[A version of this essay was delivered as the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India, March 18, 2010.]
There is considerable attention paid in the United States to the collapse of journalism — both in terms of the demise of the business model for corporate commercial news media, and the evermore superficial, shallow, and senseless content that is inadequate for citizens concerned with self-governance. This collapse is part of larger crises in the political and economic spheres, crises rooted in the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. New journalistic vehicles for storytelling are desperately needed.
There has been far less discussion of the need for a journalism of collapse — the challenge to tell the story of a world facing multiple crises in the realms of social justice and sustainability. This collapse of the basic political and economic systems of the modern world, with dramatic consequences on the human and ecological fronts, demands not only new storytelling vehicles but a new story.
In this essay I want to review the failure of existing systems and suggest ideas for how to think about something radically different, through the lens of journalists’ work. The phrase “how to think about” should not be interpreted to mean “provide a well-developed plan for”; I don’t have magical answers to these difficult questions, and neither does anyone else. The first task is to face the fact that every problem we encounter does not necessarily have a solution that we can identify, or even imagine, in the moment; that identifying how existing systems have failed does not guarantee we have the capacity to devise new systems that will succeed.