, it’s not only appropriate to get the audience to take the next step, it’s also a viable business model. But there is still doubt among traditional journalists that readers will be willing to put down the money in the first place. After all, while we’re all willing to spend $3.50 (or more) on coffee, the same can’t be said about news.

This is where the user experience comes in.

In the coming years, media consumption will be more about capitalizing on opportunities to turn ambition for social good into action, and taking advantage of the experience an audience has in doing so. Jonathan Wells, managing publisher of The Christian Science Monitor, posits that five years down the line news reporting will be about “building communities around intentions and opportunities to share and do,” and new models of engagement will need to be created to accommodate a variety of topic areas and causes.

Nicholas Reville, co-founder and executive director of the Participatory Culture Foundation, cautions that as social media campaign sites like Kickstarter, IndieGogo, Change.org—and the socially focused platforms that will soon be developed—become more prominent, we may actually be losing touch with the causes we care most about.

“People don’t like surprises,” Reville said, noting the trend for people to engage with a campaign on a site that has a tried-and-true experience and that is within a user’s comfort zone rather than aligning with cause they truly care about on an unfamiliar site. Engagement is often limited to hacktivism: “liking” or “sharing” something because it’s a low-risk action that doesn’t come with many strings attached.

Acting Out

So how do we combat this? How can activists and advocates package meaningful campaigns in a “comfortable,” accessible way that elicits action? The sad truth of the matter is that in modern-day advocacy, audience engagement is highly correlated to branding and online experience. As engagement opportunities become more plentiful and more easily accessible than ever, it’s up to these major media mavens—like Bornstein, Cohen and Wells, whom we trust as champions of causes but also as independent, opinionated thinkers—to guide us through this sea of online opportunities to take action in the real-world.

Media companies have to understand that it’s no longer a matter of “if we build it, they will come.” The Web is too big for that. Now, it’s about shifting the model to focus on what the consumer wants, and how to deliver that sustainably.

Of course, in the end, we determine what campaign or brand or experience gets the most attention. We choose the causes we want to support. We have the ability to back a crowd-sourced campaign that is less “crowded.”

As socially conscious media consumers, we need to demand news stories that give us a blueprint for how we can change the world. If we want solutions journalism, we have to ask for it (and open our wallets … we can’t afford not to).

So, what are we waiting for?

WATCH: Future Forum plenary “Tomorrow’s Media”