After the Storm interviews the Blade’s Michael Key about the current challenges, and future potential, of journalism.
About the interviewer
Alex Mell-Taylor is the founder and co-editor of After The Storm magazine.
About Michael Key
Michael Key (he/him) is the photo editor of the Washington Blade newspaper, the nation’s oldest, and one of the largest LGBT newspapers. He is the chief political photographer for the National LGBTQ Media Association, which represents twelve LGBT newspapers across the country. His photos appear all across the country and often get licensed by the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Key was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma, but made his way here to DC when he was about 16. He has lived in the area ever since as a photojournalist, editor and writer. He has also directed a few music videos in his time for Logo, et cetera. Currently, he
Alex: Today, I wanted to talk about journalism and, specifically, the future of journalism. But before we sort of dive into that little dicey topic, I wanted to get your perspective on what you think some of the larger problems for journalism are right now, both that you have experienced but also, if you want, general trends.
Michael: Okay, on a personal note, the thing I’ve experienced the most is that there is a lot of homophobia in the (media) with photographers specifically.
Most journalists, like the reporters, are not that homophobic or transphobic, but I’ve heard plenty of homophobic and transphobic nonsense coming out of other photographers’ mouths. Many times, when they find out that I’m with The Blade, they want nothing further to do with me. It’s sort of an old boys club, an old white boys club, and very conservative in that regard. So that’s a personal issue.
But on a broader issue, I wouldn’t indict all of journalism on that. That’s just really been my experience amongst the sort of Washington photo corps of photographers for some of the big players that you might think would know better.
On a larger level, as to problems with journalism, the model itself is problematic because there’s no simple solution. Like, you don’t want a state-owned media, I mean, speaking as a democratic socialist, which I am, a lifelong democratic socialist, we don’t want a state-run media where the state decides, okay, this is how we report on this, and this is how we have to say everything, and if you don’t follow the line, then you don’t get reported. That’s just not how we want it.
But how do you fund journalism? Do you fund it by grants? That’s one thing, but then you’re often beholden to, okay, what does the grant issuer want you to report on? Let’s say I work for a company, and its advertisers don’t want you to be writing about a certain thing about them, will editorials take what they say seriously? How strong is the wall between advertising and editorial? When advertising is what pays the salaries, it’s what keeps the lights on if you have a brick-and-mortar building.
So, there’s not a simple answer because capitalism can’t solve this. State-sponsored capitalism, like China, can’t solve this either. Otherwise, you have sort of a totalitarian party organ, which doesn’t really represent the truth either. I mean, you have the possibility of sort of free-thinking blogs or whatever, which is nice, but how can somebody sustain themselves on that? They have to either be independently wealthy and just go around and write what they particularly like to write on or be funded by some specific interest. It is a difficult balancing act.
Another problem is media bias and the ability to work outside of that. Of course, I wouldn’t so much call it a problem. It’s just a challenge that with information in this information age coming from everywhere, including AI, who knows what the source actually is? Is it a respectable source, and what makes something respectable? Those are questions that the reader has to sort of infer or actually look into themselves in order to really understand where a story is coming from.
Alex: Could I stop you right there? So I just wanted to talk a little bit because AI, although it’s been around for a while, it’s new to many people. Could you explain sort of the source problem with a lot of AI-assisted writing tools that you’re talking about?
Michael: Well, I am not an expert on this subject, but my experience with AI has not been good so far. And, I mean, I’m sure it gets better and better, but what does that actually mean when you have newspapers across the country shutting down?
Like, the local newspapers are the ones that are suffering the worst. The one I work for is great because it’s a niche audience, and nobody’s going anywhere, so it’s very stable. But a lot of these local general interest newspapers are going under. And the unfortunate thing about that is that’s where a lot of the local hard-nosed reporting is going, who is filling up the potholes? Who’s doing all of this?
So when they report on these things when AI uses its source material to take from these various authors and do the work for others, piecing it together and making it cohesive but also attributable in the appropriate way is a challenge, for sure. I don’t really know how to answer that question fully. Sorry, I’m not an expert on that.
Alex: I think that’s the question of the decade, so I don’t think anyone can really answer it right now.
Michael: There’s one more problem I should mention, and that is access. So a lot of reporters now, those of us who were in DSA back in the 2000s, remember thinking, “Yeah, bullshit,” when Bush was saying that there were weapons of mass destruction. We were like, “Yeah, right.” But a lot of reporters just believed it and reported it because they were getting access by just reporting whatever those in power said as though it were true, rather than actually doing the work to find out, well, is this true? Are they just making this up or challenging people in power?
Because if you challenge people, then you’ll lose your seat at the White House, right? Is the idea behind it? Again, all of these are careful balancing acts. You do want to have the access of being able to ask these sources [questions], but you don’t want to become the mouthpiece of the state in doing so. So it is a careful act that journalists must balance in order to have access, but at the same time, not be willing to just be a stenographer. Not that stenographers aren’t necessary and a good job for people to have, but that’s not the role a journalist should have to be the stenographer for the state.
Alex: I want to switch gears a little bit, and let’s imagine that, for whatever reason, we move to a society that is more accepting of maybe the perspective that you are describing, which is democratic socialism. What do you imagine journalism would be under that new paradigm? What does that world look like for us right in the lens of journalism?
Michael: If basic needs were met anyway? For if people aren’t going to starve because they spent their time writing a story, that takes care of one problem right there, or their health insurance is based upon whether or not there won’t even be health insurance anymore. Let’s hope that everybody has universal health care so that it’s not dependent upon which job you have. I think that would solve one problem immediately.
But there will always be a need for an independent group or several independent-minded people who stand outside of the official, even elected government or stand outside of the prevailing winds of society or conventional wisdom to be able to ask questions that are absolutely foundational to democracy (little d democracy) in our modern age. If we can’t do that, then we can’t really have the system, as it won’t solve the problem. …
I think that it would be important to have a diversity of voices, and that everybody’s encouraged to do so, and is no longer driven by the profit motive. You would be able to focus on the story rather than the problem of the advertiser messing with the story. You would need to be able to remain independent of the government, but you would need to have a responsibility, I suppose, to try to tell as close to the truth as you can.
Now I understand that, especially in these days of alternate facts or whatever, people’s understanding of what the truth is might differ from one another. And that’s why it’s important to have critical thinking skills taught early in schools to everyone. This is why I think it’s been a major effort by Republicans specifically to defund public schools and get rid of any sort of college education that would instill critical thinking skills. I think that those are absolutely essential to media literacy, which goes beyond just being a writer or being a photographer or whatever, because it’s one thing to write a piece of yellow journalism to support a war or whatever else your agenda might be.
You need to have a society in which critical thinking is prized such that with a diversity of voices that you would want in such a society to be able to report on things, to write about things that the society, the people in it, would be able to determine for themselves by reading something, and be able to say: “Okay, well, I see your bone to pick here. I see why you’re saying what you did because of what you believe or by this or that. I agree with some of it. I don’t agree with other parts. I can see why you may have said that, but that’s your opinion here, whereas this quote came from this person [says X], so I know that that’s what they said.”
So at least, I understand their point of view. Whether or not I agree, all of that can be parsed through critical thinking skills. And so I think actually a democratic socialist future, in which there can be an independent media, would absolutely rely on early childhood development, and on early childhood education and on critical thinking.
Alex: That sounds fantastic. To delve a little bit further into that, what would you imagine other safeguards besides education for that yellow journalism? Right now, censorship is pretty much decided by corporations through platforms and algorithms and moderation and stuff like that. What would sort of be the socialist equivalent there, if there is any, from your perspective?
Michael: Right, well, I think that having an editorial board is a good thing to do. I don’t think that should be gotten rid of. I think it should have more diverse voices in it for sure. But if those voices were diverse, you at least would have the sort of people that are knowledgeable on an issue. Like AI, for instance, I’m not going to give a Ted Talk on that, but I would respect people who would know a bit more about it. For instance, if I were going to be writing about that, I would do my research and would find out exactly what I should be saying. Not what I should be saying, but how I should think about it.
So having an editorial board, be it elected by the workers of the news organization or however it is, is a good safeguard to begin with because you would all discuss the issue, and if somebody feels that, “Well, hey, wait a minute, Michael, aren’t you being a little bit unfair to this group here when you say this? Because that’s not been my experience.” And then we would talk about it, and I would have to defend it like defending a thesis.
That’s one way to do it. Another would be, like I said, about diversity of voices. Now, this was the old dream of the internet. “Oh well, if everybody says things, then people will be able to figure out for themselves.” The problem is the forces of propaganda are quite strong, and we’re all susceptible to it. And so I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to this wrong … because it’s part of the human brain; it goes back to the whole critical thinking skills with the rise of QAnon and all of these ideas that are being spread.
I mean, yes, some ideas are dangerous and wrong. Fascism is a bad idea. It’s unfortunate when it does get spread. You know, we have to balance that [censorship] with, let’s not be untrue about history. We should be teaching that America, for instance, is based upon genocide, slavery, and everything else that created America.
Alex: I want to personalize this a little bit. So let’s imagine in this future you’re running a newsroom, right? Along with other people.
Michael: In the future, I would not be running it myself. There would be a board of people who work closely together and understand issues.
Alex: Tell me about that. How do you imagine that board working, and how do you imagine you all conducting business together?
Michael: Right, well, there would have to be some structural problems that are fixed beforehand. For instance, access to education, access to the ability to even dream to be able to do something like that. Right now, there are too many people who are worried about, okay, “Well, how am I going to be able to get this medication from my parents, or how am I going to have to deal with all the other problems of life?” You can’t really even imagine working for a news organization in the future [with all those problems in the background].
So let’s assume that everybody has education access and the ability to even dream of doing something like this. And so through that, we were able to get the diversity of voices that we get because of that. Then, a board would sort of select itself based on interest. Say this group of people wants to write about stuffed animals. We’re really into stuffed animals, and we’re going to write about all the news about the new stuffed animals that different stuffed animal collectives want to create. So this group of people would select amongst themselves how best to go about it.
I think there will always be a marketplace of ideas, regardless of whether there is an actual marketplace of money. For instance, it may just be that not that many people are really that interested in reading about the Wuzzles from 1980. I love the Wuzzles. They’re great, but not everybody loves those stuffed animals. So let’s just say that didn’t make it in the marketplace of ideas, right? That’s quite possible. …
I think there’s always going to be a niche for everything. That’s why I love things like Archive of Our Own or people writing fanfiction for things that they don’t get to see on television. I think it’s important for people to have those types of venues.
[However], in the grander scheme of things for hard news … we need a group of people who are dedicated to reporting that from all angles. To have the safeguards within that board to be able to have their weekly or twice a week meeting, or however often they have to do it of determining what stories to focus on and how to report on them and what they’re doing right or wrong.
[It’s] important to have an ombudsperson (i.e., public advocate) as well — someone to always be talking with the reading public and interacting with them on whatever the future of social media bereft of Elon Musk might be. To really talk with the readership about, “Okay, what did we get wrong here? What did we not consider?”
Alex: So, I’m hearing from what you’re talking about is what we would sort of describe as almost like a true marketplace. A true marketplace that is more prestige-based than it is based on, like, capital?
Michael: I’m a little bit of a Star Trek communist. Captain Picard [makes] this little speech to this old capitalist that had been unfrozen from time, and he was mad that his bank doesn’t exist anymore and that what he had built his life around [doesn’t exist]. And Captain Picard, this is Star Trek Next Generation, was saying something along the lines of, “We’ve found other ways to better [ourselves] … the quest for money [is no longer] the way that we to do that.” But they didn’t get rid of the idea of trying to better oneself, of trying to become the best version of themselves they can be, to be the best contributor to society that they can be … in that regard, yeah, I’m a Star Trek socialist.
Alex: I love that episode. So here’s a question that I have on this … I don’t expect you to have all the answers, but it’s fun to speculate: what happens when something is really boring but really important and doesn’t necessarily capture the attention of the public? There isn’t a lot of motivation, but covering it would still be important. I don’t think our current system necessarily solves this problem either. But if, say, trash disposal doesn’t get people going, but it’s still something that needs to be covered, how would you imagine that deficit being handled in this society where the public isn’t necessarily rising to meet that coverage but there’s still a need to cover it?
Michael: There will always be a need for technical manuals, and these do exist. And oftentimes, some of the bigger, more explosive reports come from those that are buried in the details. There’s something there that becomes of great public interest. So there will be a need always in the public interest to report on technical things that are perhaps not sexy or whatever but that are deeply necessary.
Now, how the society itself does that, I would say, probably through education. So let’s say that you graduated from Free University with your degree in public management or whatever it was. One good, nice community job would be a public ombudsperson or public reporter on this or that issue, and it would be your duty to go report on that thing and do that as your job. … It would be a respectable thing to do. … You may not become a celebrity for doing it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not of vital public importance. I understand your point here, and I’m not sure exactly how it would be solved. I don’t have an answer for that exactly, but only to say that I know that it is important and something that I would keep in mind.
Alex: I think that, if I hear correctly from what you’re saying, we will invest in certain fundamental services such as education and so forth, but there’s an exchange for that where there’s almost like a community service where instead of joining the army [you become a reporter on these non-sexy issues].
Michael: So, for instance, in Chickasaw Nation, where I’m from in Oklahoma, we have free healthcare. We have a socialized healthcare system. The doctors who all work there, we pay for their school, and in return, they work for Chickasaw Health Services for five, 10 years, whatever it is, as sort of the service for that.
Now, I’m not saying that there should be an indentured servitude time, but I’m saying that as a part of your life after you study something so that you can do something, at least that would be the hope in a socialist society that I’ve studied about trash management or garbage.
If waste management is your major focus and has been through your education and you took an extra focus in writing skills or whatever, of course, you’d want to write on it. So write on it. That’s what you would do, and you would be supported by the society to do so. Society itself would make room for and space for diverse voices to be able to report on these exact things that are of public interest. That may not be the story about something of greater mass interest, of a sort of casual type, but would be more of the nitty-gritty of how a society functions.
Alex: So, capturing this energy, because I think you’ve actually mapped out a pretty optimistic future, which is what we’re here to do over the next five years, what would you say to the people reading this that they should do to help achieve this future?
Michael: Well, aside from becoming a dues-paying member of DSA and going to various actions and events, building awareness and trying to build as much of a community as one can … educating yourself on issues. Not necessarily taking whatever is just said to you on TikTok, not that that’s not great that it exists, but that you just take it on face value as, “Oh, that must be true since somebody that I think is physically attractive said it.” That does not make it true or even well-sourced. So, to have a sense of critical thought, I think, is important to develop that muscle.
Alex: By sourced, what do you mean?
Michael: Sure. A lot of the stuff I’ve been saying to you right now are my opinions, the source is Michael Key. Okay? And various things that I may have read over time that have informed my decision — my opinion. What I mean by source is that I have spoken to a number of people on the record that I’ve gotten recorded … and you can listen to them so that I know that I’m not just making things up. [These are] the things that they said on the record that they believe or that they’re going to do. And then, I have researched what is actually happening [and] how this affects people on the ground. What are the [economic] results of something, like X amount of people died because of this type of poisoning that can be shown through hospital statistics or what have you? The police chief said this. So that’s a source. However, a community group said this; that’s another source. Ultimately, a public research group released a report that states this; it’s another source. And then [I] would say my own research has indicated, though it is not fully scientific, [X, which] would be an anecdote added.
So, the more sources you have for something, the more robust the reporting is. So when you hear somebody on the internet who you find physically attractive say, “Oh, all you need to do is starve yourself, then you’ll be pretty.” You shouldn’t necessarily believe them because they may just be saying that. And is there enough nutritional science to back up what they said? Probably not.
Alex: Right, so you’re saying get as many sources as possible; don’t just ever take one source at face value.
Michael: Right, that’s one thing. Another thing would be just to support local media … specifically locally-owned media. A lot of the media companies are being bought out by big corporations who sort of swallow them up and then standardize all of their reporting, which ruins them. They go under, but also, it makes it sort of a Pravda-like newspaper written by the corporation, and so it’s like the worst of both worlds. And so, supporting enterprise journalism is a great thing to do.
Alex: Could you explain to readers what enterprise journalism means?
Michael: So, for instance, a lot of long-form journalism is going away because it simply is too expensive to feed, clothe, and especially pay for health care because we have to do that for a person to sit down and do the type of work that I’m talking about getting sources and documenting and fact-checking and all the stuff that’s necessary for a longer story.
So to make up for that shortfall, there are grants, there are media groups which give money to this. … Not to speak too much about my paper here, but there’s a Washington Blade Foundation. … It’s a 501(c) organization that people can give money to. We provide scholarships to LGBTQ students who are interested in going into journalism. We provide internships to LGBTQ students who want to write about LGBTQ issues.
That’s just our particular paper, but different local papers have these sorts of foundations or what have you to be able to provide that in a way that is not dependent entirely upon advertisers to [exist]. Even like the Washington Socialist, for instance, is paid for through dues.
Of course, it will have a point of view, but then again, so does the Blade. We’re never going to say something like “so-called trans person because they call themselves that, or so-called gay man, even though gay doesn’t really exist.” We’re never going to say that. We’re just going to say, “a trans activist or gay man, Michael Key, or whatever it may be.” And we’re going to take them at their word. Because there would be a point of view that says, “We don’t exist, and we should all do something terrible to ourselves.” But by having a variety of voices, you would be able to sort of take that out. I don’t know, supporting foundations, joining organizations to help with that. I don’t know what else really to do. Beyond that.
Alex: That sounds a lot like checking sources for source bias, donating to local newspapers and supporting local newspapers, supporting foundations that do the sort of institution-building work of lifting up journalism that can’t necessarily support itself in its current market.
Alex: Okay. So I want to end with a fun question, which is: what type of media do you think does well with the topic of either how our readers can sort of learn more about what we talked about today with journalism or just a type of futurist media that you really enjoy or both?
Michael: This is a sad thing to admit, but I spend all day writing and editing people’s stuff. I don’t get much chance to read these days. … Recently I’ve been watching Strange New Worlds because it’s new. But I enjoyed Discovery. I was originally a Next Generation fan from back in the day, and it was formative in my childhood … and sort of helped my political understanding as well.
But for journalism, Wag the Dog was an interesting movie. The Newsroom is an interesting show. I would say it points out a lot of the problems. It doesn’t offer any solutions, and it also points out the problems of big egos being involved. … In the type of job that I’ve got, it’s super easy to feel like you are sort of above the fray somehow. And I understand how a lot of journalists get into a lot of trouble when they think, “Well, my thoughts and opinions are far more important than everyone else’s, right?” And when they come off that way, they sound A, like a jerk, but B, , out of touch completely. So, it’s important to stay grounded as much as you can.
A lot of science fiction these days is very dystopian. It’s all been about, like, “Oh, the world’s about to end.” We are very pessimistic about the future. I would say as a culture. And I don’t know if that’s just what’s being greenlit in Hollywood these days or that’s just what a lot of people are writing about, but there you have it. I mean, I’ve noticed a lot of science fiction, from Blade Runner to everything else, has sort of a very bleak idea of the media landscape in the future and how it will only likely get worse. … I wouldn’t necessarily get your hopes for the future out of popular sci-fi, probably.
Also I like a lot of video games. Right now, I’m playing Tropico, where you play a dictator in the developing world, and you control the newspapers to say what you want to say. It’s doing the exact opposite and wrong of everything that I’m talking about now because it’s fun on a video game. As long as we keep it (in) the video games and not in real life, I think we’ll be a lot better off as a society.