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Mike Fancher: It Takes a Community to Reinvent Journalism

Mike Fancher, former 20-year executive editor of the Seattle Times, is writing a Knight Commission white paper on local journalism, and he tells Leonard Witt in this Future of Journalism video interview:

Have the community at the center of everything you do…Bring people into your thought process. Get the benefit of finding out more precisely what their news information needs are, and be in a real partnership with them. And for Heaven’s sakes, take advantage of their intelligence, their knowledge of the community and their ability to help you create better journalism. I think that would be a very important starting point.

Leonard Witt:   Hi. I’m Len Witt and I’m here with Mike Fancher.  And both of us today were at the Aspen Institute to talk about basically, what’s the future of local journalism going to look like.  And Mike has been asked, through the Knight Commission and the Aspen Institute,  to kind of  write a policy paper based on the Knight Informing Communities report  about what might be some of the next steps to help recreate, reinvent journalism.  So Mike, maybe you can pick up from there.  You used to be the editor of a paper in Seattle?

Mike Fancher: Seattle Times.  20 years.

Witt:  And now you’ve been commissioned to do this paper.  What are some of the things you’re learning, the high points you’re learning about the future of local journalism?

Fancher: Well I was on the team that wrote the Knight Commission report.  And one of the interesting findings of the commission’s report was that America doesn’t so much need to save journalism; it needs to create journalism.  I think the notion is that in this moment technology allows us to do more and better journalism than we’ve ever done before.  The business model is a problem, obviously. But there’s a presumption that we will find ways to sort that out, and that we also have to figure out how to use this technology to create journalism that better serves local communities than it ever has.  So my White Paper for Aspen Institute is essentially around how to save local journalism. And I’m looking at it from the perspective of for-profit news organizations, non-profit public news organizations, and very much in the spirit of what’s possible given this new technology. What can we do if we work together that we couldn’t do before?

Witt: So, after thinking about that, what are some of the things that stick out in your mind? What do you think the future is going to look like in general?

Fancher:  The themes that I’m working on are essentially experimentation, collaboration, and engagement.  Experimentation – nobody knows what’s going to work. So let’s try lots of things.  Collaboration – it’s in the DNA of journalists to be very competitive and independent.  But in this day and age, with fewer and fewer resources and journalistic organizations, and more and more startups, we need to collaborate a lot more than we ever did in the past. And engagement is that journalism is for the public, and we need to bring the public into this conversation and let them help us create the journalism of the future.

So that’s the basic construct.  And it works differently in a for-profit news organization that can maybe be a hub for hyperlocal blogs.  There’s this notion that professional journalism has been reduced by about $1.6 billion in recent years, the resource.  We’re not going to replace that with new revenues in the future.  But we can replace it with collaborative efforts and taking better advantage of what the technology can do for us.  And so that’s the kind of structure that I’m looking at.  What are the ideas out there to create new journalism in new forms in places where we haven’t historically done journalism, with professional journalism and traditional news organizations participating richly in that experiment.

Witt: So are you optimistic?

Fancher:  I’m optimistic.  One reason I’m optimistic is because I think a democratic society needs journalism.  I think the public understands the importance of journalism and is supportive of the need for journalism, but they wish we would do it better. They wish that we would let them participate more in our thought process. And because young people who want to be journalists are really driven to do this work. And they’re very optimistic that new business models will be found.  So their passion is moving them forward. They see it more from the perspective of the opportunity created by the new tools that are available.

Witt:  So in the meeting today, I think we were all struggling…we wanted an answer, but we weren’t getting an answer, and we weren’t even getting several answers.  We were sort of circling around a bit. I had that feeling as we all are in the business.  How do you think that’s going to come out..that sort of start, stop, think? Are people going to run out of energy?  Do you think they’re going to continue seeking new models?

Fancher: I think they’re going to continue to seek new models.  The enthusiasm that you see with people who are in the industry – their spirits have been lifted in the last year.  Things are a little better, they have a little more breathing room.  I think there’s a little less apprehension about the future. There’s a sense we have a little time now to try some new things. And for the people who are out in startup business, I see a lot of energy among the people who are creating these new enterprises.  So I’m very hopeful in that regard. It’s just a question of – try some things. If they don’t work, move on to the next thing. One of the things I wish we saw more of is that same energy on the business side of journalism, because I still think that the business side is a little stuck in the old paradigm of “We’ll take your money whenever you want to run an ad with us.”  I think we need to reinvent the business side a little differently than just cost containment.

Witt:  So after all this reading you’ve done, you’ve worked on the Commission report, you’re doing this White Paper…if you were going to go back into the practicing area of creating journalism on a daily basis, what would you do?

Fancher:  I think the most important thing is to have the community at the center of everything you do. Think of your audience not as an audience but as a community.  Bring people into your thought process.  Get the benefit of finding out more precisely what their news information needs are, and be in a real partnership with them. And for Heaven’s sakes, take advantage of their intelligence, their knowledge of the community and their ability to help you create better journalism.  I think that would be a very important starting point.

Witt: Do you know anyone right now who’s doing that well?

Fancher:  Well…public radio in a lot of places is doing it.  Minnesota Public Radio’s been doing Public Insight Journalism for a lot of years.  My old newspaper, The Seattle Times, has a rich collaboration with two dozen hyper local news sites that are really journalistically sound sites doing very local coverage of their communities, and the newspaper collaborates back and forth with them in content sharing relationships and promotional relationships.  Those are good models.  There are some papers that are doing some better use of the public in news-telling but probably the best example is the Guardian in England. It really has taken this to a high form. I’d like to see American newspapers really step up to that.

Witt: Do you think they will?

Fancher: Oh,  I think they have to. Absolutely.  Once you get beyond the notion that somehow you are lowering your standards, and instead see this as the opportunity to do more journalism, more accurate journalism, more trusted journalism, more credible journalism – because people are participating in the creation of journalism – I think people will find it very exciting.

Witt:  Alright. Thank you very much. And good luck with that paper I’m looking forward to seeing the final version of it.

Fancher: Thank you.  Thanks for your help with it.

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