Amid Crisis, the Promise of “Civic News”

By Eliza Newlin Carney

Utsav Srestha on Unsplash

One of the ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic is that local newspaper readership is surging at the same time that plunging ad revenues are forcing newsrooms cut their staffs to the bone.

In the short term, the news industry needs federal relief to avoid what has been called “an extinction event” for local papers. But as I wrote recently in The Fulcrum, the pandemic is also accelerating a “civic news” movement that envisions a more mission-driven model for the media industry.

What would happen, for example, if newsrooms asked communities what they would like to see covered, with an eye to placing the public interest first? That’s what’s happening at several new nonprofit ventures around the country, such as the American Journalism Project and Report for America, that have set out to revive and reinvent local news. Their aim in part is to tell the often-overlooked stories of rural, low-income or marginalized communities.

“I’m newly optimistic, even in the midst of this crisis, that there are these new political openings, new alliances forming,” Craig Aaron, co-CEO of Free Press, told me. Free Press has helped spearhead a publicly-funded Civic Information Consortium in New Jersey that has emerged as a model for other states.

Drawing government funding and mass audiences to nonprofit news outlets presents its own challenges, including questions about editorial independence. But this public health crisis does create an opening for advocates of public interest journalism who have set out to reimagine the media industry, with democracy front and center. Read the whole story here.

DEMOCRACY AS AN ACT OF FAITH: The word faith more often than not connotes religious belief. But faith is also an essential ingredient for democracy, whether citizens engage in spiritual worship or not.

Voters must have faith that their votes will be counted, and will impact the outcome of an election. Citizens must have faith that elected officials will respond to their needs and demands. Community members must have faith that their actions will make a difference.

In recent years, that faith has been lacking. Even before the coronavirus pandemic turned our worlds upside down, Americans had largely lost faith in virtually every institution of public life. The federal government, Congress, the news media, corporations, the scientific and academic communities–all have taken a beating amid steep declines in public trust. And yes, religious faith has cratered, too.

For some Americans, faith in the future has given way to outright nihilism. To the nihilist, things are so bad that nothing can be believed, changed, or even known. Nihilism helps explain the rise of Donald Trump, whose attacks on a corrupt establishment resonated with Americans this economy left behind. But nihilism also has surfaced on the left, among progressives overwhelmed by political chaos in a “post-truth” world.

But nihilism threatens democracy as surely as any autocrat. Too easily, disillusionment justifies disengagement. Discouraged Americans ought to turn not to Friedrich Nietzche, but to Henry David Thoreau, who saw calling the government to account as an expression of patriotism. These are challenging times, to be sure. But they call for action, and the faith to take it, not cynical paralysis.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOLERS TO THE RESCUE: Even as local newspaper struggle to stay afloat, a new breed of journalists is finding an audience: elementary school students. Take Hannah Colas, age 9, whose “Cuttermill Chronicle” contains hand-drawn and illustrated stories about a home haircut and kind acts. “In my next issue I would like to write about my neighbor Miss Judy who is also a nurse working with covid patients, planting nice flowers in her front yard,” Hannah told The Washington Post. In The Civic Circle’s own backyard, a group of eight- to ten-year-olds created “The Takoma Neighborhood News” because, as the masthead states, “The Small Stuff Matters.” Read the whole story here.

THE YOUTH VOTER EARTHQUAKE: Some worry that the pandemic will suppress youth voter turnout, but scholars Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremi Suri argue the opposite. The Covid-19 crisis “has provided a shared imperative for young people to elect representatives who will address their common educational, health, and employment needs,” the two recently wrote for CNN. “Young voters arguably have more motivation than any time since the Vietnam War.” You can read the whole story here.

GIVING GRATITUDE NOW: On GivingTuesdayNow, a global day of giving on May 5 to respond to the pandemic, The Civic Circle split our receipts with No Kid Hungry Maryland, which is helping students get the meals they need during school closures. We also released a new civic song, “Anyone Can Be a Hero” that thanked essential workers, and was inspired by the Martin Luther King quote: “Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve.” You can watch and listen here. Thanks to all who made this campaign a success.

Eliza Newlin Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle.

This post was distributed via The Civic Circle’s newsletter, The Civic Voice. To sign up, please click HERE, or contact info@theciviccircle.org.

The Civic Circle is a nonpartisan nonprofit that uses music and drama to teach young kids about democracy, including voting, voluntarism and public leadership.

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