A new niche for traditional journalism in the digital age

In the aftermath of the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, St. Louis Public Radio launched an ongoing series of conversations about race called We Live Here. The first full-length program traversed Lindbergh Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare arching through a diversity of the 90 municipalities that make up St. Louis County.

Two comments stood out in the broadcast, which aired in early March. The first was by a prominent businessman in Melville, a predominantly white suburb in the southern reaches of the county.

“It sickens me,” James Sinclair told the program, ‘to see St. Louis on the national news the way we have been portrayed. There are issues that need to be addressed. But the need to be addressed, they don’t need to be shouted at. And they certainly don’t need to take it out on the police.”

The second was by Chris Kerr, who lives on an exclusive six-acre family homestead in tony Frontenac. “I don’t follow these types of cases,” Kerr said. “Whatever it is, the national case, the new case, the next one that comes up.  Whatever agenda that somebody’s running that wants to do it. I don’t care. It’s not relevant to my life. So I just – I hear it on the news, but I stay out of it.”

I don’t know these men, nor do I know how their interviews were edited, so I’ll tread lightly. The program aired four days before the United States Department of Justice released its findings, based on forensics and witness testimony, clearing Officer Darren Wilson of culpability in the death of Michael Brown, but also chronicling deliberate racial profiling by the Ferguson police department against young black males.

The report supported the concern shared by people such as Sinclair and Kerr about a rush to judgment. But I am interested in what these two men had to say for a different reason. Their antipathy toward the coverage and motives of the national press in Ferguson raises an important question for a city struggling to confront its historical legacy of structural and systemic racism. When the national story fades into a local story, how and by what means does the conversation advance within this deeply divided American metropolis? Put differently, in our evolving media landscape, where do we build the common narratives that enable society to move forward?

My question arises from what was for me a formative insight when I covered sub-Saharan Africa for the Boston Globe. During the eight years I lived in Boston prior to moving overseas, I had almost no connection to its black communities. But within my first year of reporting from Africa, something curious happened. Boston’s black leaders reached out to me. Some prominent ministers even traveled to South Africa to meet with me, and my newspaper eventually flew me back to Boston at one point to participate in conversations with key black community leaders and renowned academics.

I did not get it. I was a white reporter writing about Africa, not Roxbury or Dorchester. What did my stories have to do them? The answer from one prominent cleric gave me a critical insight into the role metropolitan daily newspapers once held in the life of a city: “When you put brown issues on Page 1 of our newspaper, that legitimizes us.”

The minister’s comment gave me a profound new sense of purpose as a journalist. Before the digital age, newspapers were where the diverse communities of a single large urban center met, argued, strived and perhaps learned to understand each other. Every day, papers reached into every community, office, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority train and barber shop across the greater Boston area and much of New England. A story affecting any one demographic group reached every demographic group.

Ferguson put St. Louis at the center of a tragic national debate about race and policing in the United States. But it has done something else, too. It has given us a case study in community dialogue in the digital age. From 2005 to 2014, circulation of the St. Louis Post Dispatch halved, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. That contraction is likely continuing. The paper maintains that is has more than 6 million unique visits to its website per month – more than double the total greater metropolitan population. But the proliferation of information sites and social media means the front page – print or virtual – is no longer our common gathering spot. St. Louis Public Radio, meanwhile, claims it reaches about 200,000 people, or roughly one tenth of the population, per week.

Might hashtags fill the role local daily newspapers once did? There is no question that social media have become the connective tissue of our time. But even there, the plethora of platforms scatters us. An April 6 survey by the Pew Research Center of Ferguson hashtags reveals our divided attention: 86 percent of Ferguson comments on Twitter were directly related to the Brown shooting and its aftermath, while 62 percent of Ferguson comments on Instagram focused on tangential thematic issues – race, police brutality and politics.

Those trends suggest a new niche for traditional journalism in the digital age. More information from more sources does not necessarily mean more common ground. With ever more ways to communicate, we’re clearly all talking more than ever. What we’ve lost, perhaps, is the common spaces where we gather to listen. In the future, sifting through the glut – clarifying, verifying and contextualizing – may be the more valuable exercise of the traditional media’s ethics and judgment and a smart way to maintain relevance and the public’s trust.

 

Kurt Shillinger is a former national political reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. He covered sub-Saharan Africa for the Boston Globe from 1997 to 2003.