Perhaps the biggest news story in American journalism so far this year is the huge infusion of cash it has received, more than half a billion dollars, from American tech leaders. Founders of eBay, Amazon, and Facebook are among a growing group of tech entrepreneurs who want to build a bright new future for American media, and they are putting their minds—and their checkbooks—to the challenge. Pierre Omidyar’s $250 million investment in a new digital media company came on the heels of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post for a similar amount. Their goal? To overhaul the business model—and the focus—of our fourth estate.
This is tremendously good news, not only for the future of journalism but for the lives and hopes of those Americans who stand to benefit most from its renaissance: our nation’s vulnerable children, adults, and families trapped in cycles of poverty, violence, and crime.
Traditional media has largely failed to turn its attention to stories about our most at-risk citizens and the social service systems in which so many of them are inextricably enmeshed. Stories on the justice system tend to focus on sensational—and rare—crimes or the partisan politicking of lawmakers. Stories about child welfare emphasize headline-grabbing, statistically unusual tragedies. We seldom hear about the large-scale problems that damage the lives of so many and the failures of our systems to effectively come to their aid.
The dearth of reporting on what is broken in these systems has measurable effects on our policies and, more important, on us. One result? Our rate of incarceration is the highest in the world, our prisons crowded with people. And overwhelmingly, the communities who suffer the most are those who are the most vulnerable and voiceless.
What we read in the papers and online matters to us. It motivates our conversations, our spending, and our voting. And what matters to us matters to our policymakers. The media is a critical link in the chain that connects constituent to representative to lasting social change.
Stories that engage the public around the need for systemic change for Americans at risk require the kind of journalistic investment that visionaries such as Omidyar and Bezos have declared they want to support. They include objective examinations of root causes. They also necessitate an honest look at the power imbalances that serve a few while simultaneously destroying entire communities, generation after generation.
These new media ventures should support journalists such as Shane Bauer, who has used the lens of his own imprisonment to expose inhumane conditions in California prisons. They should look to rarities such as Crosscut’s series “Kids at Risk,” which illustrates Washington’s foster care system, or the standout San Francisco Chronicle and KQED multimedia collaboration “Even Odds,” on the perilousness of being a black male in Oakland.
As these journalists know, visiting the dark corners where our most vulnerable are forced to dwell is uncomfortable. But behind the doors of prisons and juvenile halls, in the rooms of foster care group homes, are people who need us. And for the public to hear their voices, we need courageous leaders in the media who are willing to illuminate not only the deep problems of these systems but also the hope and opportunity that lies in fixing them.
Tech leaders changed how we work, play, and live by taking risks and tackling the big questions. Many have become philanthropic leaders in much the same way. Now, as they enter the fourth estate and seek its reinvention, I implore them: be bold. Do not shy away from addressing the deep, fundamental problems in our society. Take a risk. As Omidyar rightly said, “I believe deeply in the role of journalism in democracy. It is absolutely critical that we have journalists holding government to account, bringing attention to stories that may be overlooked.” I challenge these innovators to include in that reinvention an explicit dedication to journalism that looks critically at our justice and child welfare systems and elevates the experiences of those whom these systems are designed to protect.