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KF and Journalism: On Again! Off Again! On Again! (Connections 2015)

The four-page article, “KF and Journalism: On Again! Off Again! On Again! by David Holwerk was published Fall 2015 in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research. Holwerk discusses Kettering’s relationship with journalism and how over the last couple decades, the relationship has had its ups and downs. Kettering has had several active areas in journalism, especially during the 1990s emergence of the public journalism movement. Read an excerpt from the article below and find Connections 2015 available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

KF_Connections 2015From the article…

But even though Kettering was engaged with journalists on many fronts— broadcast projects, coverage of presidential elections, the link between journalism and public deliberation, the role of journalism education in shaping journalists’ ideas,
the Katherine Fanning Fellowship, which has brought many journalists from other countries to Kettering—the record (and my own experience as a journalist during that period) makes it clear that interest was waning, both inside the foundation and among journalists. And in fact, by 2000, it had almost disappeared.

And several things account for public journalism’s swift decline. Some were factors that affect any human endeavor but are not of interest here: personalities, competing ambitions, and battles for primacy of place in journalism’s weird class system. (If you’ve worked in the business you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, take it from me, you didn’t miss anything.)

But other factors do have something to do with Kettering’s interests. Chief among them, public confidence in journalists and journalism continued to decline. To those paying attention, this suggested that the public journalism efforts weren’t bridging the gap between citizens and journalists. And in an environ- ment where instant feedback is the norm, that message carried a lot of weight.

Meanwhile, newspaper industry revenues rose sharply between 1993 and 2000. So the incentive to rethink the relationship of journalism to citizens and communities receded, and with it the sorts of initiatives that Kettering was interested in studying.

I’ll pick up the narrative of Kettering’s work shortly, but let me pause here to make a point about the connection between the financial success of journalism and the interest in citizens and communities. It’s commonplace to identify this connection as a sort of existential crisis. Journalists saw their livelihoods threatened, this storyline goes, and so they turned to connecting with citizens as a possible lifeboat.

That’s true to some extent, but identifying (okay, I’ll say it: naming) the incentive that way obscures something useful. Such circumstances—which occur periodically across the entire spectrum of institutional life—create moments when professionals are open to examining how their work connects (or doesn’t) to citizens and communities. These are the moments when institutions and the professionals who work in them are most likely to experiment. These self-examinations and experiments, and what happens as a result of them, is what’s important to Kettering, not whether the institution survives or dies.

But back to the narrative. There is no concise record of the foundation’s journalism work from 2000 on. But I can speak from my own experience beginning in 2008, when I got involved with Kettering again, as part of a workshop involving the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Much of the focus was on new interactive media, and involved discussions of questions, such as whether these media are by nature democratic. (For the record: they are not. Egalitarian, yes. Democratic, no.) These discussions were interesting,if you’re interested in gadgets and their effect on people and society. But what seemed to be missing were the experiments and innovations that, for better or worse, marked the public journalism days.

To my mind, that began to change in a 2010 research exchange with editorial writers. By that time, it was pretty clear that things were going to hell in the news business and that this time there would be no business rebound to bail them out. A number of the folks in that meeting seemed eager to try some different things. They also seemed ready to reexamine questions, such as whether their ideas about what citizens do in democracy were accurate or what it meant to serve the needs of citizens.

Since then, life in Kettering’s Journalism and Democracy internal working group has been increasingly busy and fruitful. Everywhere we look, we find journalists trying to figure out how to connect better with citizens and communities, or how to manage the difficult tensions that arise even in the best of such connections. Among journalism academics both here and abroad, we have found a deep wellspring of interest in questions related to democracy—not just theoretical questions, but practical ones related to the professional training of journalists. In both cases, a sense of existential crisis seems to have opened up the willingness to consider questions that just a few years ago were not on journalists’ agenda.

How long this state of affairs will last, I wouldn’t care to guess. Journalism itself, at least as we know it, could disappear, in which case Kettering would be left with nothing to examine. But as of this writing, the foundation’s on-again, off-again engagement with journalism and journalists is definitely on.

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2015 issue, edited by Kettering program officer Melinda Gilmore and director of communications David Holwerk, focuses on our yearlong review of Kettering’s research over time.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Holwerk_2015.pdf

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