Quality Journalism in the Digital Age

April 10, 2015


Rolling Stone’s historic failure to verify their reporting on campus rape at the University of Virginia hits on perhaps the most important question facing journalists and journalism today:

How do we understand, measure and support quality journalism in the digital age?

RTEmagicC_Chris_SmallAs the Columbia Journalism School shows in its scathing report unraveling how the magazine got it so wrong, the answer is not as easily defined as you might think.

The Rutgers School of Communication’s newly published report Defining and Measuring Quality Journalism seeks to clarify shared values around quality and understand journalism’s role in the digital age. (Read the 65-page report, part of the School’s News Measures research project funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund, here.)

This question is profoundly important to me personally. I’ve spent much of my life in public service, seeing firsthand the impact of news coverage, or the lack thereof, on public debate and civic engagement. If we believe that journalism is core to our democracy, then we must support it actively and hold it to the highest standards.

It is also important to us at the Dodge Foundation, because we care deeply about New Jersey. For more than 40 years, Dodge has supported nonprofit organizations and initiatives dedicated to improving the quality of life of all New Jersey residents.

Together with our partners in the field, we envision a better New Jersey where people are healthier, happier, and more prosperous; where residents are connected to each other and to the natural world around them. We believe we can overcome the big challenges before us as a state with collaboration, creativity, and innovation, and position New Jersey as a model for these efforts.

This work starts with an engaged and informed public, with residents who know what’s happening in their backyards, are able to connect that with what’s happening in other communities and seek to improve their lives and those of their neighbors.

At Dodge, we are pioneering new approaches to investing in and supporting local news. With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Dodge helped establish The Center for Cooperative Media and its NJ News Commons initiative at Montclair State University, which acts as a clearinghouse of free support, services and resources for the entire NJ news ecosystem.

With that framework in place, we are continuing to work with the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and others to experiment with new community-driven reporting and revenue models, and to explore how we can create more collaboration across large and small media throughout the state.

I’m encouraged by recent research from the Pew Research Center and the American Press Institute that show that across the United States and across generations, there is still a hunger for news and a clear understanding of its civic role. But people want news that responds to their needs and interests – that focuses on what is important to them.

Many communities here in New Jersey and around the country are at once living in traditional print coverage news deserts and at the same time drowning in a flood of instant and around-the-clock digital media and information. And what is most troubling, whole communities — and the people that comprise them — are being left out.

The Rutgers researchers, in a soon-to-be-released report also funded by Dodge and Democracy Fund, examined the health of local news ecosystems in three New Jersey communities — Morristown, Newark and New Brunswick. What they found is stark, but not a surprise.

In one sample week, Morristown received 23 times more news stories per 10,000 residents than Newark, and New Brunswick received 9.3 times more news stories per 10,000 residents than Newark. (Look for the report in the coming months on Dodge’s Local News Lab, where we chronicle what we’re learning in our creative experiments in journalism sustainability.) These numbers raise important questions about the comparative breadth of local journalism in low, moderate and high socioeconomic communities.

The Pew and Rutgers research highlights what is a profound opportunity. To take full advantage of that hunger for news, journalists need to listen more deeply to their communities and engage them more fully in their work.

At Dodge we believe that trust and quality are measured best by the strength of the relationships news helps build, not just between journalists and residents but also between neighbors themselves who put news to use in improving their communities.