Information is the lifeblood of democracy.
When voters don’t know what’s going on in their community or why, important issues go ignored. People then vent their frustration, unaware of the root causes of these problems and unable to fix them. Moments of annoyance build up into a feeling that representative democratic institutions are either powerless or else simply unwilling to address their concerns. Eventually, those feelings boil over into tumult with unpredictable consequences, such as Donald Trump becoming President or Britain voting to leave the European Union. Or worse.
In Grapes of Wrath there’s a telling and powerful vignette where the sharecropper farmers in the process of being dispossessed challenge the tractor driver paving over their farms. The driver insists that he’s just doing his job, just like his boss, and his boss’ boss, so the farmers plaintively ask, “Where does it stop? Who can we shoot?”
We might wish for less violent language than the angry Okie farmers but the outcry echoes down today. It’s commuters dealing with traffic and subway delays, students watching college tuition climb and climb with no end in sight and factory workers who lost their jobs and don’t see hope. All of them ask: whom can we blame?
Far too often, the media abdicates its duty to be a truth-teller, and chases the ratings point or click over the substance of the issue. Too many news stories pick up the low-hanging fruit of he-said-she-said politics, reporting on what political leaders are saying without explaining the underlying context. Reading the daily political news provides limited information about the issues, why elected officials are advocating the policies they are, how those policies affect communities, and whether those policies are likely to be effective. Reporters often know many of these answers but for reasons of space, the difficulty of writing those more complicated stories, or a lack of widespread audience compared to more celebrity-style news, ordinary citizens are left uninformed. ShakingNews will not shy away from the difficult topics. Instead we’ll embrace them.
In national politics, the blogosphere led to the rise of “explanatory journalism.” Championed by Nate Silver with FiveThirtyEight, Ezra Klein’s Vox, and Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, there are new opportunities to share knowledge thanks to the internet. And they are attracting supportive audiences. Talking Points Memo as well as a wide array of other ventures including the Texas Tribune, and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, and multiple podcasting networks earn their keep in part or entirely on reader donations and subscriptions.
But while those advances have transformed national news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post, state and local news has not felt its effects to any great degree. That’s where ShakingNews will find its voice, in the local space.
Right now people find out about their elected officials from a diminished local press. One or two articles a day cannot possibly sum up what government is doing and why.
The void leaves individuals encountering policy only from the myopic perspective of personal experience. How does the MTA affect them? Why do students spend so much time taking seemingly meaningless tests? Witnessing problems with hospitals or the subway doesn’t explain why those issues exist or the trade-offs between different potential solutions.
This moment calls for a new kind of news organization, one dedicated to not just reporting on the news but also explaining it, one that makes clear how the news impacts the audience, one that brings new voices and perspectives to the fore, rather than just covering elite opinion.
That is ShakingNews.
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