Inform, not notify: the birth of participatory, ‘slow journalism’

In a digital world dominated by a few media conglomerates, start-up initiatives like The Charta and First Look in the US should be welcomed. Andy Piper

The digital era has led to increasing challenges for western and traditional news media business models. Media outlets are facing steady declines in revenue, while the migration of advertising online has brought limited success in “monetising” digital’s audiences. To make things worse, internet ads have progressively decreased in value in recent years.

The issue of how to fund quality journalism that would hold the government to account is a pressing one. As newsrooms continue to cut back, there is a real reduction in reporting capacity with profound effects on quality, investigative and exploratory journalism.

And yet, the last year has seen a quite hectic, energising movement of “digital journopreneurs”. Personal-brand journalists, digital entrepreneurs and investigative journalists have decided to embrace the capabilities of web technologies to launch a new wave of journalism platforms.

The rise of ‘journoprenuers’

In March, statistician and journalist Nate Silver launched his ESPN-backed FiveThirtyEight.com, a data blog that, by banking on Silver’s impressive record, will bet everything on a data-focused approach.

Silver is part of a wider movement of celebrity journalists who are migrating from mainstream press to digital start-ups. Ezra Klein left the Washington Post earlier this year for an initiative launched in April and backed by Vox Media, which promised to “explain the news” in a new revolutionary way by employing “next-generation technologies”.

The list could go on: there is also Jessica Lessin’s The Information and Pierre Omidyar‘s First Look featuring Glenn Greenwald. In February, First Look launched digital magazine/investigative site The Intercept.

These exciting ventures led New York Times media commentator David Carr to declare the birth of a new start-up digital journalism bubble.

These projects have three elements in common. They have been launched or backed by “new media” celebrities, are mostly US-based and are funded either by philanthropists or by established technology companies.

Their success will obviously be dependent not just on their economic sustainability, but also on their ability to offer what the so-called “legacy media” outlets – which are maintaining their dominance in the online world – are not able to provide.

Not just an American trend

On the other side of the Atlantic, a London-based journalism start-up known as The Charta has just launched a campaign for funding via crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

The Charta invites its future audience to believe in two things. Firstly, that real journalism, as opposed to fast–churned storytelling, needs time for reflection, investigation and understanding. Secondly, that if we want quality journalism we simply have fund it and participate in shaping it.

The Charta has a clear goal: “to inform, not notify”. The platform was certainly inspired by the success of De Correspondent, a Dutch-language online journalism venture offering background, analysis and investigative reporting, which raised over one million euros through crowdfunding.

For its focus on long-term investigations and slow-paced news reporting, The Charta has already been acclaimed by the founder of the “slow” movement in journalism, Carl Honoré:

The best way to make sense of our fast world is to slow down the news. The Charta will do just that by taking the time to think, understand and explain. In a world ravaged by fast news that’s just what the doctor ordered.

The idea of committing not only to economically support a new journalism venture, but to participate in its development is reminiscent of the great Danish philosopher and educator Grundtvig, who believed that becoming a citizen was a matter of choice. One could choose to join or to remain outside a state but choosing to join the state meant accepting certain obligations.

Supporting The Charta reflects a belief that quality journalism needs resources, time and reflection, things that are often missing in contemporary fast-paced reporting. It also means that people are prepared to contribute to the direction of a platform that we see as a service to the public.

This could be called participatory, slow journalism. The Charta concept is ambitious and because it’s not launched by star journalists and not backed by famous philanthropists, it needs the support of “active citizens”.

To borrow the words that journalist Paul Bradshaw used to describe his crowdsourcing reporting project, Help Me Investigate:

Journalism is about more than just ‘telling a story’; it is about enlightening, empowering and making a positive difference. And the web offers enormous potential here – but users must be involved in the process and have ownership of the agenda.

In a digital world dominated by a few media conglomerates, initiatives like The Charta and those in the US should be welcomed and encouraged. And this time it is the people – not just a few, illuminated philanthropists – who can make a difference.


The author’s disclosure statement has been updated since publication.

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