SALT LAKE CITY — Jeff Jarvis, a leading thinker on digital innovation in journalism, draws inspiration from a surprising source: YouTube stars.
He described sitting in a room with hundreds of YouTube fans at a recent conference, observing their concern for the stars' mental health struggles, such as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.
"The empathy in that room is thick," Jarvis said Friday on the first day of the general assembly of the Inter American Press Association, an international association of newspaper publishers and editors holding its annual meeting this weekend at the Little America Hotel.
YouTube stars and the people enjoying their work have a strong bond, in comparison to the loose ties between large media organizations and their readers, he said. For too long, newspaper leaders focused on establishing distant, emotionless institutions.
"We, as journalists, need to learn how to have a relationship with our community," said Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York.
Lacking that deep connection, news organizations were caught flat-footed by the rise of the "fake news" phenomenon, a major subject of discussion at this year's association gathering. Journalists can't compete with the "bad guys'" false accusations if the only tool they have is fact-checking, he added.
We're "taking a weak weapon to a war," Jarvis said. "The real problem we have to deal with is trust."
Dissatisfied with media coverage, angry at politicians and suspicious of their neighbors, people have looked for respite in online echo chambers, choosing to affiliate only with those who see the world as they do, said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, who spoke on a panel with Jarvis.
"There is a word for this in English, 'homophily.' It's a sociology theory that talks about how we love what's the same. We want to be surrounded by people who think like us," he said.
This aspect of human behavior isn't new, but the internet has given it more significance, creating new challenges for politicians, community leaders and, of course, journalists, Alves noted.
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox shared similar concerns during his opening remarks to conference attendees, noting that growing polarization is "very dangerous."
"We surround ourselves in echo chambers with no diversity of opinion or news," he said.
So how do journalists and newspaper publishers respond to this crisis of trust? It's a difficult process that requires some soul-searching, Jarvis said, noting that media companies will have to meet people where they are.
"A key question in journalism is how do we build bridges. How do we make strangers less strange?" he said.
It was an appropriate call-to-action for a conference that's all about forging new relationships. The Inter American Press Association unites media leaders from across the Western Hemisphere, bringing them together to work toward more meaningful journalism and defend the freedom of the press.
"By listening to and interacting with colleagues, international leaders and experts with experience battling dangerous tendencies can lead us to think and act in different ways," said Matt Sanders, the association's president, during his welcome to assembly attendees, which was delivered in Spanish.
In addition to the panel on fake news, this year's conference features discussions on cybersecurity, business models and threats to press freedom. Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks will interview Martin Baron, editor of The Washington Post, on stage on Saturday.
Together, media experts from North, South and Central America hope to find a way forward during a challenging time, recommitting to what Cox called a critical mission.
"We need a free press, a press that … is able to convey messages to people about what is happening in the world around them," he said.