Grassroots democracy requires attentive local media

Next week I will be among the 200 or so people who will meet in Silicon Valley for the New Tools 2008 conference meant to foster “innovation, democracy and a new ecology of news.”

My first assignment for that event is to introduce fellow participant Tom Stites, who interviewed me as well. This is a great gimmick to warm up any group — have participants to question and introduce each other. Stites and I spoke via cell phone. I sat in a coffee shop on San Francisco’s Market Street while he popped in and out of the coverage zone while his wife them to a family event back East.

Tom Stites is a gray hair with a passion for democracy and a fear that weak mass media coverage isn’t giving Americans the news they need to grab the levers of power. News media should establish the factual outlines of public debates so the participants can argue over what matters. But, he said, “News seems to have forgotten that. It’s all talk, talk, talk, talk.”

He recalled a 20 year old story that struck him as an exemplar of journalism that did the job. Wall Street Journal reporters Daniel Hertzberg and James B. Stewart unraveled the October 19, 1987 stock market crash in a story that won them 1988 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Only professional journalism can develop that sort of baseline information. Bloggers and citizen media just don’t have the time or clout. And it is only with accurate understandings that citizens can hope to control their increasingly complex world.

“I am a democracy nut,” Stites said. “And I am worried that there are vast anti-democratic forces gaining ground everywhere.”

So what will this conference do to counter that drift and what will Stites bring to the party? Well, there will be be plenty of “talk, talk talk.” Shame on my irreverent-self for injecting that self-deflating levity. More seriously the conference will bring together reformers who want to use the democratizing technologies of social networking, group voting, easy-to-make-media and the global publishing to rebuild the news ecosystem — and the democratic muscle which it empowers.

Toward these ends Stites will bring what he calls “an entrepreneuriall DNA that has been a curse and a blessing” because it has made him want to tinker with systems that his bosses thought worked just swell because the media made money.

Nowadays every part of media is broken from the pathetic performance of the press in regurgitating the lies about WMDs to the layoffs that make employed professionals like me watch their pennies and perhaps their mouths for fear of being swept up in the newsroom layoffs.

In the face of such gloom Stites will bring his problem-solving attitude and experience. “I’m an inventive guy,” he said. “I find new and better ways to do everything.” And he will also bring an optimism that sees past the current malaise toward a better and more informative media. “What I am hoping is that there will be a significant not-for-profit journalism enterprise,” said Stites, who has plans along those lines.

So there’s a snapshot of one would-be change agent. I’ll have more to say in advance of the conference. I’ve been recharging my batteries and rebuilding my finances after a pretty intense period of blog-writing in which I attacked Orthodox Journalism and proposed, in a four-part series (starting here), how to reform corporate media.

It will be energizing to connect with Stites and others of similar intent. What I’m learning about new media is that it’s not about who doesn’t listen. The mass is inert. Change is about those who do listen, who find each other and who can suppress their ego and self-interest so as to act together toward their common goals.