Recap: Nashville Forum

Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy
Nashville, TN, April 29, 2018

Richard Adler

The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy held its third meeting at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville on Friday, April 29th, 2018. This meeting consisted of an introductory statement by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam followed by a public session featuring a panel of four experts from the fields of journalism, media production and education. This is the Commission’s rapporteur, Richard Adler’s, summary of the session.

Dialog with Governor Bill Haslam

  • Jaime Woodson: Tennessee is working to improve education: Student achievement in science is improving, gender gap is closing. (Tennessee ACT scores improve, closing in on 2020 goal). Gov. Bill Haslam embodies civic virtue: is a learner and thinker.
  • Bill Haslam: In a world in which people are questioning how news is covered, he is concerned about how to get people to care about what is happening at the state and local level. Fewer and fewer people are getting their news from local sources. Who is fulfilling the role of informer and watchdog of government? As we become more politically divided, he is concerned that state and local issues won’t get enough attention.He also worries about “news with no editors.” For example, when the University of Tennessee was picking a new football coach, there was a barrage of social media speculation even before a choice was announced. In the old days, an editor would determine what is “real news,” but no longer true.  When he was responsible for constituent services for Sen. Howard Baker, most commentary was by mail. Now people with vested interests can get opinions out instantly via social media.Tennessee has adopted the principles of “Race to the Top” that involves statewide student testing. They have just started to move to online testing for all students, but there have already been arguments to abandon it. There were tweets and emails coming into the legislature as they were about to vote. There was no time to consider what is actually happening in the schools: now everyone can be involved in influencing decisions.
  • Jamie Woodson: What is the state of civil discourse? Where are we going politically?
  • Gov. Haslam: Senator Baker always believed “that the other fellow might be right.” That view is no longer popular.Gov. Haslam has an opportunity to run for Senator, but decided not to run. He didn’t like the polarization. There are people looking for solutions, and they should be celebrated. One way to bridge polarization is to get two thoughtful people with opposing viewpoints and listen to them talk to each other.He is hesitant to talk about curriculum, but he believes that civic literacy has been missing from schools.

Public Presentations

Penelope Abernathy, Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media, Professor of Economics, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism
Her research has focused on news deserts, finding sustainable business models for local journalism.

Urban residents often have access to multiple news sources, but in most of the country, the local paper is the sole source of news. A news desert is a community without a newspaper. Since 2004, we have lost 1,100 newspapers, of which more than 900 were weeklies.

UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media

Many communities that have lost newspapers are rural and struggling economically. But last year, Chapel Hill lost its 100-year old newspaper. Since 2010, investors have purchased many of the 7,000 surviving newspapers, and imposed stringent cost controls. Many papers have become “ghosts of their former selves.” The focus has been on cost-cutting, not inventing new sustainable models. As profit margins decline, editors are more reluctant to fund investigative reporting. First to go with acquisitions has been the editorial page. Citizen journalists can report, but someone is needed to do analysis and pull it all together.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a “total destruction of retail and classified ads.” We need to look at real diversification of revenue sources; identify the most critical customer franchises (e.g., commuters, parents) and figure out what to sell to them.  (Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability, 2014).

Whatever replaces the 20th century newspaper must serve several critical functions:

  1. Set the agenda for debates of important policy issues. There are now 40-50% fewer journalists than a decade ago. There are fewer reporters available to cover city council meetings, where key issues are discussed.
  2. Encourage economic development. Increasingly, even local ad revenues are going to Google and Facebook, not staying in local communities. Local media can offer more robust marketing services.
  3. Encourage social cohesion and local political activism by putting national issues in a local context.

Lessons learned:

  1. Successful business models will be tied to the specific needs of their communities. Subscription models may work for regional papers, but Abernathy is skeptical that they will work for local papers.
  2. Instead of a single viable business model, we will have many models.
  3. Smaller news organizations have smaller margins for error.
  4. Successful news organizations are forward-looking and invest for the long-term. Organizations that set 5-year goals, then work backwards are succeeding.

We need collaborations of journalists, citizens, nonprofits, and government.

Source: Penelope Muse Abernathy, The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts, The Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media School of Media and Journalism University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jim Brown, National Federation of Small Businesses; Author, Ending Our Uncivil War
He saw a bumper sticker on a car: “Don’t believe everything you think.” He has tried to apply this to his life. He got mugged by a homeless person, realized that he was judging them; decided he needed to work with homeless people, made friends with them.

We are all biased. A lot is the responsibility of the media; a lot is on us as well.

When Van Jones wanted to find out how Trump got elected, he traveled to West Virginia, let everyone speak. People were afraid their way of life was being threatened. Trump paid attention to them. Jones was struck by the political complexity of voters, but was attacked as a “communist.”

There is a lot of subtle bias in news. He reviewed coverage of the Dakota Pipeline by NPR. Of six stories on NPR, not one included proponents of the pipeline.

There are two types of people: “Soldiers” who are tribal and see opponents as the enemy, and “Scouts” who want to solve problems and don’t think changing one’s mind is bad. (Julia Galef, “Why you think you are right even if you are wrong,” TedX.

Michael Cormack, Jr., CEO, Barksdale Reading Institute
The ability to read and write is fundamental. Mississippi ranks near the bottom in literacy: Just 27% of students read at proficient level. But this is a broader problem: nationally, just 35% read proficiently, and in Massachusetts, the top state, it’s just 51%.

Three key lessons:

  1. Democracy is hampered when a large percentage of the population is not fully literate. One Common Core standard is the ability to analyze arguments, identify what is supported by facts, what is not.
  2. We need to change the narrative that low-income parents are not concerned or involved with their children’s education. It is important to provide parents of preschoolers with resources. Media can help shift the narrative.
  3. Arguments persist on the best way to teach reading. Neuroscience is providing useful insights supporting the effectiveness of the phonics approach.

Dana Coester, Associate Professor, WVU Reed College of Media; Executive Editor, 100 Days in Appalachia
In the 1990s, she was enthusiastic about the potential of digital media, but her enthusiasm has waned. She had a love affair with technology, but it was unrequited. We are not winning. It’s time “to go Phil Avery”—the USC researcher who decided to “go off the grid.” Digital media is “an unregulated soup of banality” protected by Section 230. Truth itself has been disrupted. News has become more politicized, more polarized.

Democracy needs healthy journalism more than it needs Facebook. Coester is working to save local news because she believes local news can save us. 100 Days in Appalachia:

100 Days in Appalachia was born the day after the 2016 election. Weary of the influx of bus tours and parachuting journalists seeking insights into rural America, we launched 100 Days to push back on the national narratives that had reduced our region to a handful of narrow stories.

Appalachia is more than coal fields and country roads. The region features urban centers and suburban counties that contain diverse stories from the Black Belt to the Rust Belt. 100 Days is designed to share these stories with a global audience as we cover the complicated landscape of American politics through the prism of Appalachia. (100 Days in Appalachia

Discussion:

  • Mizell Stewart: The key to sustainability is margins: what can local media sell with sufficient margins to subsidize reporting?
  • Charlie Sykes: The newspaper business model seems to be in a death spiral. Can philanthropy make a difference?
  • Penelope Abernathy: She is not arguing for philanthropic support for local news. There is a range of possible solutions (e.g., tax subsidies). Philanthropy can help with targeted investments; can help in developing new models to ensure the survival of journalism.
  • Dana Coester: It may be impossible to solve both the economic and trust problems at the same time. We should address the trust problem first, give time to solve the economic problem.
  • Richard Gingras: His concern is that solutions not interfere with free expression.
  • Dana Coester: Because of the scale and distribution models of social media, they have become weaponized. We have developed mechanisms to limit heinous speech in broadcasting, but not in social media. The First Amendment is sacred, but we need to find ways of disincentivizing objectionable speech without infringing on free speech.

Next Steps

The Knight Commission will meet again May 30-31 in Racine, Wisconsin and July 29-31 in Aspen, Colorado. Regular updates from the Commission can be found at the site “Trust, Media & Democracy” on Medium.com. We invite you to engage with us on this topic there.