On September 15, United Nations member states will observe the International Day of Democracy, first celebrated in 2008 to examine and strengthen democracy across the globe.
Early this year, Rachel Glickhouse wondered: How could journalists better cover the current threats to democracy? Ultimately, her Twitter thread led to U.S. Democracy Day, a new effort wherein journalists in newsrooms across the country can improve the public’s understanding of democracy by collectively publishing related content.
For this week’s Q&A, we spoke with Glickhouse about the origins of U.S. Democracy Day, how newsrooms can participate, and misconceptions about democracy and objectivity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did this idea come about?
In January of this year, I tweeted about democracy and where the U.S. seems to be heading and some ideas that I had about how the media could be better involved and better cover what was happening. I suggested something like, “Well, what if we had a democracy day where every newsroom — or as many newsrooms as we could get — came together and published stories about threats to democracy?”
After that, a couple of people reached out to me and were like, “Hey, why don’t we actually do this?” Those are the three people listed on the site: Stefanie Murray at the Center for Cooperative Media, Bridget Thoreson at the Institute for Nonprofit News, and Jennifer Brandel from Hearken.
We just started talking and were like, “How can we make this happen, even if it’s just on a shoestring and we’re doing it in our spare time?” Which, for most of the first couple of months, we were just doing it in our spare time.
Eventually, Stefanie and her team — which is mostly her and Joe Amditis at the Center for Cooperative Media — started taking on more of the heavy lifting in terms of hosting a place for the project to live, which was super generous of them. They’ve been doing a little bit more of the logistical work, they host the website and do social media.
As we started meeting, we figured out a simple way to get people to sign up who were interested, including people who wanted to be on our organizers committee. We have a group of folks who are helping with designing the content on the site and also helping us recruit. This committee of folks are on an email chain and come to monthly and bimonthly meetings to help us move this project forward.
We’re hoping to basically test this concept out this year, and then try to scale up in 2023 and 2024. This year is sort of our test run — we’ll see how many folks we can get to join. Right now, we have more than 300 newsrooms that are signed up to participate, including some freelancers. So, the idea is: Let’s just try it and see if we can do it.
The ask is not very complex — we’re asking you to publish content that you probably are already working on, but to publish it on a specific day so that we can bring visibility to what we’re all doing by publishing in acollective fashion. It really was just an idea that I threw out into the universe and a bunch of people were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
What would you tell organizations or individuals who want to join but are worried about appearing biased?
This is something that I have been concerned with from the very beginning — about whether or not this idea would be viable — because I know how sensitive newsrooms, particularly legacy ones, are about this. I’m always that person who is trying to figure out how we can frame things to make sure that we don’t scare people away because I think this project is a no-brainer for every newsroom to participate in.
To me, and this is the way I hope newsrooms can see it, is that we literally cannot do our jobs if democracy does not function anymore. Democracy is a requirement for journalism to exist and for journalists to be able to do their jobs effectively.
I did a lightning talk about the project and recruitment at the Collaborative Journalism Summit in May and that’s what I tried to hit home. In other countries where a democracy has been eroded or failed, journalists are constantly targeted and unable to do their jobs, or their jobs are severely hampered by the restrictions that are put in place.
I’m hoping we can get that across to folks as we’re recruiting. This is not a partisan issue, this is an issue that affects the existence of your job and the ability to do your job in the future. The slight challenge there is that the concept is quite foreign to some folks because it’s a hypothetical thing that hasn’t existed in most folks’ lifetimes.
Some people have dealt with lawsuits, but the concept of a government being so oppressive that it makes journalism difficult doesn’t register with folks who may not have that in their life experience. I understand that, which is why I’m hoping that over the course of these three years we can get that concept across.
There’s been things written about how the word democracy has actually become a partisan term and there have been a couple of stories I’ve read recently about how Republicans have been avoiding using that term or have purposely used that term to make it associated with Democrats, that any demands or calls about saving democracy are somehow partisan.
So, I think that is definitely a challenge but I think the idea here is that this cannot be a partisan issue because we literally need it to exist as an industry.
To be honest with you, stories about elections and access to voting, as you know, are kind of a no-brainer for this particular year. If you want to participate in this project in 2022 and you want to be straightforward with the content, that is the easiest route to go, because voting access is a democracy issue.
I hate to sound so fatalistic and dark, but it’s going to be very difficult for the industry to exist and to do our jobs effectively if we have real democratic backsliding. I’m hoping folks will really think about what issues are important to their communities in the country and think about the kind of coverage they want to do, then be motivated to participate because they understand that this is an issue that affects them.
What does success look like to you, leading up to 2024 elections and beyond?
Success to me is getting as many newsrooms as possible to participate every time we run this project and to see how many people we can collectively reach through those participants. The real goals behind this are one, visibility and two, to do something collectively. So the more people we can have as a part of that collective, the more potential impact we can have.
In any kind of collaborative project, we’re also always hoping to have stories produced that lead to some kind of impact, even if that is relatively small. Changing laws or leading to any kind of change at a micro or macro level is great.
Beyond 2024, I want to get newsrooms on board with the concept that democracy cannot be a partisan issue. I think that’s a little bit harder to measure but we’re already starting to see that a bit because there are democracy desks getting set up at most of the major newspapers and some of the major wire services.
It’s heartening and disheartening at the same time because of the necessity for it. In 2024, there could be a worst case scenario if the election is contested and we have a situation where things don’t run as they usually run. That could happen. It’s not in our control as journalists, but we can control how we cover it — collectively and individually within newsrooms.
In terms of the project itself, what we really want to do is get as many people on board as possible and then reach as many people as possible, particularly folks who might not be your regular Washington Post readers, for example. We want to reach people in communities all over the country who might not understand the severity of this issue or the risk that is posed.
Is there anything else our readers should know?
We had a webinar in July with Michael Bolden from the American Press Institute and Jay Rosen that’s up on our page. We’re hoping to do more of that kind of thing as we continue the project to get people excited and inspired and bring people together so this isn’t just an asynchronous type of project.
We’re also working on a partnership with MuckRock that we’re going to try to kick off before September 15. I’m hoping we can do even more in the coming years to help folks do some really robust reporting with records, so we’re really grateful to them that they they came to us and said, “Hey, we’d love to work on this with you and help the partners with records requests because I think we could get some really incredible stories by helping folks with that.”
We’re also going to try to put together the lessons we learned from this year and package that to make it public. Then we’ll have, probably before the end of this year, a plan in place for what 2023 will look like. We’re really hoping to get some funding and really scale up so we can do more things, be more interactive, and have more human resources to recruit folks.
We have truly done this on a shoestring, so it’s a testament to all of the incredible people who are working on this that we have gotten this group of people to join.
This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.