The Banyan Project expects that people from all walks of life will read the journalism produced by its affiliated news co-ops, but Banyan’s distinctive approach to community journalism will focus coverage on the needs of America’s everyday citizens -– the half of the population who are neither affluent nor poverty-stricken, the people we call the Banyan Public.
The Banyan Public, people who tend to live in households with incomes of $30,000 to $75,000, are the bread and butter of American life. They play a major role in the civic, political and economic vitality of their communities and their nation—85 percent are registered to vote and 82 percent voted in the 2008 general election.
This huge public has the dual misfortunes of suffering the worst blows from the Great Recession and, at the same time, being abandoned by crumbling newspapers that cut costs by eliminating coverage that doesn’t serve the distinctive needs of people who can afford to patronize upscale advertisers. To date, online journalism offers the Banyan Public very little—its heavy traffic is largely by and for the rarefied culture of political and policy junkies.
Newspapers now aim at an audience heavy with professionals and executives, but members of the Banyan Public are likelier to be hourly wage earners or solo contractors and others who are self-employed, people who do much of their shopping at discounters that rarely advertise. They fall roughly within the third to seventh deciles of the household income distribution; not many have much money to invest and the bulk of the 50 million Americans without health insurance are in this group. They hunger for useful and trustworthy information that’s relevant to the particular life and citizenship decisions they face, but it grows ever more scarce in a challenging time when the need is great.
“The coverage that is serious doesn’t connect with them,” says Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts professor of journalism and a member of the Banyan Board of Advisers. “The coverage that does connect with them isn’t serious.”
Today’s metro dailies appeal to the affluent with health sections for people with medical insurance, personal finance features that focus on investing, and pages or sections on home design, gourmet food and wine—which are of dubious use to people whose spending decisions are likelier to focus on paying off credit card debt.
This trend began well before the recession accelerated the crumbling of newspapers, which have historically provided almost all quality journalism. Since the 1970s newspapers, in response to their advertisers’ needs, have increasingly aimed to serve the needs of the affluent and the trend has been accelerated as their business model has weakened.
Clay Shirky, a leading voice in the future-of-journalism discourse, emphasizes the question of how future journalism will serve average people.
“People like me are never going to be ill served in an information rich environment,” Shirky told an interviewer after a 2009 appearance at Yale University. The real question in a democracy, he said, is whether citizens will have what Alex Jones of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School calls accountability journalism—“journalism that keeps their town, their region, their state operating in relatively efficient, relatively responsive, and relatively non-corrupt ways.” He added, “What happens to the elite class of info-vores, although it gets a lot of obsessive attention, is never going to be a problem.”
The reason Banyan-supported journalism will have to be original, and not aggregated from existing sources, is that no existing quality news organization covers the news, or writes features, in ways that aim to be relevant to the concerns of the less-than-affluent.
The extraordinary degree of engagement that participatory journalism inspires among its habitués amounts to a continual digital town meeting. It is exemplary direct democracy -– up to a point. The difference is that in traditional New England town meetings, all adult residents of a town, no matter their skill set, can take part if they choose; today’s participatory journalism is theoretically open to everyone, but in reality only a minority with certain skills and inclinations tends to take part.
We do know that worries about the extent of the digital divide have faded significantly, and will continue to fade. But Web-based journalism has a marked participatory divide, so thinking about new journalistic institutions in the light of democracy’s needs demands a clear understanding of who is inside the participatory community and who is outside—and where those on the outside land on the continuum from uninterested to passive to engaged almost enough to participate. The sociologist Herbert J. Gans, writing in Daedalus, breaks the news-consuming public down into three groups: 1) Monitors, which is most people; 2) news buffs, and 3) occupational news users. Maximizing participation in Banyan-supported civic space will require inspiring monitors to become participants; this will require optimizing Banyan’s journalism and civic networking software to meet this aim.