Changes in News for 2017: Nieman Journalism Lab Predictions Seek Renewed Trust, Diverse Voices

The Nieman Journalism Lab—a project of Harvard University - has issued its annual round of predictions for the future of journalism in the coming year (double future tense is Nieman's) from a wide swath of news professionals. These 200-plus short essays are candid, heartfelt, and insightful, and they leave no doubt that changes in journalistic practice are coming in 2017.

The phalanx of writers represents legacy newspapers, public broadcasters, digital start-ups, nonprofits, for-profits, and philanthropy. This year's predictions repeatedly reference journalism's need to regain the public's trust and to reclaim core values of objectivity and "fact." But the human traits of empathy, listening, connecting, and "voice" also emerge as compelling common themes.  

Sue Schardt (Executive Director of AIR, a network of 1,000 public media producers) advises journalists to seek out "activists...who form connective tissue between storymakers and those living in pockets of the community not well served by public or mainstream media." Corey Ford (managing partner of Matter, a design focused business accelerator) envisions a news utopia, with future media institutions taking a "radically inclusive approach to amplifying the voices of all Americans."  

Strong calls for newsroom diversity come from Swati Sharma and Doris Truong of the Washington Post. Truong advocates “actively cultivating a newsroom whose journalists represent a broad cross section of America" while Sharma is more decisive: "If your newsroom isn’t diverse, you’re failing at journalism."

Writers in the nonprofit sphere emphasize journalism's relevance to democracy and worthiness for philanthropic support: Jim Friedlich, CEO of the Institute for Journalism in New Media (which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer), cites an emerging conception of journalism as "a critical investment in our democracy and our society," while Molly de Aguiar, Program Director for Informed Communities at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, describes funders as "slow to value news and information organizations as community anchors."  In 2017, she predicts, funders will see vibrant news systems as "a way to inform, engage, and improve our communities and people's lives."     

For several writers, equal partnerships will characterize journalists' work with, rather than "for" communities. Carrie Brown-Smith, Director of the Social Journalism Program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, sees her former students working both at startups and in "larger, more traditional news organizations, trying to change the culture and think about new approaches to news."

Surprisingly few of the predictors mention 'citizenship' or 'citizens' as relevant to 2017 news, in view of journalists' soul-searching following the presidential election. Studying citizens' actual activities and involvements in neighborhoods, communities, and institutions would be a logical way to understand their information needs.  NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes articulates a general yet intriguing view of news as providing "reliable facts and information that help you live your life and fulfill your role as a citizen," but the specifics of that role aren't defined.

On my home turf of Summit, NJ, (population 21,000), citizen involvement and activism appears to be on the rise. In the past two months alone, Summit has seen a series of dialogues on race; a post-election conversation lead by S.T.A.R. ("Stand Together Against Racism") - involved teens from public and private schools; a Summit Stands Together "unity walk and vigil" on the Village Green; and a lecture by Jewish environmental organizer, Nigel Savage, of the Hazon organization for sustainable communities. If this is typical, a convergence of concern for environmental and racial justice, civic unity, and trustworthy information may deepen our demand for news in 2017.

For me, veteran journalist Guy Raz, host and co-creator of NPR's TED Radio Hour, best describes those often-neglected areas of news that can motivate a self-governing citizenry. People will seek "inspiration, meaning, and a reasoned exchange of ideas," he writes.  News organizations…"are a gathering place for a community. The members of these communities do not want to despair or feel disempowered."

Raz advises the news field to "think beyond the daily headlines and about the bigger human picture --- the things that animate us, the ideas that inspire us, the people who change the world for the better." 

This would be a newsworthy change in 2017: constructively intervene in the 24/7 news cycle by creating space for stories that engage the heart, mind, and spirit; in Raz's words, "offer your readers and listeners and viewers a sense of possibility."

Susan Haig is Founder & Creative Director of CivicStory, and Conductor of the South Orange Symphony Orchestra