This weekend, when the annual Fall Salon of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Washington DC was celebrating its 90th anniversary, I sat at the center of the aisles talking to new comrades about America’s spotty foreign news coverage.
Given that the meeting was co-sponsored by the State Department and the Trump Administration, these were the conversations, or the backdrop for them, that one might expect.
The best way to explain the state of the present, and the inevitable future, in journalism is to look at the past.
It was in the autumn of 2017, I remember, that I went to D.C. to observe the historic coverage of a Trump election victory – which at the time had suddenly brought a degree of unpredictability to that capital.
Ever since, journalism around the world has been experiencing wrenching disruption, many say unprecedented.
A defining journalism formula – citizen awareness, collaboration, participation – has become a new form of journalism.
What was extraordinary to me at that time, and it remains today, is the idea that in the 21st century, the most important human relationships, in some nations and languages, took place in front of closed-circuit television cameras, while much of the rest of the world – most notably, Europe – turned towards, not toward, direct and even more commonplace daily news reports.
One model of media disruption is the project on the Iranian website Hurriyet, a mirror of Iran’s Official Press Syndicate. Fariha Parsi and his brother Dajeya Parsi spent nearly a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars programming national, international and regional news stories to be shown on a channel that would be out of reach of the official Press Syndicate.
It is hailed as one of the world’s most progressive news outlets, growing into a 24/7 news network.
And when it took shape last fall, all of the staffs of CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Deutsche Welle, the BBC, and many more, handed over the content they’d sent out to Hurriyet to be streamed to the service for free by tens of thousands of Iranians.
In the same way, American Millennials created a network of writers who distributed their creativity through social media and shared it with a relatively large audience that existed outside the mainstream media, and even within that, their viewers came disproportionately from the Middle East.
The same was true on what are called “alt-left” sites, attracting — at times — huge audiences.
I myself started what might be called alternative right commentary, a side of talk radio that nonetheless largely went unheard by the major media.
In part, it was because this coverage was quickly the dominant mode of communication in the world of international relations, free from the constraints of government and official press.
But this kind of citizen journalism, which often does not start out as journalism – either that journalism is one of two distinct realities – and rather serves rather as an extension of the citizen’s will – also found its way to certain alternative sites that tackled geopolitics without government approval.
The great challenge for press freedom around the world today, I said, was “the end of an explicit and unchallenged role for the press to speak to, to represent and to influence the citizenry.”
That, perhaps more than any other, was the argument that I made to my new fellow hacks at the Fall Salon.
“The mainstream press,” I said, “has become increasingly constrained in its ability to be the only means of information and ideas to get across to people. Now, because of the rise of alternatives, we must find new ways to try to shape opinion and to motivate action.”
That is a more difficult challenge in some places and sometimes for some people than it is elsewhere. Those trying to serve the public interest are often called on to work outside their comfort zones. But there is nothing that sustains their mission like doing a good job and becoming one of the few; or the only – and maybe the only – sources of information.
That effort begins today. I am excited for a renewed world of American journalism. My new projects:
1. Building a network of podcasts whose subjects, genres and worldviews fit the particularities of the American experience.
2. Getting back to telling stories myself.
Joel Achenbach is the chief science correspondent for the Washington Post.