Illustration by Sawsan Chalabi for the Ford Foundation (courtesy Ford Foundation)

Hyperallergic has partnered with the Ford Foundation to publish select pieces from the foundation’s ongoing series Creative Futures. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Movement for Black Lives, and other epicenters of social upheaval in 2020, the foundation has commissioned 40 provocations from creatives working in journalism, documentary, and arts and culture. This provocation is by Imara Jones, on the theme of “New Infrastructures” — about reimagining the fundamental ways in which culture and media operate.

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Traditional, centralized news organizations are failing the emerging majority of Americans. The current average age of cable news viewers is 60 and the racial diversity of newsrooms has not budged since the 1970s. Yet most Americans are now under the age of 40 and members of either the Millennial or Z generations, the two most heterogeneous in American history. It is no wonder, then, that while younger Americans’ interest in news remains at historic highs, attachment to traditional news sources continues to decline.

Consequently, in order to maintain the role of accurate information in a democratic society, we must create new, decentralized news structures that respond to the perspectives of younger Americans and meet increasingly fragmented audiences wherever they are. Given the tremendous shifts in technology, national diversity, and the organizational economics of journalism, it’s the only way forward.

For younger Americans — the most racially diverse in U.S. history, where the majority are women, and up to half of its youngest members don’t identify as straight — news and information must be presented in a fundamentally different way. Developing the new levels of understanding required to bring about a fairer, more open society means altering the current paradigm of information ownership and production. Attracting younger, more diverse audiences not served by mainstream sources has to be the north star in the creation of a new ecosystem for journalism.

Those who care about economic, social, racial, gender, and environmental justice, as well as LGBTQ and immigrant rights, know that whoever controls the microphone transforms how stories are told. Given its fundamental resistance to a changed environment, legacy media is not the answer to engaging and representing these underserved groups, especially in the current era of conventional news distrust and detachment. The eight companies that preside over the news sources for 90 percent of what’s on-air and online won’t move the needle. Instead we have to establish smaller-scale news organizations that target Millennials and Generation Z. Technological changes and the growth of these micro-communities of interest give these organizations a real opportunity to punch above their weight and have a big impact. What is lost by their small size can be offset by grouping these new organizations into ecosystems that share resources and best practices, and even coordinate coverage of issues from different perspectives.

One key way to begin this effort is to identify and fund already existing organizations with a minimum of 5-year commitments to increase both the scale and scope of their efforts. Incentives can be added if these organizations form agreements with each other to expand coverage of topics that lie at the intersections of their various perspectives. Additionally a progressive media news consortium should be created with a mission to direct and coordinate this funding, combining the speed and flexibility of smaller organizations with the sustainability and collaboration which can flow from larger ones.

The bottom line is that top-down news models can be countered with an equally effective, horizontal, progressive media environment that has breadth and endurance. We should be honest about the fact that this is a long-term effort of at least 20-25 years that we must begin now. Remember that Roger Ailes first developed the idea for Conservative media during the Nixon administration and didn’t launch Fox News until 1996.

Traditional journalism organizations will continue to come under pressure financially and politically in ways that leave many Americans behind. Therefore we must innovate to imagine new answers to ensure that millions stay informed and connected about the nation’s most pressing issues.

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