If you’re worried that journalists have learned nothing from the Trump years.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming your impressions, I bring news of a contrary kind.

21 Mar 2021 6:47 pm 18 Comments

Even after all that has happened from the escalator to the insurrection, you’re worried that the American press has learned nothing from the Trump years. You’re seeing it fall into old patterns. Your frustration is rising, your patience thinning.

This post is for you. But instead of confirming these impressions — for which, I admit, there is ample evidence — I bring news of a contrary kind: Four or five developments that are… encouraging, in that they suggest that some journalists understand what has to be different: after the Trump presidency, after the Stop the Steal movement, after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, after the Republican Party committed to making it harder to vote.

We can lose this thing

Thirteen days after the 2020 election I published, “Two paths forward for the American press.” One path, I said, was “a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office.” This was (and it remains) the most likely course. The other possible path was to extend what I called “a democratic breakthrough in journalism.”

The breakthrough happened during the tense days after November 3, when an autocratic leader, Donald Trump, tried to reverse the results of a free and fair election. His attempt was defeated, in part by journalists who made it clear that he had no case. His claims of election fraud were themselves fraudulent.

In my view this was a shattering experience for the American press— shattering in a good way. No refuge in false equivalence, no retreat into “both sides” reasoning, no fantasies of remaining neutral in the fight could withstand the experience of reporting on Trump’s furious battle to retain power after losing the 2020 election. Journalists came face to face with an attempt to subvert democracy, led by the president of the United States. Instantly every bromide they had ever uttered about the role of a free press in a healthy democracy turned frighteningly real.

What lasting effects there will be on journalism’s political imaginary we do not yet know. But I know what they should be: We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it. That’s the attitude the press ought to have toward American democracy. Since the election, I have tried to keep watch for any sign that journalists understand this. Here and there I find them. And that’s what this post is about. Signs of a shift in thinking that could spread to more people in journalism. Ready to hear about them?

WITF says it will not forget those votes to overturn a free and fair election.

WITF.org is the public broadcaster in the Harrisburg region of central Pennsylvania. On January 28 the company explained its policy toward those in public office who spread the election fraud lie and encouraged the January 6 insurrection. WITF’s policy is not to forget these facts:

Eight Pennsylvania congressmen supported Trump’s lies about election fraud and irregularities as he attempted to illegally retain power. Those lies led many to believe the election was stolen from Trump. After the insurrection at the Capitol to try to overthrow the U.S. electoral system, those eight lawmakers voted to nullify Pennsylvania’s election results.

The journalists at WITF further declared that they intended to contextualize future actions by these officals with reminders about their fateful moves in the period between the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden. They gave this example of what they had in mind:

“Sen. (name), who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, today introduced a bill…”

They didn’t use the phrase, “never forget!” but that is what their decision amounts to. In explaining it, they made these points:

  • They expressed their shock that “elected leaders, who took an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, would actively work to overturn an election that county, state and federal judges and public officials of both political parties, and election experts, concluded was free and fair.”
  • “The constant drumbeat of falsehoods that the election was stolen came to a head on Jan. 6 with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol… The attack’s purpose was to ignore the will of the people, throw out their votes and allow former President Trump to remain in power. If it had succeeded, democracy would have failed.”
  • “All the false claims about Pennsylvania’s results were attacks on the truth. On democracy. On the work of dozens of journalists at WITF and across the state, who were doing on-the-ground reporting and talking with the county-level leaders who ran elections.”
  • “We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. But, these are not normal times. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.”

Events like Stop the Steal and the January 6 insurrection were different, they said. Not normal politics, but an “unprecedented assault.”

Our approach is based in fact and provides the proper context to the decisions made by Republican elected officials in the commonwealth.

This wasn’t a policy disagreement over taxes, abortion, or government spending.

This wasn’t lawmakers spinning an issue in their favor.

This was either knowingly spreading disinformation or outright lying by elected officials to overturn an election in an attempt to keep former President Trump in office.

This was an unprecedented assault on the fabric of American democracy.

Confronted with a novel situation — a attempt to “overthrow the U.S. electoral system” — they decided to do what they could within the existing code of conduct for public service journalism, which includes holding elected officials accountable, contextualizing current events, insisting on the primacy of verifiable facts, and serving as one of the guardrails of democracy.

“Within the existing code” is important, because it means that any other newsroom sharing these values could make a similar call without rewriting the playbook. Their message: rather than new commitments, we need to intensify the ones we already have. (For more detail on WITF’s efforts at countering the Big Lie, see this second post I published today.)

The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless claims

On March 13, the Plain Dealer (and cleveland.com) published a letter from the editor that was headlined by a question: “When candidates make reckless statements just to get attention, should they get attention?”

Good question!

The occasion for asking that was a statement from Josh Mandel, a candidate for the United States Senate in Ohio who lost to incumbent Sherrod Brown in 2012. He plans to run again for retiring Senator Rob Portman’s seat in 2022. Citing no scientific evidence, and ignoring the advice of public health authorities, Mandel essentially declared the COVID-19 pandemic over, and demanded that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine lift all restrictions.

Chris Quinn, the editor of the Plain Dealer, explained to readers that Mandel “has a history of not telling the truth when he campaigns,” and a pattern of making “irresponsible and potentially dangerous statements on social media.”

The Plain Dealer could have done a “he said, she said” story with dueling quotes from Mandel and DeWine, said Quinn. It could have published another “analysis” piece explaining that Mandel’s motivation for making this reckless statement was simply to win the endorsement of Donald Trump. Both would have been normal journalism. Instead…

We ultimately decided not to write about Mandel’s call for DeWine to lift his coronavirus restrictions. Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his Tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary. Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news.

So desperate for media attention is Josh Mandel that he actually challenged a columnist for the Plain Dealer to a debate about COVID restrictions. The columnist was willing, but Quinn said no. “We do not knowingly publish ridiculous and idiotic claims. Mandel did not want to have a debate with our columnist as much as he wanted to use our platform to get attention with demonstrably false claims about the virus.”

You can’t use our platform to get attention for your lurid falsehoods. Just because you said it doesn’t make it news. We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims. A history of floating misleading and outrageous charges should — and will — count against you.

Imagine if these principles became normal behavior in the press. That would be real progress. Which may be why Quinn’s letter to readers made news in the Washington Post. The headline, “A newspaper has a novel strategy for covering one politician’s falsehoods: Don’t.”

But why this should this be novel?

ProPublica carves out a democracy beat while VoteBeat tries to educate the press.

“Democracy Reporter” reads the headline on this job posting from ProPublica.org. To me that’s a sign of… We can lose this thing if we don’t learn how to defend it.

The stated mission of ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom supported by grants and donations, is “to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.” Thus:

ProPublica is hiring a reporter to investigate efforts to undermine the power of the ballot and American democracy itself. Such threats can come in many forms, including gerrymandering, limits on voting, and violence. We’re looking for a reporter to help anchor our work producing revelatory journalism that equals the critical importance of the issue.

The “threats to democracy” beat will be busy terrain in 2021 and 2022, especially as the Republican Party tries to make it harder to vote— an agenda that is itself an undisguised threat to democracy.

Instead of waiting for the next mid-term elections to heat up, a new non-profit, Votebeat.org, is trying to build capacity within the American press to face this agenda head-on. It raises money for, and shares expertise with, other non-profit newsrooms so that they can add reporters dedicated exclusively to the voting beat.

I asked Jessica Huseman, Votebeat’s editorial director, to describe how this kind of beat-based, capacity-building project operates:

Votebeat strives to make all of elections coverage better— whether that’s through placing reporters in states to report on poorly covered issues, helping fund staff positions in existing newsrooms so they can expand their coverage, or sharing free tools and data with local papers, radio programs and TV news… Voting is a difficult thing to cover that requires lots of time and expertise, so if we can shoulder some of that burden we believe we can really make an impact. There are literally hundreds of voting bills being considered across the country, and redistricting is about to begin in haste. Other collaborative projects won’t start until 2022, when the midterms will get started, but they’ll miss this crucial year of planning and decision making. We don’t think we can wait.

What impresses me about Votebeat is how it takes a live threat to American democracy — laws and restrictions making it harder to vote — and tries to improve the journalism that exposes that threat, not in one place but for many sites simultaneously. That’s a sign that we’re getting smarter about capacity-building in journalism. With Votebeat, intellectual capital and financial subsidy merge into one. This too is progress.

Mehdi Hasan: “I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy.”

“Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.” That’s what Mehdi Hasan said recently on his show that airs nightly on Peacock, NBC’s new streaming network.

That journalists should have a bias is not something you hear very often from people who have their own shows on American news networks. So I asked Mehdi Hasan to elaborate on that idea. Here is our exchange:

What does a “bias toward democracy” mean to you? What sorts of things are involved in that? Beyond “three cheers for democracy!” and “democracy is great!” what does it require of you?

A “bias towards democracy” for me means: 1.) acknowledging and documenting how American democracy is under attack and not pretending there is anything normal or unremarkable about our current predicament, and 2.) recognizing that journalists are not bystanders in all this. We are not neutral chroniclers of this descent into authoritarianism.

A “bias towards democracy” has to trump the old “view from nowhere” theory of journalism. We are very much *somewhere*— ensconced within a constitutional democracy, operating with the protection of the First Amendment. So we have skin in the game. For journalism to survive, democracy must survive – the two need each other.

You said, “As voter suppression laws proliferate, here’s my ‘mission statement’…” As you know, attempts to make it harder to vote are moving through state legislatures now. What will be the mission of your show on this subject? Are you simply saying, “we’re going to cover it and keep covering it,” or are you saying something a bit more than that?

I am saying we are going to cover it and keep covering it, for a start. And I would not be dismissive of such a starting point, given that lawyer Marc Elias has rightly referred to it as an “under reported story right now” that “the media is unequipped to cover this in clear moral terms.” I plan to use my platforms on Peacock and MSNBC to highlight the attacks on democracy and voting rights at a federal, state, and local level. But it is not enough to only “cover” the voter suppression story. I want us as a media to prioritize it, in terms of our resources, guesting, news agendas, and to also help our viewers, listeners, and readers to join the dots (racism! authoritarianism! minority rule!).

Journalists should have a bias toward democracy, you said. I agree with you on that. Toward what other things should journalists have a bias?

Above all else, a bias towards reality, without which democracy cannot endure. There are not two sides to climate change, or Covid, or election results. As one of our two major political parties continues to retreat from reality, it is the job of journalists to cling to reality, not some imaginary mid-point between the two parties.

Conclusion:

WITF says it will not forget who backed the Big Lie, or those votes to overturn a free and fair election. The Cleveland Plain Dealer refuses to amplify a candidate’s baseless charges. (“We don’t knowingly publish ridiculous claims.”) ProPublica carves out a democracy beat. VoteBeat tries to make the press as a whole smarter about voter suppression. Meanwhile, Mehdi Hasan says on air: “Journalists should have a bias. A bias towards democracy.”

My point in highlighting these small signs is not to suggest that a wave of reform has suddenly struck American journalism. It has not. But make a note of this: No wave of protest forced the journalists at WITF to back down. (“The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” they told me.) Chris Quinn of the Plain Dealer didn’t hear from his corporate bosses that he really ought to be fairer to the demagogue Josh Mandel. Mehdi Hasan is on TV every night, even after proclaiming his pro-democracy bias.

They have learned from the Trump years. Others could start to follow them. No, I’m not predicting it. But I’m not ready to say it could never happen, either.

For by committing to the Big Lie — and its derivative, making it harder to vote — the Republican Party has, in effect, withdrawn from the unspoken deal it had with mainstream journalism in the United States. The deal said: just don’t embarrass us and we’ll both sides everything. With Stop the Steal, the Big Lie about voter fraud, and, now, a national campaign to make voting harder, the GOP has broken faith with a form that gave it huge advantages: both sides journalism.

The consequences of that act are unpredictable.

 

Tim Lambert and Scott Blanchard of WITF.org explain why they decided to repeatedly connect local lawmakers to their election-fraud actions

"What was being said by the president, his supporters and his media backers did not square with what our own journalists were seeing on the ground."

21 Mar 2021 6:13 pm Comments Off on Tim Lambert and Scott Blanchard of WITF.org explain why they decided to repeatedly connect local lawmakers to their election-fraud actions

WITF.org is the public broadcaster in the Harrisburg region of central Pennsylvania. On January 28 the newsroom explained a new policy toward those in public office who spread the election fraud lie and encouraged the January 6 insurrection. The journalists at WITF declared that they intended to contextualize future actions by these officals with reminders about their fateful moves in the period between the 2020 election and the inauguration of Joe Biden.

I wrote about the bold actions of WITF in a post that described similar efforts by other newsrooms. See: If you’re worried that journalists have learned nothing from the Trump years. But I couldn’t include in that post everything of note in WITF’s decision-making, so I asked the authors of the January 28 piece a series of questions about the logic of their decision, and what has happened since. Here are their answers. Tim Lambert is the news director and “Morning Edition” host at WITF. Scott Blanchard is an editor in the WITF newsroom. They work closely together.

What we did:

Scott: We created language to use in stories on air and online that would make note of Pa. elected officials who took one of four actions: Signed on to the Texas lawsuit seeking to invalidate Pa.’s presidential vote; signed a letter to Pa. congressional reps asking them to vote against certifying Pa.’s electoral votes; signed a letter asking those reps to delay certifying the state’s electoral votes; and/or voted against certifying the electoral votes on Jan. 6 (actually early morning Jan. 7).

Tim: This builds off our approach ahead of the election reminding our listeners/readers that the vote totals on election night will not be the final results. We tried to be proactive ahead of the election. We simply did not expect the disinformation/misinformation about fraud to spread as widely as it did.

Scott: We did it because we wanted to connect the dots between Trump’s election-fraud lie that began during the summer, actions in support of that lie, and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The lie and its connection to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has been documented by national reporting, by evidence presented during the impeachment trial, and by multiple public statements from public officials of both political parties (most recently by ex-DOD head Chris Miller); and that information is being corroborated by allegations contained in charging documents against some of the Capitol attackers.

Tim: What was being said by the president, his supporters and his media backers did not square with what our own journalists (who live in these communities) were seeing on the ground in terms of alleged fraud. It just wasn’t there. We read the lawsuits and the language didn’t square with our reporting.

Scott: We wanted to do what we could to amplify the connection, hoping knowledge can sap the power of that lie — still believed, even now, by so many. We also believe it’s important to publicly underscore how different this was from standard political spin or messaging or debate. We saw an attempt to keep a defeated president in power by physical violence. The roots of that effort grew from the “rigged election” claim, which was cultivated for months. This was not the same thing as a policy debate over immigration, for example.

Tim: There is no comparison in recent political history on such a massive disinformation campaign and how it was embraced not only by the base of his supporters, but by elected and appointed leaders at all levels of government – who used social media platforms to reinforce the lie on a daily, if not hourly basis.

Scott: As part of the transparency plank of this effort (see below re: Trusting News), we tried to lay all that out in the two stories that posted Jan. 28.

Reactions, threats, other developments:

Scott: The public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive on social media in particular. People have thanked us for standing up for the facts, and some have said they wish other news orgs would do something like this too. People have said they’re proud of us. That’s heartening.

Tim: Some said they made an extra donation as a result. We have received national mentions as well.

Scott: We’ve had a few negative responses. The biggest is that we are showing our bias, by choosing sides. Most cite Fox News talking points and continually moved the goal posts: Nancy Pelosi’s haircut, for example, or the “Russia hoax,” or, ‘”Why didn’t you do this when Democrats objected to Trump’s certification?” (The latter was anticipated & answered here.) Some have criticized us as much for saying we were doing it as for doing it. But we’ve been involved with the Trusting News effort for several years, and transparency is a big part of that. It would have been unnatural for us to just start dropping this language into stories without explaining to people what we were doing and why, and inviting them to talk to us about it.

Tim: Some say they will never donate to WITF (We checked… they never have).

Scott: One man, a two-time Trump voter who described himself as “not a kraken believer or a Trump worshiper,” wrote that by taking a stand like this, we were “maintaining the same narrative that we heard before and after the election. It needs to change or you will never reach us.” Tim and I set up a call and talked with him for 45 minutes to an hour. We mostly listened. And we talked about the facts that led us to make the decision we made.

We hope and plan to continue that type of effort. For example, we’ll be participating in a Trusting News effort to find out more about what political conservatives think about local news (as opposed to ‘the media.’) We’re also connected with America Talks.

Tim: We haven’t experienced any threats – except some people said they’d fight to cut off our national/state/individual funding.

Scott: The most significant developments are probably a couple things about the actual use of the language:

* We initially envisioned working the language into the bodies of stories, even stories that did not have anything to do with the election, election law, etc. For example, “State Sen. XX, who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, questioned the health department’s request for a budget increase.” But shortly after we debuted the language, as we discussed it with reporters, we realized that wasn’t the best way to present it. So, for air, we moved the language out of the story and into a host tag, read after the story ends; for digital, we developed text boxes that now run with each story in which a lawmaker is mentioned. (Example of what it looks like.)

* We used the language in one story about a proposed sex abuse survivors’ rights amendment. One of the lawmakers quoted was a victim of sexual abuse; he was also one of the politicians who contributed to the election-fraud lie. We used the language. He objected, saying that it was triggering for him to see that language in a story related to trauma he had survived. We strive to be a trauma-aware newsroom, so we decided to take out the language and explain we wouldn’t use it in this very specific circumstance. Sam Dunklau, our state Capitol reporter, connected with the lawmaker later about this.

* That lawmaker is the only one who has responded to our use of the language, that we are aware of. But Sam did pursue a story about GOP legislators’ post-election actions, and talked to two for this story. You can see how we modified the language based on the two different responses from the lawmakers.

What internal discussions preceded the Jan. 28 post?

* Tim and I discussed this frequently with each other and with our boss, Cara Williams Fry, WITF’s senior VP & chief content officer, as well as a small group of managers who meet regularly to discuss and challenge protocols — the way we’ve always done things. We vetted the draft of our work with Trusting News’ Lynn Walsh, who was very insightful and helpful in what we produced and how we rolled it out, and with NPR’s public editor Kelly McBride. Tim bounced it off some of his colleagues from other media organizations as well. We had a meeting with news staff and Lynn; we had distributed the draft before the meeting and asked people to come with questions, thoughts, etc. The staff was supportive, appreciative and welcoming of the effort, and helped us fine-tune what you saw online in January. It’s important to note that this didn’t come out of the blue here. We have regular discussions around fact-checking and truth-telling, and this effort evolved out of that culture.

* One of the key things in those discussions was something Tim and I thought of & talked about a lot: By doing this, can we no longer say we’re independent journalists — a point of pride for everyone at WITF? Are we taking a political side? I’ve been active in ethics and credibility issues during my career, and this is certainly unlike anything I’ve ever been involved in. But we kept coming back to connecting the dots and to the ultimate result of the election-fraud lie: An attack on the legitimacy of U.S. elections and the government itself. There is nothing comparable. Political party is irrelevant. The actions and facts are what mattered. This was a concerted effort to convince a significant portion of America that the election was stolen. We believe we’re doing the right thing.

Editor’s note: here’s an example of a text box WITF used online to explain to readers and listeners why they are contining to connect local office-holders to their actions during the insurrection. The original is here.

Two paths forward for the American press

Restoration of the old order. Or continue with the democratic breakthrough that unfolded on November 5th.

16 Nov 2020 9:19 pm 32 Comments

As the results of the 2020 election come fully into view, I am asking myself what will happen with the American press after Donald Trump leaves the White House.

Most of the commentary on this question has centered on the media’s addiction to, and commercial dependence on the Trump phenomenon, as if the infamous quip from CBS Chairman Les Moonves — “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS” — might now run in reverse. (It may not be good for the media, but it’s damn good for the United States!)

The industry calls it the Trump Bump. What happens to it when he leaves office is not on my list of concerns. As a division of a larger company (now AT&T) CNN has generated more than $1 billion in operating profit in recent years. If profits suffer because Joe Biden is not as exciting as Donald Trump, I’m sure the analysts on Wall Street can handle any interpretive tasks that might arise.

What happens now in the political imagination of the press, and to its practices that Trump broke; how journalists can build it back better after the siege lifts; the dangers of reverting to form after form failed them, and us— these are things that do concern me.

This post describes two paths forward for the professionals who report on politics for the “mainstream” media (I refer here to its national wing: ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, NPR, the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Reuters, Bloomberg, Politico, The Atlantic, Time magazine…) The first path is a restoration of order as a more normal president takes office. A recent dispatch from that world: Biden is bringing back the daily briefing. Yay! The second path is a democratic breakthrough in journalism after what Masha Gessen calls an “autocratic attempt,” which failed in the 2020 elections.

Powerful forces favor a restoration. It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.

In Washington the setting will feel excessively familiar. A Democratic president trying to enact an ambitious agenda against Republicans in Congress who would rather do nothing, unless it involves tax cuts. All the old cliches will be within easy reach. Divided government. Partisan warfare. Gridlock in Washington. The extremes on both sides. Democrats in disarray. Republicans being mean again. Why can’t they compromise? Plus a new one: Dueling realities.

Several layers down in the construction of normalcy is the position from which the national press likes to narrate the story of politics. Party on the left, party on the right. Each with an “extreme” and a “moderate” wing that can come into confict. Savvy journalists sit in the middle, sizing up the state of play, posing tough questions and checking fudged facts with equal aggression toward both sides.

Trump screwed with the “both sides” system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back. You can hear it in these thoughts from Dean Baquet, top editor of the New York Times, who was quoted in a recent Vanity Fair article: (“News media begins to contemplate a post-Trump White House.”)

“If I’m CNN, if there’s a transition, I’m going to sit down with Daniel Dale and say, ‘This was great. Let’s be just as aggressive on a Democratic administration.’ Frankly, a Democratic administration doesn’t warrant as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. No politician has warranted as much fact-checking as Donald Trump did. But let’s talk about other ways to use this important journalistic tool.”

Several things going on here. Baquet recognizes Trump as an outlier. You can’t compare Biden’s clumsy patter to Trump’s zone flooding, and he doesn’t try. But you can also hear the wish: for the opportunity to be just as aggressive toward a Democratic administration, even though the facts, as it were, do not warrant it. Here’s Daniel Dale on August 25 making this very point:

The Republican National Convention started off with a parade of dishonesty, in stark contrast with last week’s Democratic convention. While CNN also watched and fact-checked the Democrats, those four nights combined didn’t have the number of misleading and false claims made on the first night of the Republicans’ convention.

Just as aggressive? Well, a man can dream. The longing for symmetry is not a wholly conscious thing, anyway. I doubt the Times editor who crafted this headline quite knew what they were doing: It was later taken down after online criticism, but I can imagine the headline’s author feeling quite bewildered about that. In Times journalism, it is utterly natural to set off one “extreme” with another: Black Lives Matter at one pole, QAnon at the other. The formal requirements of symmetry permit and encourage this.

In reality, the Congresswoman from QAnon, Marjorie Taylor Greene, didn’t “meet” Black Lives Matter any more than she “met” mainstream liberalism or movement conservatives, but setting it up this way feels right to Times people, just as the criticism they got for “false equivalence” probably feels overblown. The “study in contrasts” I recommended to them was different: reality-based office holders vs. the other kind, of which Marjorie Taylor Greene is a fine example. But that way of picturing the political world — reality-based vs. the denialists — isn’t the regular order to which editors like Baquet wish to return.

Which brings me to a second path forward for the American press.

Many presidents have tried to remove restraints on executive power. The restraint Trump tried to remove was reality itself. This was part of what Masha Gessen (following Bálint Magyar) calls an “autocratic attempt,” the stage in the process of a country’s takeover by an autocrat when things in motion are still reversible by democratic means. Many dangers remain, but two weeks out from the election, it is fair to say that a majority of Americans put a stop to Trump’s attempted subversion of their democracy.

And they were assisted by American journalists. Now in saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that people in the news media did as much as, say, the poll workers, or the public officials who ran the elections in 50 states, or the police who kept order and prevented michief, or the voters themselves, who turned out in record numbers.

Americans overcame Trump’s autocratic attempt, preventing it from advancing to the second stage, the autocratic breakthrough, “when it is no longer possible to reverse autocracy peacefully,” as Gessen writes, “because the very structures of government have been transformed and can no longer protect themselves.”

It was a narrow escape. Journalists assisted. Again, I say that not to inflate their role, but to recognize that at some point in the final weeks before the vote, and especially after Trump declared that the election had been stolen from him, a critical masss in the press finally acted on what so many Americans had been trying to tell them for years: That this was a civic emergency, and American democracy really was endangered by Trump. That describing it as a propaganda presidency wasn’t campaign rhetoric or partisan reflex. That we really could lose the Republic in the sense Benjamin Franklin meant when, according to legend, he emerged from the Constitutional Convention and was asked by the citizens of Philadelphia what kind of government we have. “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

It was easier to see this from abroad. Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of a book on Brexit. I am going to quote an extended portion of his column dated November 6, 2020 because it describes well the moment I am talking about. “This time, journalism was prepared,” Dunt writes.

You got a very strong impression of the editorial meetings which had taken place before the election. They had clearly grappled with how to manage what Trump was going to try and do. Instead of the usual formulations of saying his comments were ‘controversial’, or ‘contested’, or ‘rejected by experts’, they said what they actually were: Lies. Attempts to take away the democratic rights of voters. Attacks on the most basic foundations of what constitutes a legitimate state.

They worked tirelessly to protect and even lionise the local officials and vote-counters who were being branded conspirators by the White House. They constantly explained, in clear terms, how the electoral process worked, what was counted where and why, which safeguards there were, how there were Republican representatives at the counts alongside Democrats and independent observers, why the litigation the Trump administration was pursuing was baseless and being rejected by the courts.

Strict balance in this context would be self-annihilating. It would give equal voice to those who want to destroy democracy and those who want to protect it. But if the former are victorious, there will be no ability to hear ‘both sides’ in the future. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. Empirical truth – how a count is conducted, whether there is merit to a claim against it, the credibility of a statement – finally became the active principle of journalistic coverage again.

Listen to the words once more. When democracy is under threat, objective reporters protect it as the basis upon which they can continue to discharge their professional obligations. That is the breakthrough American journalists had during the 2020 election. And it wasn’t the crew at any one network or newsroom.

Press scholar Sarah Oates describes a similar moment on the night of November 5th. “As votes mounted to oust the president from office, Trump appeared for rambling, repetitive accusations of electoral fraud based on the flimsiest of evidence. One by one, many networks decided to stop airing the press conference. Instead, some returned to their studio announcers to criticize the president for lying.”

This, she says, “is the moment when U.S. media norms, under enormous pressure from Trump-led disinformation, switched.” Newsrooms exchanged a “libertarian” model, in which they are conduits from information sources to the public, for a more direct defense of democracy. Oates writes:

Journalists had come to realize that the game was rigged. Trump and his supporters were parasites in the libertarian media system, taking advantage of how they could assert disinformation and still get covered. What changed is that journalists realized that the libertarian model dictates that media must cover the news – but should avoid propaganda. By accepting and embracing that messages from the White House were now propaganda and not news, the networks were liberated to stop the flow of disinformation for the good of democracy.

She calls this a “revolutionary decision,” and “a seismic shift under enormous provocation.” (Of course it helped that Trump appeared to be losing, and would be gone in 75 days.)

CNN did not stop airing the president’s ramblings the night of November 5th. But a more direct defense of democracy came through anyway. Here are the words of Jake Tapper reacting to Trump’s declaration that the election was fraudulent.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: What a sad night for the United States of America to hear their president say that. To falsely accuse people of trying to steal the election, to try to attack democracy that way with this feast of falsehoods, lie after lie after lie about the election being stolen. No evidence for what he’s saying, just smears about the integrity of vote counting in state after state.

And here is Abby Phillip a few minutes later:

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: This president clearly knows that this is not going to end well for him, or he believes that. And he’s trying to take the rest of the country down with him. He’s trying to take the voting system down with him. The Democratic process down with him. And beyond being completely selfish, it also is just wrong.

So here is what I mean by another way forward:

Trump’s attempt on the Republic was defeated by a coalition of the American people, mostly Democrats, some disaffected Republicans, and a majority of independents. The press helped to prevent an autocratic breakthrough, especially in the tense days after the voting stopped and before the victor emerged with clarity. As Ian Dunt said, “journalism was ready.”

This was a powerful moment for the people who report on politics. It did not destroy them. It made them stronger, and restored some pride. It also illuminated a different path for political journalism after Trump leaves office. Instead of lapsing back into routines and enjoying the restoration of an old order, the press could continue with its democratic breakthrough.

For it is by no means clear that the Republic will be kept when 70 million people voted for Donald Trump after they knew what he was, or when the Republicans seem determined to compete for power by limiting the franchise and ruling as a minority party.

To continue with its moment of breakthrough, the American press will need new leadership. It will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case. And there’s one more thing.

In his New York Times column on the media business after Trump, Ben Smith talks to the current editor of the Los Angeles Times, Norm Pearlstine, who is thinking of retiring after the election. Pearlstine says the old top-down newsroom management is a thing of the past: “Consent of the governed is something you have to take pretty seriously.” In other words, democracy begins at home. If newsrooms themselves become more democratic — more representive, diverse, and differently led — that could keep the breakthrough going.

No, I won’t be betting on it. But I will be watching for it.

The coming confrontation between the American press and the Republican Party

The GOP is increasingly a minority party, or counter-majoritarian, as some political scientists put it. Its conflicts with honest journalism are structural.

1 Nov 2020 2:08 pm Comments Off on The coming confrontation between the American press and the Republican Party

First published in a slightly different form as “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth” at the New York Review of Books site, Nov. 1, 2020

In my last post before the fateful election of 2020, I am going to project forward to a confrontation that I believe is coming for the people whose job is to report on politics, question candidates and office-holders, and alert Americans to what is actually happening in their public sphere.

“Journalism” is a name for that job. “The press” is the institution inside of which most journalism is done. The institution is what endures over time as people come into journalism and drift out of it. The coming confrontation can be summarized like this:

The GOP is increasingly a minority party, or counter-majoritarian, as some political scientists put it. The beliefs and priorities that hold it together are opposed by most Americans, who on a deeper level do not want to be what the Republican Party increasingly stands for. A counter-majoritarian party cannot present itself as such and win elections in swing districts. So it has to be counterfactual too. It has to fight with fictions. Making it harder to vote, and harder to understand what the party is really about— these are two parts of the same project. The conflict with honest journalism is structural. To be its dwindling self the GOP has to also be at war with the press, unless of course the press folds under pressure.

Now let me explain what I mean by that.

Suppress votes, project fictions

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein sees the same thing I see. In his recent article on “why the 2020s could be as dangerous as the 1850s,” Brownstein quotes several Republicans who admit what is happening:

The Democrats’ coalition of transformation is now larger — even much larger – than the Republicans’ coalition of restoration. With Trump solidifying the GOP’s transformation into a “white-identity party … a nationalist party, not unlike parties you see in Europe, … you see the Democratic Party becoming the party of literally everyone else,” as the longtime Republican political consultant Michael Madrid, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, told me.

“Republican behavior in recent years suggests that they share the antebellum South’s determination to control the nation’s direction as a minority,” Brownstein writes. That’s why they went to such lengths to deny Obama a Supreme Court pick and sacrificed everything to get Amy Coney Barrett on the Court. “It’s evident in the flood of laws that Republican states have passed over the past decade making it more difficult to vote. And it’s evident in the fervent efforts from the party to restrict access to mail-in voting this year.” (Add to that list: Interfering with the census. Crippling the Post Office.)

These events suggest to Brownstein — a journalist who has reported on politics for 37 years — that “Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.” That’s what a counter-majoritarian party has to do: suppress voters, but also project fictions, like the proposition that voter fraud is rampant.

It’s an empirical question: Is there a lot of voter fraud in the United States? Does it affect elections? And the question has been answered, not once but many times. So here is what I mean by, “the conflict with honest journalism is structural.” The GOP has to rely on fictions like voter fraud to make its case, and if the press wants to be reality-based it has to reject that case.

A buried picture of normal politics

But how badly does the press want to be reality-based? How far is it willing to go? Forced into it by Trump’s flood of falsehoods, journalists routinely fact check statements like “there is substantial evidence of voter fraud” and declare them false. And that’s good! But will they stop amplifying strategic falsehoods when powerful people continue to make them? Will they penalize politicians who come on TV to float fictions like that one? Will the Sunday shows quit having them on? And will the press revise the mental image on which its habitual practices rest?

Two roughly similar parties with different philosophies that compete for power by trying to capture through public argument “the American center” — meaning, the majority of voters — and thus win a mandate for the priorities they want to push through the system. On that buried picture of normal politics the routines of political journalism are built.

There are no routines purpose-built for a situation in which, as Ron Brownstein put it, a minority party, the GOP, is “deepening its reliance on the most racially resentful white voters, as Democrats more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity.” There is nothing in the playbook of the American press about how to cover a party that operates by trying to suppress votes rather than compete for them.

Faced with these kinds of asymmetries, journalists will have to decide where they stand. But the choice for a program like Meet the Press, a network like NPR, a newsroom like the New York Times, or a news service like the AP is not which team to join, the Democrats or the Republicans. (Anyone who puts it that way is trying to snow you.) No. The choice is whether to continue with a system of bipartisan representation, in which the two parties get roughly equal voice in the news because they are roughly equal contenders for a majority of votes, or whether to redraw their practices amid the shifting reality of American politics, where the GOP tries to control the system from a minority position — white nationalism for the base, plutocracy for the donor class — while the Democrats try to bring order to their unruly and slowly expanding majority.

Bipartisan fairy tale vs. adjustment to a shifted reality sounds like no choice at all. What self-respecting journalist would not “side” with depicting the world the way it is? Easy call!

Except that it is not so easy, for reasons I will explain.

Truth-seeking vs. refuge seeking

An observation I have frequently made in my press criticism is that certain things mainstream journalists do they do not to serve the public, but to protect themselves against criticism. That’s what “he said, she said” reporting, the “both sides do it” reflex, and the “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon” are all about.

Reporting the news, holding power to account, fighting for the public’s right to know are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself comes from bad faith actors. Which is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not.

My favorite description of “protecting against criticism” comes from a former reporter for the Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. I have quoted it many times: 

Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.

I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. To me these are some of most important lines ever written about  political reporting in the United States. Truth-seeking behavior is mixed with refuge-seeking behavior in the normal conduct of journalists who report on politics for the mainstream press. That’s how we get reports like this on Oct. 28 from NPR’s Morning Edition:

On the right, they’re concerned about the integrity of mail-in ballots. They’re hearing from President Trump, who is stoking those fears by claiming, without evidence, that the system is rife with fraud. And on the left, people are worried about another scenario. In their worst fears, Trump is ahead on election night and either his campaign or his Justice Department tries to end vote-counting prematurely. And disputes over vote-counting could go on for days or weeks. So activists on both sides are making plans to mobilize.

In this kind of journalism, the house style at NPR, the image of left and right with matching worries is the refuge-seeking part. That Trump is stoking fears by claiming without evidence that mail-in ballots are rife with fraud is certainly truth-telling. The point is not that refuge-seeking necessarily injects falsehoods; rather, it is designed to be protective. NPR, the fair-minded observer, stands between the two sides, endorsing the claims of neither. That’s how the report is framed— symmetrically.

But the underlying reality is asymmetric. Mail-in ballots are a safe and proven way to conduct an election. Fears on the right are manipulated emotion and whataboutism. Meanwhile, threatening statements from Trump like, “Must have final total on November 3rd” lend a frightening plausibility to the concerns of Democrats. The difference is elided in NPR’s report, which states: “Political activists and extremists on both the right and left are worried the other side will somehow steal the election.” It’s true: they are both worried. But one fear is reality-based and the other is not. Shouldn’t that count for something?

This is how Norm Ornstein arrived at his maxim: “a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality.” What self-respecting journalist would not “side” with depicting the world the way it is? Well, I just showed you: An NPR journalist conforming to house style, in which truth-seeking is mixed with refuge-seeking, and refuge-seeking often provides the frame due to institutional caution, misplaced priorities, and internalized criticism from an aggressive right wing. 

The right wing has its own media ecosystem

If we trace refuge-seeking behavior in the press back to its origins in the previous century we find two main tributaries: a commercial motive to include as many people as possible and avoid pissing off portions of the audience, which rose up as newspapers consolidated, and the professionalization of what had once been a working class trade, which put a premium on sounding detached and telling the story from a position “above” the struggling partisans. Closer to our own time came a third pressure: the right wing’s incredibly successful campaign to intimidate journalists by complaining endlessly about liberal bias.

But as Brian Beutler of Crooked Media wrote last week, some things have changed:

Decades of right-wing smears have driven the vast majority of conservative Americans away from mainstream news outlets into a cocoon of right-wing propaganda. Those mainstream outlets have responded [by] loading panels and contributor mastheads with Republican operatives or committed movement conservatives; chasing baseless stories to avoid accusations of bias; adhering stubbornly to indefensible assumptions of false balance; subverting the truth to lazy he-said/she-said dichotomies. None of it can or will appease their right-wing critics, who don’t mean to influence the media, but to delegitimize it. None of it has drawn Fox News viewers and Breitbart readers back into the market for real news.

The right wing has its own media ecosystem now. As the GOP becomes more devoted to white nationalism and voter suppression it make less sense for the public service press to chase that core audience or heed its complaints about bias. Beutler and I are making the same point to “mainsteam” journalists: these are people who want to destroy your institution. It’s time you started acted liking it.

And remember what I said: making it harder to vote, and harder to understand what the party is for are parts of the same project. “Inviting a Republican on to a reputable news show to claim Republicans support pre-existing conditions protections doesn’t offer viewers the Republican position,” says Beutler, “it offers them a lie.” The choice is between truth-seeking and refuge-seeking behavior. That confrontation is coming, whether journalists realize it or not. Even if Trump is gone, a minority party with unpopular positions has to attack the reality-based press and try to misrepresent itself through that press to voters. This has been true for a long time. But after Trump’s takeover it is newly unignorable.

My advice: There isn’t any refuge anyway, so you might as well shoot for truth.

“You might not like it, but it’s smart politics.”

'Twas the savvy style that led the political press astray. By the time Trump showed up, they were too far gone to realize it.

28 Sep 2020 9:08 pm 14 Comments

Recently someone asked me why, in facing up to the realities of the Trump presidency, the press has not broken with some of its more destructive habits  (For what I mean by “destructive habits,” see James Fallows in The Atlantic). This post is my answer to that question. Well, one answer. It’s not a simple story. My description here is just part of what happened to leave the press unprepared for Trump. As we saw with the release this week of a massive investigation into his tax returns by the New York Times, the investigative “wing” of the same press has done far better than the @whca cohort who are responsible for reporting on the day-to-day.   

They hitched their star to the political class— and for balance both sides of it. They learned to look at politics the way the masters of the game do. In the cultivation of this sensibility, which I have called the savvy style, they took rather too much pride.

They wanted to be undeceived themselves, and they had the idea of schooling readers, viewers and listeners — the attentive public — in what it takes to get elected, to be effective, and to “win” at a game played by insiders.

You might not like it,” they preached, “but it’s smart politics.”

People like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin built lucrative careers on that kind of statement. And in putting forward their proposition — it might be ugly, but it’s good politics — they lost sight of what drew them into journalism in the first place, which was to even the scales between insiders and outsiders.

Nine years ago I described the savvy style this way:

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are…

Prohibited from joining in political struggles, dedicated to observing what is, regardless of whether it ought to be, the savvy believe that these disciplines afford them a special view of the arena, cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that players in the system routinely exhibit. The savvy don’t say: I have a better argument than you. They say: I am closer to reality than you.

A kind of mutation in the code of newsroom professionalism, the savvy style flourished during a period in American politics when the system felt stable and the two parties stood roughly similar, but with different philosophies. Its symbolic high point was a story they still tell about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill getting together and cutting a deal. (Chris Matthews — “Let’s play Hardball!” — wrote a book about it.) 

This was politics the way the savvy mind understood it. Sure, the parties stood for different things, but in the end two people who knew the score and had the power got together to make it happen. That’s how things get done in the real world, and it’s the job of the journalist to let the public in on such secrets.  

There’s a book you can still buy that conveys this attitude. It’s called The Power Game: How Washington Works. Listen to the promo: “Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith goes inside America’s power center in Washington, DC to reveal how the game of governing was played in the 1980s.” That’s what I mean by the savvy style. Without anyone thinking it through, or deciding it shall be so, this became the dominant style in political journalism: to explain how the game was played.

And then it all fell apart. In the 1990s the Republican Party started to reveal its present self with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, Fox News as culture war headquarters, the Clinton Impeachment, Bush vs. Gore, cooked books in the case for war in Iraq, the Tea Party’s rebellion against a black man in power, the rejection of moderation after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 (despite a frank autopsy the party had conducted on itself), the collapse of immigration reform, followed by the Birther movement, and finally Donald Trump’s capture of the party and attempt at autocratic rule. (Yes, I am leaving a lot out.)

None of these things fits the script of roughly similar parties with different philosophies winning elections by appealing smartly to the “vital center.” The savvy style was in crisis, but almost no one in the trade seemed to realize it.

In 2012, two solid members of the Washington establishment, Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, tried to warn them: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” they wrote. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

You might not like it, but it’s smart politics… was helpless to describe a party “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts.” Strategy coverage, both sides do it, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers, controversy of the day, access journalism, “we’ll have to leave it there”… all these forms were spectacularly ill-matched to Donald Trump when he emerged as a threat to American democracy.

The press had drifted too far off course. It still identified with the pros who knew how the game was played. But the pros were themselves under attack in Trump’s style of resentment politics. Journalists trying to cover him discovered they were hate objects, useful for keeping his supporters in a state of pop-eyed rage. Nothing in their playbook had prepared them for that; they are still trying to recover from the shock of it. 

Recently someone else asked me for three or four changes in political journalism that might begin to right this ship. (Emphasis on begin to…) To wind this up, here is what I told him: 

  • Defense of democracy seen as basic to the job.
  • Symmetrical accounts of asymmetrical realities seen as malpractice.
  • “Politics as strategic game” frame seen as low quality, downmarket, amateurish, silly— and overmatched.
  • Bad actors with a history of misinforming the public seen as unsuitable sources and unwelcome guests.

They hitched their star to the political class. Now they have to recover their connection to a live public. Who’s up and who’s down won’t cut it when democracy itself is losing altitude.

Notes on Membership

Amid the search for a sustainable path in journalism

16 Sep 2020 8:58 am 4 Comments

1. Subsidy systems

Public service journalism has always been subsidized by something. But the system of subsidy varies across cultural eras and national boundaries. New subsidy systems can arise. Reliable ones can fail. We are living through such a shift today.

These notes on membership have a premise: Every system for subsidizing the production of real news has strengths and weaknesses. There is no perfect or stable answer. We have to be smart about the risks and advantages of each.

“Membership” is a subsidy system of increasing importance to a free press around the globe. It is one answer — not the right answer, but one possible answer — to “how are we going to sustain public service journalism, given everything that is happening in the world?” 

Advertising models are still the most common solution. In that system, a media company publishes news, comment, and information that people like or need. Audience attention creates a second-level product that can be sold to advertisers. The good news: Advertising subsidizes the costs of newsgathering. Journalists can be paid for their work. Readers, viewers and listeners are familiar with the system. The bad news: Attention-grabbing content can take over from real journalism. Big advertisers can exert undue influence on the news. And they aren’t especially loyal. As my friend Clay Shirky says, “Best Buy never signed up to fund the Baghdad Bureau.”

If advertisers can find a better deal somewhere else they will take it, which is exactly what has happened to the press in the digital era. With the rise of the internet and social media, classified ads moved to Craigslist and specialist sites like AutoTrader. Other categories went to Google and Facebook. Today the collapse of the ad subsidy is the major reason we have a business model crisis in journalism.

Now let’s shift scenes.

The BBC in the UK, ARD in Germany, and NRK in Norway are three examples of a very different subsidy system. Government policy in these countries is that the nation should have available to it a public service broadcaster to provide news, sport and entertainment programming. Through a dedicated tax or mandatory fees paid by viewers and listeners, the state “forces” into existence a revenue stream that the public broadcasters turn into content, some of which is high quality journalism.

The good news: everyone participates in funding the work because the work is done for public benefit. That’s a great principle. The bad news: public policy is still subject to pressure from political forces. If the political climate changes, the subsidy can be threatened. These facts tend to breed caution in the newsrooms supported by a state (or state-enforced) subsidy. 

A look at other subsidy systems helps us understand what is different about membership.

Politico Pro, described as a “personalized policy intelligence platform that helps organizations who create, influence or are impacted by policy do their jobs,” sells specialized newsletters and databases to busy professionals. It subsidizes a free product, politico.com, which in turn advertises the Politico brand. 

In 2019, the outdoor gear store, REI, which is a run as a consumer co-op, started publishing a quarterly print magazine, Uncommon Path, with stories about environmental issues and other outdoorsy topics. It goes to REI’s 450,00 members for free. What’s unusual is that REI hired experienced journalists to do the work, and even published these Editorial Guiding Principles, which show a commitment to real journalism and to ethical conduct.

In Sweden the government subsidizes local newspaper journalism directly “in order to promote the opportunities for diversity within the daily press and to strengthen democracy by promoting public access to independent news throughout the country.”

Since 1908, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, has subsidized the Christian Science Monitor, once a newspaper, now an online product known for quality international journalism.

These are all subsidy systems. Each one works differently. None has completely solved the problem: how do we sustain quality journalism and bring it within public reach?

2. Subscription vs. membership

When you can’t receive the product unless you pay your share of the costs for producing it, that’s subscription. It is not a subsidy system, but an alternative to subsidy: direct payment. The good news is that everyone knows who the “customer” is: anyone who values the product enough to pay for it. The bad news: a lot of the public is left out, including those who cannot afford to subscribe. And there are costs that have nothing to do with producing good journalism: Marketing expense, and subscriber “churn,” for example.

For anyone attracted to journalism by the opportunity to inform the public as a whole — the nation, the province, the town — subscription-only models are a problem. Which is not to say they are a “bad” solution. In practice, most subscription models are combined with advertising and other revenue sources to lower the price and make the product more affordable. And remember: there is no perfect answer.

With membership, the logic is different. Locate your strongest supporters and learn how to appeal to them for support. This is how I would define membership after three years of work as director of the Membership Puzzle Project.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. In order to “appeal to them for support,” you first have to identify your strongest supporters, and understand what motivates them to contribute. You have to learn how to talk to them, when to make an appeal, what to ask for. You need good tools and good data to do these things well. You also need a feel for your members, an intuitive grasp of why they support you. And of course you need a useful and compelling product: journalism that is worth supporting in the first place. Nothing happens without that.   

3. Join the cause

I call membership a subsidy system because in most — but not all — cases that the Membership Puzzle Project has studied, the members who contribute money know that the product is also available to people who are not members. One of the best arguments for membership models is that they do not require a paywall, which means the journalism is free to find its broader public.

This is how public radio in the U.S. has worked for more than 40 years. The members contribute; everyone else can listen. It’s the same logic the Guardian uses when it explains (to its strongest supporters), “Unlike many news organizations, we have kept our journalism open to our global audience. We have not put up a paywall as we believe everyone deserves access to quality journalism, at a time when factual, honest reporting is critical.”

The City in New York says that it “serves the people of New York, producing consistent, high-quality and high-impact accountability reporting. Our work is free to all and does not require a subscription. Instead of charging for access, we rely on the support of members, donors and sponsors.”

Another way to look at membership is that it experiments with the relationship — or social contract — between journalists and their supporters. Subscription is a product relationship: if you want the product, you pay for a subscription. The CBC in Canada is created by law and funded by taxpayers; it is the national public broadcaster of Canada, with a mandate to “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity.” Here, the relationship is civic. If you’re a Canadian citizen or tax paying resident, you are part of the CBC.

With membership, the relationship is voluntary. People join the cause because they believe in the importance of the work. And “join” is probably the key word in all of membership. Join as in join the party. But also join as in the way the floorboards join.

4. Commonwealth

But getting people to join your cause, join your site, join up with your journalism is just the beginning. What really matters is what you do with the people who have become your members. Here’s a big thing I have learned by studying it for three years. The trick in membership is to operate in such a way that your community of supporters becomes more valuable over time. 

Here is what I mean:

Let’s say you have a list of 20,000 readers for your daily email, and you are able to convert 10 percent of them (your strongest supporters) into members at an average of $30 a year. That community of supporters is initially worth $60,000 to your annual budget, maybe enough to hire a young reporter. 

But if that same group of 2,000 supporters fully understands that their $30 a year does not entitle them to tell your reporters how the story should come out, they are a little more valuable, because that common understanding gives journalists the independence they need to do good work. As members become more literate about journalism — and how your site works — they become more valuable to have as members.   

Suppose these supporters gradually learn that being a “member” of your site means sharing links to recent stories with those in their own social networks who are likely to have an interest. Now the 2,000 supporters are a little more valuable. They’re doing distribution.

Suppose those 2,000 supporters regularly submit news tips to your site. And they understand there’s a procedure for how best to do that. Following the procedure helps you quickly evaluate whether there’s a story there. Now they’re a little more valuable. They are extending your eyes and ears. They are adding to productivity.

Let’s keep it going: If those 2,000 supporters giving $30 a year come to understand that they are supposed to contribute their knowledge and experience when it is relevant to investigations the site is undertaking, they are even more valuable. (See Get Involved: Participate in ProPublica’s Reporting.)

Finally, imagine that the same community of 2,000 strong supporters has entered into a database their credentials, life experiences, job titles, areas of expertise, and special fascinations so that journalists can easily look them up and contact them when they are needed. Now they are becoming really valuable. (See: A new tool for harnessing public knowledge for better journalism by the Bristol Cable.)

I hope you see the point I am trying to make with this simplified trajectory. Membership isn’t only raising money from people who have joined the cause. It’s also developing a community of supporters so that it becomes — in a sense — “wealthier” as it masters more ways to contribute to the enterprise of reporting great stories. As they learn about you, and you learn about them, your members become a more valuable asset.

Once we learn how to focus on the commonwealth of membership, it becomes obvious that members don’t have to contribute money to add to the wealth. This is fortunate because not all of your supporters will be able to give even $30 a year. If you can discover other ways for them to contribute, then your membership can grow in multiple ways at once. And so can your “wealth.” 

5. Subcommunities of support

But this can only happen if you continue to learn about your strongest supporters, including what persuades them to contribute. So here is another way of stating what membership is. The continuous refinement and expansion of the social contract between journalists and their strongest supporters.

By “contract” I simply mean what members give, and what they get; what member-supported newsrooms give (mostly, good journalism, but also a good experience in interacting with the site) and what these newsrooms get from the people they call members. Tinkering with the give/get bargain so that it works for more people — and does more for the journalism — is doing the work of membership. It is basic to the craft.

Refining the contract also means acquiring a more complex understanding of your members, rather than treating them as a mass, or email list. Not everyone supports you for the same reason. Some people just want to give money to the cause; they don’t have time for anything else. Other people want to be heard; that’s what keeps them engaged. Others want to be called on for their expertise, but only when it is specifically needed.

This is often called audience segmentation, but it’s really discovering sub-communities within the larger community of supporters that helps sustain your site, and learning how to talk to these smaller groups in a way that matches their priorities.

6. Tries, errors and routines

A few more notes before I conclude. If in journalism, the basic unit of work is the story, in membership it is the “try.” Meaning: you can only learn what works by trying things with the people who find value in your journalism. Here’s a simple example of a try, which I have written about before. It’s from The Tyee in British Columbia, Canada:

Today, we’re asking for your help in creating The Tyee’s election reporting plan.

Every investigation, explainer and expose begins with questions. So tell us yours. What do you want candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?

Share it with our journalists by scrolling down and filling out our one-question survey.

That’s a membership try: “Will our readers and fans help us create more audience-centric election reporting by taking this simple one-question survey?” In this case, more than 600 people did, which led to part two of the try: “Can we raise $60,000 from our strongest supporters for this adventure in reader-powered election journalism?”

We took a week to compile and analyze your input, and then put out a long list of questions and asked you to rank them, in order to help us focus the list to five questions. Nearly 2,000 of you sent us your rankings.

We have been truly amazed at the level of engagement. The result is the Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan…

The Tyee is a reader-supported publication. We need your help to pull off this reporting plan.

Will you support The Tyee’s 2019 federal election reporting with a financial contribution? Click here to give now.

It worked. The Tyee met its $60,000 goal. 

It is through the membership “try” that your repertoire of moves expands, your ambitions get reality-tested, and knowledge of your strongest supporters grows. (Of course, tries lead to errors too.) The most successful tries often evolve into what the Membership Puzzle Project calls “memberful routines,” normal ways of operating that incorporate members and produce value. Maybe The Tyee’s Reader-Powered Election Reporting Plan will become the standard way they cover provincial and local elections, with their strongest supporters funding the enriched journalism. 

From tries to routines is thus one of the “rhythms” of membership growth. As you repeat this cycle, you are getting better at the art and science of membership.

7. The search for a sustainable path

These notes have been written from the point of view of the producers of journalism seeking a sustainable path. I have used a vocabulary that I think will make sense to journalists, membership managers, chief revenue officers, and other staff. Please be aware that the terms I have used here are not necessarily the right ones for talking to your strongest supporters and appealing to them for more support.

The term “member” can itself strike an off note in some communities because it sounds exclusive, whereas in other settings it is a perfectly good and natural word. People who find value in your journalism may not see “journalism” as a good name for the thing they are valuing. It might be news-I-can-use, “staying informed,” accountability for those in power, or some kind of community connection. “We care about this place, so we need to know what’s happening in it.” If people strongly believe that, they may not make reference to journalism at all.

Journalism is a craft and occupation. Membership is a subsidy system and management discipline. But this is not what matters to members. Your job is to find out how to talk to them in a language that strikes a responsive chord— in them and in you. 

These notes are meant to help you build a scale model of the problem in your head, so you can think “with” membership in new and productive ways, turning the object around in your mind to see it from different sides. The language of membership as a discipline, and the language you share with your community… these are likely to be two different things. 

Locate your strongest supporters, and learn how to appeal to them for support. Over time develop that community into a more and more valuable system for sustaining your journalism. This means constant improvement in the give/get bargain, and in the user’s experience of it, along with more membership tries, more errors and the emergence of memberful routines.

That is my expanded definition of membership as a distinct business model and operating style in journalism. If we zoom out from there to the global struggle for a free and sustainable press, membership can be seen as a kind of floating construction site where people around the world are trying to rebuild the relationship between journalism and its public. Rebuild it, that is, on different grounds: volunteerism, mutual support, media literacy, civic pride. 

We don’t know yet whether membership will develop into a sustainable path for a public service press. There are promising signs, but it depends on how many people choose that path. I am not here to tell you that we have found the answer to the business model problems in journalism. 

But… One of the reasons I have spent three years researching them is that membership models are the place in journalism where we are, in a way, starting over— finding that portion of the public that still believes in the implied contract between people with a need to know and journalists determined to find out.


Today the research program I direct, The Membership Puzzle Project, is releasing its most important work yet. Three years of study went into it. The Membership Guide is a how-to manual and a review of best practices for people in journalism who want to try this path.

It is the product of research, but the product is not a research report. Rather, it’s a practical tool for making membership work, which draws on the lessons from membership sites on five continents. You can read a summary of what’s in the Guide here. Or just start with the first page: Defining Membership. Or jump to the 34 case studies from membership sites around the world.

I admit: I am extremely proud of this work. In my 34 years of publishing things as a professor of journalism, it is probably the most useful thing I have done. We had a team of researchers, designers and developers working on it for six months. They’re the ones who made it. I wrote this essay, “Notes on Membership” to do my part, and to draw attention to the launch of the Guide.

If you are interested in making membership work as a path to sustainability in journalism, the Membership Guide tells you what is found along that path. And it can keep you from getting lost.

The product of research, but not a research report. This expresses one of my ideas about how to be a professor of journalism at NYU. In the struggle for a free press that informs a live public, learn to be useful. I hope you will check it out. Both the Guide, and the struggule.