‘We’re rebuilding journalism and that’s not going to happen overnight,’ attendees of ISOJ research breakfast told

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  • April 17, 2023

By Sabrina Toppa

The April 15 research breakfast panel at ISOJ chaired by Dr. Cindy Royal (Texas State University) explored research on Canadian news startups, Mexican journalism networks and collectives, how journalists can meet the challenges of the current moment, and how journalists can engage the public to rebuild trust. 

The research was presented by Dr. Celeste González de Bustamante (UT Austin), Dr. Carrie Brown (Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, CUNY), Dr. Alfred Hermida (University of British Columbia), and Dr. Sue Robinson (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

González de Bustamante said that journalism collectives have materialized across Mexico to protect journalists working under difficult circumstances. She introduced the concept of a "double periphery," which describes the challenging conditions faced by journalists working on the margins of Mexico, where they encounter illicit activities, organized crime, economic hardship and political marginalization. 

This double periphery makes their work twice as hard and increases their vulnerability compared to journalists working in more central areas like Mexico City or other large cities, according to González de Bustamante. She pointed out that the Mexican example is “a warning to people working in the U.S.” who are not immune to similar challenges.

“Too many journalists have died, but journalism itself is not dead,” González de Bustamant said. Journalists are able to show resilience against violence by collectively and individually taking action and continuing to produce journalism and building journalism networks. 

“It's through these networks that they've managed to be resilient and stay alive,” she added. 

Her book, Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century, includes recommendations for improving the situation for journalists, such as strengthening journalism collectives, examining media ownership and addressing the lack of commitment from media owners in Mexico.

Hermida discussed how startups are generating a new ecosystem of journalists and journalism infrastructure in Canada. He pointed out there's been a shift away from mass media and toward nonprofit, mission-driven journalism serving specific communities. The builders of this new journalism ecosystem represent new demographics: 40% are non-journalists — citizens, activists, community leaders, and businessmen who sense a news desert for their particular communities.

Despite these trends, Hermida said Canada is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up the commercial decline and market failure of the country’s legacy media. The government has not yet extended financial support to the next wave of journalism at the grassroots level, which serves underrepresented communities. 

His research examined around 120 news organizations started since 2000 in Canada. He noted that most startups fail within one to three years, and Canada is home to one of the world’s most concentrated media systems. Despite this, the country is still producing dozens of new startups in the past 20 years, and many are still running despite financial stress.  

“The government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support the media, but the way that policy is structured benefits larger legacy media. There's very little that caters to small organizations trying to serve a specific community,” he said.

Revitalize the Canadian media landscape

Hermida said it’s important to revitalize the media landscape by giving space and funding to new media startups to thrive, given that they are creating the structures for the journalism of the next century. 

“We’re rebuilding journalism and that’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “Infrastructure always piggybacks on existing systems. There’s always winners and losers.” 

Brown, co-author of Transforming Newsrooms Connecting Organizational Culture, Strategy, and Innovation with Jonathan Groves, highlighted that their research was originally focused on how newsrooms were grappling with shifts in technology and business models, and provided a model for newsroom change guided by research from outside journalism. How could journalists change organizations and processes to meet the current moment? This includes evaluating culture, strategy, innovation and learning.

Brown said that the model for newsroom change can be applied to other changes that newsrooms are experiencing today, like challenges to objectivity, DEI, failing trust and failing democracy. 

“Your ideals are never going to match reality unless you are willing to deal with the messy, human stuff,” she said.

The book provides a practical road map and advice for news organizations looking to improve how they provide information to communities, as well as how they hope to collaborate with audiences. She cited the examples of City Bureau’s Documenters Network or Outlier Media as evidence of newsrooms with authentic engagement with communities. 

Brown also noted that trust is a long game and no academic research will show that journalism has solved all the issues around trust and credibility. However, she referred to the increased number of data-supported solutions, which the public can translate out of academic language and into more actionable steps.

Robinson’s presentation focused on how journalists can partner with local news organizations to reduce polarization. Her new book, How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care (slated to be published April 18) delved into building trust with communities and how journalists’ identities can shape trust-building. 

She explained that there are several ingredients to achieve trust: attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness and solidarity. Journalists must listen to all voices to build trust and move beyond stenography in reporting and writing. Newsrooms must also commit resources to engagement. 

She also discussed the trust-building theory, which involves journalists using an ethic of care to produce fact-based journalism, that it represents the industry’s first major paradigmatic shift in a century. 

“This new ethic of care thinks more specifically about individualized care and relationships,” Robinson said. “This new value system is underscoring a system of caregiving in a way that journalists would balk at.”

Brown pointed out that today newsrooms and journalism communities incentivize and reward impressing a boss, peers, or getting a prize, with journalists often saying, “I need to get this quote, I need to publish this story,” which points to a more transactional nature for relationships.

At the research breakfast, each academic was pressed for what they hoped professional journalists might take away from their research. González de Bustamante encouraged professionals to look at the existing academic research when reporting on violence against journalists, given that it is often overlooked by journalists and might provide useful lessons in other contexts.

Robinson said journalists often say “we wish we knew something about credibility and trust.” However, the academic research already has ideas and models for newsrooms struggling with building trust, fostering engagement and driving change. “People have been studying this for decades,” she said.

A journalist in the audience asked about collaborations in the media industry. González de Bustamante said Mexico’s nonprofit sector has seen some collaboration, with some journalism networks offering training and publishing their own stories as a new form of resistance and collaboration.

Finally, another audience member who taught media courses asked how to get students to design more realistic projects in their classrooms. Hermida recommended having students pursue the “minimum viable product.” 

“What’s the smallest thing you can do to test your idea?” he asked, saying it might be helpful to identify the smallest entry point, pinpointing the pain points and how to solve that particular issue.


Sabrina Toppa is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Atlantic, NBC News, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @SabrinaToppa.