We celebrate America’s birth on July 4. But 238 years after the Declaration of Independence, our democracy, like any living thing, still needs care and feeding. Part of that responsibility falls to journalists, and this Editor's Weekly often focuses on our role. But there’s more to the news ecosystem than professional journalists.
July 4 is an apt time to recognize the importance of citizens who play a direct role in reporting, disseminating and discussing news -- especially so in the digital age. Two local websites offer prime examples. If you have other favorites, please share them in the comment section below.
If you’re a Missouri political insider, you already know about johncombest.com. As a labor of love (yes, he earns no money for his efforts), John Combest each day compiles links to political coverage from across the state. His presentation is plain – just blue sentences on a page – yet supremely functional.
Combest is a Republican, but the site is not organized to advance a partisan agenda. Rather, it’s a quick way to get up to speed on the latest in Missouri politics, issues and related developments. He sometimes rewrites headlines to add his own perspective on the story. But he respects the depth of knowledge in his audience and knows that most regulars don’t need a long explanation to determine if they’re interested in clicking on the links.
At St. Louis Public Radio, we see the impact of Combest’s efforts in our own traffic patterns. Many people come to our political stories by clicking on a link from johncombest.com. We appreciate the traffic and we appreciate Combest for doing his part to keep people well informed.
Alex Ihnen, the owner and editor of nextSTL.com, has a journalism degree but his site is not his main job. NextSTL features reporting, commentary and discussion on various urban issues, especially development, preservation and transportation. Along with Michael Allen’s Ecology of Absence, NextSTL is a key way people connect around these issues.
On the site, Ihnen explains his motivation this way: “More important than any stance on a particular issue is that people are attentive to the choices before us and how we can build a more livable future for our neighborhoods and cities. Too few of us are engaged in our communities, and this neglect has led to much of what we now dislike about our towns and cities. Because of this, those who choose to become engaged can and will have substantial influence.”
Combest and Ihnen take different approaches to their work – Combest as a broker of others’ coverage and Ihnen as a more overtly provocative instigator of discussion. Yet both play crucial roles in focusing public attention on significant issues. In smaller ways, you as an individual citizen do the same thing every time you share reporting or opinions on a topic you find interesting. Increasingly, studies show, news reaches people online not because they regularly check in with news websites but because word spreads on Facebook, Twitter, email or through other personal connections.
At St. Louis Public Radio, we take seriously our role in the care and feeding of our democracy. We focus on news that matters. We reflect many perspectives in our reporting. We hold ourselves to high standards of fairness and depth so we can learn from and inform people about our region's intertwined challenges and opportunities. On this Fourth of July, we salute citizens whose roles in the news ecosystem are also vital and increasingly important.