Platform for Issue Journalism

May 2019

The cover story on NYT today is headlined “Profitable Giants like Amazon Pay $0 in Taxes, and Voters are Sick of It”. Okay, cool, that sounds interesting. I would like for corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. I read the article, and there are many stories of laid-off workers, of political strategy, Democrat vs. Republican priorities, and how to defeat Trump in 2020. But what do I do about this issue? The main takeaway seems to be to vote for Sanders in 2020, or perhaps more immediately, to go donate to his campaign. But this is left as an exercise for the reader.

I think this is a problem. It seems like the goal of this article to is to get you to be vaguely informed, but we are in an information abundance age. Is this information useful to me? Does it connect me to my peers? How does it make me feel?

Also, suppose you really care about the unfairness of corporate taxation, or the plight of the Rohinga. How do you actually follow the story? Probably, the Gray Lady would like me to just read the paper cover to cover every day in the hopes of spotting stories I care about, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Stories about horrible tragedies, like the genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar, are are more extreme example of this problem. If you read such a story, the main takeaway seems to be “I feel terrible and the world is a terrible place.” There is rarely anything actionable to do after reading it, and if you really care there’s no good way to follow up or stay informed.

An Idea

What if all the news you read was oriented around action? For instance, if you care about corporate taxes, you can subscribe to the corporate taxes “issue”. The issue would only ever get updated if there’s a concrete action you can take on that issue, right at that moment. The issue would have moderators, and they would do the work of screening out potential actions. If they were convinced that an action is likely to make a dent in the issue, they would post it, and then you could participate right away.

This is a sort of news organization, but one with a very strong and clear editorial voice. However, I think this is fine – I think most people would prefer a strong and clear editorial voice to feigned objectivity. It’s also a little like a subreddit, except without random distractions, and maybe a more limited role for discussion.

My current project, Spaceship Earth, came out of this idea. I took a stab at trying to build the overall platform, but it was too big a project for me to tackle. Plus, when I reflected, I realized I would want to focus on the climate change issue anyway. Finally, Stacey and I had the additional insight that we don’t need to wait for new actions you could take on the issue – climate change already has a ton of actions you could take right now. Although, of course, for Spaceship Earth, we do plan to create “one-off” missions whenever something pops up, like a vote in congress, or in your state legislature. (We will need local moderators who can be on top of such developments).

I think someone should build this. It might well be me, if we manage to get Spaceship Earth up and running. But if you’re gonna build it and you want help, let me know!