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The rise of nonprofit journalism

May 11, 2009

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“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism,” writes Clay Shirky, a professor whose work examines how technology shapes societal interaction and culture. In his opinion, the only people staging a grand funeral for traditional print media are the owners of newspapers. Most of us have already moved on.

Over the last few years, grassroots journalism — mainly in the form of online niche news sites and tightly focused blogs — has hastened the decline of newspapers. Readers are now able to find and read exactly what they want, when they want, with up-to-the minute details. Content abounds.

Big media no longer monopolizes the message. Towering boldface headlines don’t captivate us in the same way. And therein lies an opportunity to change the world.

The sensationalism of big newspapers shouts warnings from the front page. The biggest font portends the greatest danger: someone or something that wants to harm us. Negativity and fear used to sell, because they were the only game in town.

But no more.

A recent speech (and a related graph) about the future of news by author Steven Berlin Johnson points to a rapidly-rising news source: nonprofit journalism. This development promises not only a change to the way news is collected and reported, but also the possibility of broader social shift for the nature of media.

Nonprofit journalism, culled from the journals and experiences of social activists and humanitarian field workers, promises an entirely different focus. Where traditional media has largely played off on the fascination and fear of unknown people or places, nonprofit journalism seeks understanding by reporting on the challenges of people who are not so much different than us.

Shirky also recently noted, “The emotional substrate of all media is rising.”

And, in the midst of this concurrent rise and fall, nonprofit journalists have the chance to retool the message.

We can promote action instead of voyeurism. We have the chance to turn panic into engagement.

We can bring the world to readers in new way that encourages them to do something other than flip the channel or turn the page.