It’s time for an information hierarchy of needs.

By Harry Backlund

The original information hub: a community bulletin board. (Photo: Darron Fick/Flickr)

The original information hub: a community bulletin board. (Photo: Darron Fick/Flickr)

The ideas here were developed in conversation with Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, Courtney Hurtt of WDET, Eve Pearlman and Adriana Garcia of Spaceship Media, Mike Rispoli of the News Voices Project of Free Press and Bettina Chang and Darryl Holliday of City Bureau.

Journalists are used to reporting on inequity as a social phenomenon, but rarely do they harness information as a tool for those directly affected by it. Why?

Last summer about a dozen journalists from across the U.S. gathered in Detroit for an informal meeting. We wanted to discuss shared themes in our work that didn’t square with common  assumptions about journalism. All of us were wrestling with a version of that question—either working to serve specific communities that had been failed by traditional journalism models, or working to change the way journalism organizations operated to be more democratic and accessible. That meeting spun into a series of ongoing calls and conversations between several organizations about how to talk about and evaluate our work. 

Those talks led us to an image that has shifted how we think about our work at City Bureau and the work of our colleagues. We called it “the information pyramid.” The image comes from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory of human development that says—briefly—that fundamental human needs like food, water, shelter and safety have to be met before we can focus on “higher” needs like relationships, social prestige and transcendent experiences. What if journalists thought about a community’s information needs in a similar framework and prioritized our work accordingly?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

There are a lot of ways we could visually represent information needs, but for simplicity let’s stick with Maslow and use a pyramid. At the foundation is information that has to circulate in a community for people to live: how to find housing, food, shelter, transportation and economic opportunity. In the middle of the pyramid is media that helps people and communities connect (like events calendars, school news and obituaries) and understand each other, as the best human interest stories can. At the top of the pyramid is information that appeals to more abstract desires and makes us feel engaged, intrigued or involved. Often these are stories about someone else’s needs. Pretty much all narrative storytelling, investigation and political analysis goes here—most of what we typically think of when we say “journalism.” 

This wasn’t a particularly sophisticated exercise, but that’s kind of the point: even a napkin-sketch is enough to demonstrate that a structural approach to community information needs is a profoundly new idea for journalism. That should make us think long and hard, since structuring information is our job, and because our failure to address fundamental human needs has real consequences.

Notes from a City Bureau Fellowship brainstorming session

Notes from a City Bureau Fellowship brainstorming session

One of the first things we noticed in sketching the information pyramid is that our priorities seem wildly out of balance: a huge amount of journalistic resources go into the top of the pyramid to serve the abstract needs of a comfortable few, completely passing over the basic information needs of a great many. Journalists routinely cover inequity as an abstract phenomenon that can be observed and remarked upon from afar, but it’s a rare media organization that would produce a guide for navigating rural poverty, or managing an opioid addiction, or handling your lease when you’re getting gentrified out of your neighborhood.

Where journalists are paying attention to concrete impact, it’s mostly understood in terms of political changes, putting focus on legislation, policy and elections. These things matter, for sure, but they are abstract—something we engage with only when we have the time to think past our basic needs. Yes, democracy dies in darkness. But so do people. Which are we prioritizing?

It’s not that journalists don’t know how to provide actionable information; we do this all the time, just only for certain people. In the era of paid-referral links, many of our most respected news sources have put journalists to work on a kind of information-concierge service for the consumer class, offering detailed recommendations for the best standing desks and smart-home appliances, but little health advice for those who work all day on their feet or juggle bills to make rent. We hear a chorus of hot tips for “smarter living,” and near silence on how to survive in America. The economist James Hamilton put it well in a panel at ONA last year, “There is no Wirecutter for the poor.”

The economic underpinnings of this problem deserve their own analysis, but it’s worth noting that a structural approach to information needs would do a lot to address the backwards ways our economy funds local media. This framework could help nonprofit media outlets—and the foundations that support our work—ensure we’re correcting real market failures instead of underwriting media that only satisfies the abstract needs of a few. And, it could bolster the idea of using tax dollars to fund certain information needs because, after all, we already do this on a massive scale. Think: public information officers, librarians, city bus schedules, 311, the school lunch menu.

There’s a lot of work to do on the idea of a hierarchy of information needs; the first step is recognizing that we desperately need one, that the economic crisis in journalism is also an ethical and existential crisis for journalists that should cause us to rethink what we do at the deepest levels. 

Journalists have a huge amount of power to control the flow of information and shape public narratives, yet we have no structure with which to make sense of that power or let others hold us accountable. And we can’t claim to address the civic needs of a democracy if we have no strategy for meeting the basic information needs of those who live in it.

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