The Age of Nano News and Why We Must Pay

03/25/2016 03:49 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2017

While Americans watch nightly cable coverage of the U.S. presidential race as if it's the only story worthy of attention, elsewhere, a world of news unfolds, ranging from unexpected cultural happenings to grisly assassinations.

This is the age of nano news--a time when great journalism from small news organizations is beating major media companies, that too often seem more intent on entertaining than informing. Some nano news outlets publish citizen journalism, others use donations and grants to fund professional news gathering operations. However, they all share a passion for in-depth stories.

Have you read about why Beijing is clamping down on the outspoken property mogul known as "China's Donald Trump"? Are you aware that Gambian journalist Alhagie Jobe was jailed, beaten, burned with cigarettes and suffocated for writing about a Gambian soldier who refused to take part in prisoner executions? Or that LaToya Jackson--sister of the late Michael Jackson--has a hit in Iran, singing a pop song in Persian about missing Tehran?

Such news is published at Global Voices--reporting little-covered stories since 2005, with the help of about 1,000 volunteers globally. Ethan Zuckerman co-founded the online outlet "to challenge outside, western interpretations and narratives about nations."

"Important countries like Nigeria are often invisible in the United States. In the average month, there are roughly eight times as many stories in American newspapers on Japan as on Nigeria, though Nigeria is a larger country. There's a systemic, pervasive bias that keeps us from paying close attention to poor nations," Zuckerman says.

Global Voices broadens its audience through partnerships with The Guardian, Deutsche Welle, Slate and many other media outlets. Zuckerman believes without citizen journalism we might never hear about such stories as "the killing of secular writers in Bangladesh, who are being killed by Islamic extremists with the apparent blessing of the government."

Echo Chamber

He may be right. Major news organizations have slashed coverage of foreign news. An American Journalism Review survey found that 18 newspapers and two newspaper chains closed all overseas bureaus between 1998 and 2010. Now, relying heavily on the Associated Press and Reuters for international coverage, many major news outlets sound like an echo chamber where only a few stories are covered.

If you're looking for in-depth investigative journalism, major media is rarely the place to go. Pew Research says that at local television news stations, less than 18 percent of stories are edited packages, or stories with significant reporting. Most local news comprises accidents, minor crimes and celebrity tittle tattle. Weather, sports and traffic take about a third of broadcast time.

National cable channels aren't much better. Flick between popular cable news channels on any evening and you'll likely see pundits of different political stripes shouting at each other about the same story. Perhaps that's why only 40 percent of Americans trust the mass media, according to Gallup.

That lack of trust in the media has prompted consumers to find sources of news they can trust. As a result, nano news outlets--often exploring niches such as politics, the environment or human rights--have sprouted up globally. Their common goal is making an impact--everything from fostering better understanding, challenging negative stereotypes to changing laws.

The category of nano news is not only for citizen journalism. It includes specialist news operations reporting serious, in-depth stories--from ProPublica to the Center for Public Integrity and the New Republic--that, like citizen journalists, rely on donations or grants.

Former Reuters journalist Jui Chakravorty founded b-yond tv--producing video stories about sociocultural trends that are advancing societies. She says nano news companies like hers add diverse voices that challenge stereotypes and shatter assumptions about "the other."

"Most (news) platforms cover the same stories, all feeding the 24-hour news cycle. Those stories ... repeatedly showcase certain aspects of societies, causing the unintended consequence of promoting stereotypes or narrowing the way in which foreign societies and cultures are perceived," Chakravorty says.

The Need to Pay

University of North Carolina journalism Professor Chris Roush says successful media firms founded in the past decade tend to cater to a specific niche. And, he says, citizen journalism will survive so long as it doesn't take sides: "As long as they remain objective, they will have a place at the media food trough."

In these digital times, we have grown used to getting content for free. However, quality reporting costs money to produce and news companies are struggling for funding. For example, The Nation has started a metered payment system where readers get six free stories monthly but then have to pay. Roush says, "If readers forget that content costs money to produce, then the world of journalism collapses."

Chakravorty says advertising isn't enough to sustain editorial independence. "This is where niche becomes important," she says. "There is growing evidence that if we create content that is unique and a voice that is sui generis, people are willing to pay for it. Still, it's an uphill battle."

Global Voices is funded by grants and it also makes a small profit from a translation agency it runs. Zuckerman would welcome reader donations too. "I think the right move is to encourage readers to fund the material they wish they were reading more of."

Whether it's a magazine like The Nation, long sustained by donations, or citizen journalism outfits such as Global Voices, we must get back into the habit of paying for the news we love. It's the only way we can guarantee that we'll continue to have the information we need.

Ehab Al Shihabi is an advisor to the Director General at Al Jazeera Media Network and an Edward R. Murrow Center Senior Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He writes about the media and the news industry and his opinions here are his and only his.