The "Special Case" of NEED Magazine

September 24, 2009

During the collapse of the journalism industry, I have rarely been surprised — and only occasionally truly saddend — by a newspaper going out of business.

It's not that I don't have empathy. I have worked briefly as a journalist, have a degree in journalism, and many of my professional heroes are journalists. I actually attribute most of humanity's advances in the last 100 years to communications infrastructure, particularly good journalism.

And still, I make a living with news. So, it's only with my teeth clenched that I can say, "we need this" and try to keep the longer view toward the 1500s, and the previous revolutions that fell out of Gutenberg's noodling with the press. Like Clay Shirky says. He's pretty blunt:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know if the old model is broken, what will work in its place? To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke. Clay Shirky in Thinking the Unthinkable

I agree with Shirky that this is an inevitable collapse of the old school. And I agree that our best option is to work as creatively as possible to get through it and find another way to make meaning, to build understanding, to be journalists.

The thing is, it's brutal. And it's not just print — all news costs money. Meaning-making takes energy. Real editors, real photographers, real writers. And, yes there is still the bottom line of printing. (Or, in my case, the expenses of wrangling servers.)

The collapse is even harder to accept if your family depends on a paycheck from your publisher. We want it to work, and we want to think it will be better soon.

But anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows the sucking sound that comes from the ad department. Most times the demanding economics ruin the possibility of doing quality work. You must write news that sells, which is typically not news that edifies, inspires or enlightens. It means that you end up writing stories about potholes on your street instead of international events. Because international events are, for most people, irrelevant, if not unreadable.

To some degree this gulf between "us" and "them" is understandable, or at least it has been until now. We do not want to pay for news that is not relevant to our own lives.

But relevance is, well, relative. Our sphere of influence has expanded dramatically with the internet, and with globalization. And today we live with an infrastructure that extends our relevance to millions of people that we do not know: this is the problem. We have not learned to care about things — people — that are in fact relevant now to our lives. We haven't learned to care about the people who make our socks, our bikes and our computers. We haven't learned to care about the people we influence with our policies and purchases. We are all bumping up against one another now, unwittingly.

And we haven't learned to pay for news about these people, other people.

This, I think, is understandable. That's the tragic part, I suppose: We are humans running on hardware that is incredibly out of date: the human brain. We have evolved, biologically and culturally, to get by, to survive, and to take care of our own. We now have influence that far exceed out capacity to understand. We experience sometimes deep existential disconnect from each other; there are simple too many "Others" to care about; we are atomized the most just when we are bumping into each other the hardest.

Even the concept of philanthropy, I would say, is in some way fundamentally inhuman in this sense. We were not born to care about others until we have taken care of our own.

But today buying articles about distant cultures is not about philanthropy. It's not even about being interested in other people.

That is, this is not an issue of being kind, or being well-mannered and cultured, it is actually essential for survival now — we must to understand these things, these Others. Homophily is not just a cultural phenomenon or academic observation — this problem is actually deadly. Just as previous generations were forced to adapt to environmental change and technological capacity.

As usual, Ethan Zuckerman writes about this best:

Understanding Iraqi attitudes towards a US occupying force and Shia/Sunni/Kurdish tensions better might have mitigated the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Understanding Chinese and Indian economic aspirations is probably a prerequisite to figuring out how to regulate carbon emissions while those nations embrace automobile ownership. And activists trying to change Chinese policy in Darfur would benefit from better understanding of Chinese pride, the concept of 'face' and the power of nationalism. - Ethan Z. in Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia

It's with this context that I am really sad to see that NEED magazine is very close to going out of business.

In 2006 I noted their premier issue and have been incredibly impressed by the work that they have done ever since. It's just an amazing, beautiful magazine about humanitarian work and the people involved on the ground.

Here's their two-sentence angle on the world:

NEED magazine is an artistic hope-filled publication focusing on life changing humanitarian efforts at home and abroad. We are not out to save the world, but to tell the stories of, and assist, those who are.NEED Magazine

If you have never seen it, you should check it out — it's the highest quality printing that you can get, with gigantic gorgeous photos of some truly incredible stories. A rare find.

So I was incredibly disappointed to get an email from them this morning explaining their difficulties with revenue, especially after they suffered a major break-in last year, that cost them nearly $250,000, I hear. It's a sad story, especially as we watch the last gasp of the newspaper industry, weakened by it's ad model, now totally broken by the freedom of the internet.

What should they do?

Who knows.

And, to their credit, they are soliciting opinions about what it is that we would actually pay for. I applaud their willingness to completely reevaluate their business model — take their new survey and tell them how they should start anew.

Go NEED. We trust you will be bold in your experiments.

At the end of his article, Shirky's pessimism is tempered by his observation that previously minor adjustments have proven to be groundbreaking: "nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments."

Tinkering works. If you do it enough. Hmph. OK.

Well, the conclusion is not optimistic, but it is liberating — we have the freedom to try many alternative models. We in fact must experiment and explore because anything we do can perhaps give us a window into some new way to make meaning that is relevant and readable. Even when people will no longer pay for news about international problems, there are ways to make these stories meaningful. Increasingly it becomes clearer that there is not one way, there are many ways, each appropriate to its community and its content.

These are the "special cases" that will make our patchwork understanding of the world.

Shirky again:

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.


This is not really about NEED or newspapers. It's about all of the amazing groups that are bringing empathy and challenging homophily on the web. For those of us in online news, we are all looking for the "special cases."

Meedan is exploring several special cases:

  • We take donations from funders
  • We translate existing commentary
  • We visualize, hack and aggregate content
  • We host cross-language discussions about the news

I think of these strategies, especially programmatic journalism (hack hack), as being temporary measures. In a country without farmland, you harvest dandelions from the side of the highway. You take what you can. Likewise, we are gleaners, making the most of the understanding that already exists. We just circulate it more widely with translation, bring it together in innovative ways with aggregation, and broadcast it more effectively with smart code.

More critically we talk about it in a wide-ranging discussion — we recoup some of our lost community of newspapers by building our own. This creates our own content and gives us a more natural connection to news that is otherwise incredibly far away. And, fittingly, we trample all over international borders as we do it.

These are some of our "special cases" where meaning making can actually work, even in a world where all information is free, and it's tough to make a living as a meaning-making journalist. We are finding, just a little bit at a time, the spaces where we can continue to promote empathy and community beyond the collapse of our traditional models.