Opinion: Journalism’s future will rely on trust

The future of journalism?

You might as well ask about the future of the Republic.

You can’t really have one without the other.

Thomas Jefferson knew this. He viewed newspapers – which tormented him much of his public life – as foundational. He once said that if he were to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would not “hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Fortunately, we don’t face such a dire choice — yet. Nevertheless, a free and independent press is not a given.

Interestingly, the press is one pillar of American democracy that has relied almost exclusively on the free market. This has been journalism’s great source of strength and independence, but these days it is also its biggest threat.

For more than a decade, the free market has been a complicated and fickle benefactor. News organizations like the AJC have been forced to reinvent themselves nearly constantly. Each wave – the Internet, Google, social media, smartphones, etc. — has required an instant response.

I won’t bore you with the details; suffice it say it’s tough out there.

At this delicate moment, journalism has never been more indispensable. In a world of fake news and information chaos, we need more and better journalism.

Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of Britain’s Guardian newspaper from 1995 to 2015, sees considerable peril ahead. He employs a Category 5 hurricane as his appropriate metaphor. Strong journalism, he argues, provides a common understanding of the truth. This common understanding, which is fundamental to self-government, is at risk.

“Like the crisis with our weather systems, this is a crisis in the climate of information,” he wrote recently. “In its own way, it has the potential to be just as deadly.

“We’ve now stood on the brink of this existential crisis long enough to be frightened,” he wrote. “A society that cannot agree on a factual basis for discussion or decision-making cannot progress. There can be no laws, no votes, no government, no science, no democracy without a shared understanding of what’s true and what isn’t.”

Against these challenges, news organizations around the world –including the AJC - are considering the future deeply. New operating models are springing up; many expand beyond traditional revenue sources – advertising and subscriptions.

Philanthropy is fueling an explosion of small, digital-only community based newsrooms. More than 200 start-up newsrooms rely on grants for their operating funds. Some are significant national players – ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Journalism for example.

The much-respected Texas Tribune, a nine-year-old digital operation that focuses on state government, politics and investigations, derives about a quarter of its revenue from foundations. Evan Smith, the Tribune’s founder and CEO, believes the site’s success has come from sticking to its journalistic mission and performing that mission without bias.

“Our success has been about putting mission front and center,” he told me. The central driver is “the idea that Texas can be better than it is,” and the Tribune is committed to “an informed Texas.”

Who would argue with the assertions that Georgia can be better than it is and that increasing the number of informed Georgians is a good idea?

Larger “legacy newspapers” — the awful euphemism for places like the AJC — also are exploring new models. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a once top-tier newspaper that was battered by economic challenges, has substantially altered course. It is now a public benefit corporation owned by a journalism foundation. It still seeks a profit, but its primary goal is serving the public. Its ambitions and staff are growing again.

And The Guardian, the old-school British newspaper that has made inroads into the U.S., has shifted from subscriptions to memberships – arguing that its work itself is worth paying to support. You don’t have to pay to read The Guardian online, but you will be asked to pony up to “protect independent journalism.”

Readers are willing to underwrite The Guardian and make its journalism “available to all,” said Rusbridger, who has written a fascinating new book called “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now.”

If all this has taught – or affirmed – anything, it’s that readers rule supreme. This is the one constant in these newsrooms. The old maxim – “we write, you read” – is being replaced by “we listen, we write, you engage, we write some more. Rinse and repeat.”

And whatever the revenue model, the first order of business is rebuilding trust.

Journalism’s esteem worldwide is at rock bottom. Nothing else matters if this ugly truth can’t be reversed.

In my view you earn trust one story at a time. Each sentence must be soundly reported, written and edited. It must be thorough, honest and fair. This gospel holds from Twitter to Sunday’s front page.

“If we want to make the case that journalism deserves to survive because it is ultimately a form of public service, then we have to begin with that aim,” Rusbridger wrote. “Make the journalism as good, as meaningful, as relevant, as truthful, as serious as we can. If we can make profits as well, even better.”

The folks in the AJC work absurdly hard to do just that. They fret over accuracy, context and nuance. You will never find fake news on our pages and websites. These tired, serious people hardly look like the enemies of the people.

I like to think of the AJC as the journalism equivalent of a farm-to-table restaurant. It’s all locally sourced by expert craftspeople whose names are on every item.

And no one knows this place better than the reporters, editors and visual journalists in the AJC’s newsroom. No one.

But in the end, it’s you, gentle readers, who matter most. It all begins with the assumption you consider being informed an essential duty.

Jefferson again: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right.”

Subscribe — to print or online or both. Read closely with both impatience and skepticism. Let us know when you think we have it wrong. We will make each other better.

If it works, we’ll stick around for a while.

And so will the Republic.

Bert Roughton Jr. is the retired senior managing editor and editorial director for the AJC. He can be reached at ajcbroughton@gmail.com.