To fix journalism, we can start by not looking down on ‘flyover’ states

View from the window of an airplane.

On a JetBlue flight from New York to San Francisco to attend a conference on “The Future of Media,” we were experiencing severe turbulence over the heartland.

There were a group of us journalists and new media executives flying over from the East Coast struggling with high winds above The Great Lakes, and the irony of the bumpy ride through the middle of America for a bunch of “media elites” was not lost on any of us. A perfect metaphor. Here we were fastening seat belts for wild dips in altitude through the “flyover states” to get to another conference amid a national reflection on how and why journalism feels so broken in our country, and how its demise may be threatening our democracy.

The metaphor was heightened by the fact that I spent a good part of the flight watching the TV coverage of President Obama’s farewell speech, where the president spoke directly to the deep division in America at an extraordinary moment in the nation’s history:

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. … But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible,” said Obama.

Obama’s words on the divisions in the country and the metaphor of the turbulence on the flight seemed to frame an important question: Have we as an industry, coming from our perches on the East Coast and the West Coast, been looking down on the middle of the country and failing to hear what it has to say? Is the election of Trump proof that we in the media are just not getting it that there is a lot of turbulence down there?

There is growing consensus these days among journalists that the answer is yes. And now we need to start to thinking more about how the heartland needs to be part of the solution if we are going to figure out the best way to fix a broken ecosystem for news.

The conference I went to was at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, not far from the headquarters of Google and Facebook. It was supported by the Skoll Foundation and as conferences go, it was among the best I’ve attended because the organizers were purposeful in making sure we evaluated the problem from a lot of perspectives.

But there was clear consensus that at least one important perspective was missing from states like Michigan and Kentucky and that we need to keep widening the circle if we are going to figure out how to save journalism for the whole country.

Several of the panelists were brought into the conversation via robotic roving screens. There were a few comical glitches with the technology, but overall it was pretty cool. The leaders encouraged us to mix it up, structuring the discussion around “provocations” and the first one was aptly titled “WTF?”

The hard part of these conversations about journalism is that we are all part of a big and unruly tribe that defies any attempt to reduce it to the single word: “media.” After all, there are lots of great journalists doing important work for big traditional media companies like the New York Times and NPR and legions of reporters in small towns and cities doing great work as local journalists every day at papers we flew over. There are digital startups doing amazing work on climate change, on fact checking.

And there are problems across the landscape, including fake news manufactured in dark corners of the web and an ‘echo chamber’ in which opposite ends of the political spectrum can retreat to cable news and social media networks that will provide a comfortable bath of common points of view, as President Obama observed.

And there are direct attacks on journalism that are physical, financial and editorial, which I’ve written about before. Evidence of a new hostility between the press corps and the media was on display Wednesday morning when Trump did his first press conference as president elect. There’s no question that Trump, following the lead of so many populists and authoritarian regimes, intends to paint the media as the enemy in an effort to insulate himself and his administration against tough questioning. We can expect the newly elected president to continue to try to deflect the hard questions with quips in 140 characters or less on Twitter. We have a lot of work to do to be sure he doesn’t get away with that.

During our gathering on the future of media, Facebook announced that it would begin a new initiative called the Facebook Journalism Project, which would offer training and support for news organizations. It offers much-needed help for an industry that is collapsing economically and under attack on many fronts. A big part of figuring out the future of journalism will be finding new and better ways for technology companies and social media platforms to support quality, in-depth journalism. Hopefully Facebook will continue to head in that direction. I think it is finally dawning on all of us that our democracy can’t survive without a strong, free press.