Whenever I am asked why I decided to become a journalist, an image from my childhood pops into my head. It’s dusk. I am 10, sitting in the kitchen with my mom. She is glued to a shortwave radio. Outside, the Soviet Union is on a cusp of collapse. Georgia, where we are, is on the brink of a civil war. We don’t use the term, but fake news is all that we get at home through common channels. That makes the real news — coming from the West — a lifeline. I am in awe of the crackling radio that has my mother’s full attention; I want to become that voice.

That was my very first insight into a lesson I’d learn again and again in my life: Good journalism is vital for people who need it.

The world has changed a lot since I sat in that kitchen. The Iron Curtain no longer divides geographies, but its digital successor cuts straight through our communities, polarizing us from within. From Manila to Minneapolis, societies are divided on many of the same issues: changing identities, economic inequity, climate change and lack of reckoning over past injustices, to name just a few. Modern-day authoritarians no longer need to jam shortwave radio signals or shut down journalism organizations (although plenty of them still do). Instead, they flood our digital information systems.

From Budapest to Washington D.C., rising authoritarian populists now share a playbook of digital, legal and narrative tools that they use to manipulate and abuse people’s legitimate grievances. At the heart of their strategy is the same age-old quest for money and power, but their tactics are new, often innovative and designed to confuse, distract and sow doubt. Noise, not just fake news, is the greatest weapon in their arsenal.

Journalism’s existential quagmire

For journalism, this new political reality spells an existential quagmire. Today, a journalist’s ability to grab attention, get through the wall of censorship and deliver vital information that helps people navigate their complex reality is more important than ever. But in our world of algorithmic flooding, where so many are overloaded to the point of zoning out of the news, it’s also becoming an almost impossible role to fulfill.

In the summer of 2024, I arrived at Stanford to take up John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship, convinced that in our digital information era, noise had become the new censorship, and that it was existentially important for journalists to figure out how to punch through the noise and focus people’s attention on stories that matter.

The question of how journalists can be part of the solution instead of complicit in the flooding of information has preoccupied me for years.

My career as a BBC foreign correspondent began with a freelancing gig in West Africa in 2000. By then in the United States, cable news had already created a demand for more content over better stories. But the British broadcaster’s 24-hour news channel was only three years old, and most correspondents in the field were left to focus on stories they published in regularly programmed bulletins, rather than constant live updates.

A few years later, as I became a staff reporter, that dynamic began to change: More media organizations went online and social media entered the scene. Lured by the new horizons of unprecedented, seemingly limitless reach, media companies, including the BBC, jumped on the bandwagon. By 2014, social media emerged as a key distribution platform for all information, including news.

As I went back and forth between covering the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen and the war in eastern Ukraine, my editors started asking me to do regular Facebook Lives along with the rest of the field reporting. Like many of my colleagues, I grumbled. Not because of the extra work, but because the effort inevitably took away from the actual job: talking to real people, finding sources, getting information that those in power were trying to hide and putting stories together in a way that respected their complexity while making them easily accessible to the wide audience.

But what we reporters wanted didn’t matter. Human information consumption habits were changing. The distribution channels most of our audiences were migrating to were not designed for complexity and nuance.

I left the BBC because I felt that as a journalist I was no longer effective. I could no longer fulfill that role that I saw on display in my childhood kitchen. The stories I was doing were being stripped of impact, not because they were not important, but because they were competing for dwindling attention spans with everything else in the digital world. Because they no longer lived in the context of an editorial flow or a news program but had instead followed audiences to the bottomless pit of internet algorithms.

Coda: Connecting the dots

But what if there was a better way of using the internet? The BBC, along with the rest of the mainstream media, I thought, was too focused on feeding incremental pieces to its 24-hour news channels and their hyperactive social media platform cousins. I wanted to connect the dots and explain why things mattered, and I wanted to figure out how to use technology to create sustained narratives, to break away from incrementalism, to show context, complexity and nuance that people need to understand the world they live in.

My research showed that audiences wanted that too, and that led to creating Coda Story, a newsroom that focuses on reporting the roots of global crises and connects the dots between local communities and global trends. Coda launched in 2017 as a crowdfunded reporting project and by 2022, it was a bustling newsroom, with a bunch of awards in the bag, a loyal audience, an impressive portfolio of mainstream media partners and a unique thematic approach that was designed to create context and continuity. Our editorial model rejected the noise, focusing on the “why” and “how” instead of “what” and “when.”

We worked hard to get away from the reactive instincts of the news industry, to stop being a slave to the artificial 24-hour news cycle. Our model enabled us to find evergreen stories often missed by others and identify patterns that explained the root causes of big crises before they hit the headlines. Using thematic lenses (e.g., war on science), we deployed journalists to identify stories bubbling under the surface. Again and again, our approach was validated as patterns we detected and focused on, be it certain conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxer movements, surveillance trends or disinformation narratives, would inevitably burst into headlines like they did when Covid paralyzed the world or when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And yet, proud as we were of our model, it was also becoming increasingly clear that producing good journalism was no longer enough.

Our journalism was excellent, but our distribution channels were profoundly, irreparably broken; social media platforms kept rolling out newer and better algorithms for targeting. They favored hate over reason, shouting over discussion and gossip over journalism. Then came advances in AI and the volume of noise spawned the information pollution crisis into stratospheric proportions, making it even harder for journalists to compete for our century’s most precious commodity: human attention.

The incrementalism of our information consumption has broken our conversations and fragmented our societies. Information pollution amplifies humanity’s every crisis, be it wars, racism, inequity, climate or dysfunctional politics. The noise stands in the way of every solution.

There is no singular — or easy — way out of this mess, but the past year as JSK Fellow at Stanford gave me space and time to think about how, if at all, journalism can help. Spoiler alert: I think it can. I am coming away with three practical insights, and, in the spirit of Stanford’s culture of experimentation, a plan to test them through Coda’s work in the next year.

Radical collaboration

The first is radical collaboration. The year at Stanford changed my understanding of who the allies and foes of journalism are and left me convinced that in order to survive in the age of AI, newsrooms — and especially small newsrooms that have been so important to diversifying the media landscape — need to profoundly rethink collaborations. My instinct is that the only way for non-mainstream newsrooms to survive is by building vast, yet agile and cross-disciplinary networks for sharing audiences, content, revenue and expertise.

For Coda, this translates into a two-circle approach to radical collaborations. In our inner circle are other journalists, organizations and individuals, with whom we are going to build closely knit (in some cases merger-like) partnerships that will enable us to share insights, audiences, capacity and revenue.

In the outer circle are much more broad, agile and most importantly cross-disciplinary partnerships that bring different industries into the conversation to feed our journalistic output.

We are currently working with artists, philosophers, historians and select influencers, in ways that aim at bringing them into the process of both production and distribution of stories. Our hope is that the partnerships we are currently testing will generate completely new kinds of media products, services and experiences for the audiences who are curious about the world, yet dissatisfied with what media offers.

Rethink distribution

The second insight concerns distribution. We are in the process of rethinking ways we distribute our journalism and we are making a new commitment to distribute for relationships, not just scale. The reason why distribution is so key is because in the digital age, medium has truly become the message. Over the past decade, media has grown overly dependent on social media and tech platforms. That has come at a huge cost.

It is time to change the power dynamic and stop relying on the middleman. From now on, for us at Coda social media is just a marketing tool, the rest of our distribution will focus on a mix of channels that allow us to build new feedback loops and genuine relationships with our audiences from in-person events to creative online storytelling.

Reimagine growth to scale for impact, not traffic

The third insight is around impact and how we understand and measure the impact of our journalism beyond the number of illusionary views or clicks. In the case of Coda, our impact — that will now inform both our audience and editorial strategies — will focus on attaining narrative change around issues that we cover (after all, every real-life change starts with a new story). As we scale our impact, we will also test new mechanisms of getting and learning from feedback.

Scaling for impact, testing radical, multi-disciplinary collaborations, rethinking distribution and experimenting with new channels that focus on building relations are three ways we can make sure that our journalism punches through the noise, reaching and engaging people who need it.

For the past six years, our readers like you have made our work possible. We are grateful and we hope that with us, you’ll stay on the stories that matter.

Coda is, of course, still a tiny outlet, but we have a huge ambition to lead by example and catalyze a much needed ecosystem change. What’s driving us isn’t really all that different from what made me want to become a journalist all those years ago: a deeply rooted belief that journalism that breaks down walls is a lifeline that our societies both need and deserve.

If you are interested in exploring any of this in more detail, or in teaming up, please get in touch! I’m on [email protected].

This piece was originally published as a Stanford University’s John S.Knight Fellowships post.