Don’t rely on journalism to save journalism

I kind of jump on Perry Parks in the comments on this post. I don’t take lightly, I guess, to accusations that I’ve given up on journalism. Everything I do is about trying to save journalism. Our only chance to ensure there are reporters performing watchdog roles twenty years from now is to ensure that we get the business and content models right in this turbulent, fast-changing media era. And in context of Perry’s comment, on a post aimed squarely at encouraging journalists to learn and grow and better understand what is going on today, I can’t help wonder what drives somebody to defend a mode of thinking that clearly isn’t working.

Readership has been declining since the 1930s. Every generation of Americans reads newspapers less than the previous generation, and the current generation of young Americans is abandoning printed news faster than any previous generation. The best-funded, highest quality newspapers in the country are watching circulation plummet. Survey after survey, going back for decades, reveals that people trust media less and less. Studies have shown that newspapers often fail readers in areas of relevance and usable information.

Clearly, the Church of Journalism has failed us.

It’s time for a change, and the first change needed is one of attitude. We need journalists ready, willing and prepared to create journalism for the 21st Century.

I believe that is journalism that is more conversational; with fewer pronouncements of omniscience; that involves the people formerly known as the audience more in the news gathering and editing process; that doesn’t sniff at “citizen journalism” as something unholy; that seeks truth through all available tools and modes, without fear, favor or ego; that understands people have a right to know what we know when we know it; and that is willing to evolve as we learn more about how people use new technology. Finally, it is journalism that understands the value of community, that treats the small story with the same respect as the big and doesn’t put winning prizes or feeding egos ahead of serving friends, family and neighbors with information that is relevant and helpful.

If you care about journalism, that is the kind of journalism you care about today.

Parks writes in the comments:

This post isn’t just a wake-up call to reality. It’s more like surrender. Once you abandon “a strategy of aiming for journalistic excellence� as unworkable, it doesn’t much matter what you do next. New technologies, platforms and business models only help journalism if journalism itself survives.

Of course journalists should understand modern business pressures and learn the myriad new ways of distributing information. But if they’re not telling important stories in engaging ways — if they’re just making videos of cute dogs and blogging about bacon — then they’re no longer journalists.

What Parks misses is that if we don’t adapt to how media consumption is changing via new technologies, all the journalistic excellence in the world isn’t going to save journalism. Putting journalistic excellence first — a worthy consideration, but irrelevant in context — is like editing a story before it’s written.

A bit of this debate is ridiculous. Of course, journalism is going to survive. But the question is, who’s journalism? The journalism of the princely print reporter, or the journalism of unpaid volunteers doing catch-as-catch can reporting with little or no training. There will be journalism, because people will always want information, but if we don’t understand the competitive dynamics of this new era, there will be no journalism as some pros define the word.

For Parks, understanding the new technologies is just a way of understanding new distribution channels. But the web isn’t a distribution channel. It is a culture. It is an ecosystem. It is something far more dynamic than just another way of distributing prose. If you want to practice journalism, quality journalism, that is meaningful and relevant, you need to learn what that requires.

In context of my original post, my position is: Don’t just be good journalists, be smart journalists. You should understand your business, your market and your milieu. Being good is not good enough. You need to know why circulation is declining, why ad revenue is slipping, where advertisers are going, and how people are using digital media. You need to learn all you can about what is working and why, and what isn’t. This will inform the kind of decisions you make about coverage, what tools and techniques to use, and most importantly, the kind of training you’ll seek to further your career. You’ll also understand better why some of your bosses are doing the things they’re doing, and if they’re not doing the right things, give you a clue to look for a new job.

As for Perry’s snark about dogs and bacon, it’s just a red herring. It is a favorite tactic of the acolytes of Big-J Journalism: reduce citizen media to it’s most trivial and ridiculous extreme. It is easier than examining the good and serious work non-professional contributors are making all over the world. Just as dangerously, it ignores the fact that for every minute a person spends watching videos of dogs dancing on bacon is one less minute that person spent reading your weighty report on the town council. You need to understand, maybe, why that person chose YouTube over your idea of news.
One last thought. In his own blog, Perry writes:

That new world is coming, and it certainly won’t resemble the ink-smudged hegemony newspapers enjoyed for much of the 20th century. But people are also making predictions and assumptions about what modern news audiences need and desire that have yet to come true. Universal access and the ability for every person to write their own stories might be cool and useful, but demand for people to help package and organize the world — that is, editors — hasn’t abated.

My first reaction was, blogs and reader participation are a far greater threat to the job security of editors than reporters. There is a far greater need for paid professionals to go out and gather and report information than there are to filter it. Bloggers are nothing more than distributed filters, distributed gateways. Current affairs bloggers rely on professional journalism, but in aggregate often do a better job of surfacing the most interesting and relevant bits (and putting it in context better) than any one news organization’s small circle of editors. Anybody who has spent six or more months relying on blogs (especially while using an RSS reader) for primary news consumption knows this. Bloggers and blog readers often also make excellent copy editors and fact checkers. I’m NOT arguing that editors should be replaced by an army of bloggers, but professional journalists shouldn’t get too comfortable in their assumptions about what is necessary and what isn’t.

The other response-worthy note in Perry’s quote above is “… people are also making predictions and assumptions about what modern news audiences need and desire that have yet to come true …” Well, not exactly. It’s not all predictions and assumptions. Information technologies have been part of media consumption for more than two decades now, and the web is more than a decade old. There is a wealth of literature available for anybody willing to dig in and learn what history tells us about how media has changed and is changing. We are well past the assumption stage, and our predictions are pretty well informed.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t rely on journalism to save journalism

  1. Howard,

    Thanks for devoting so much time and attention to my comments. I suspect we’re closer together than we appear. I am distressed by your suggestion in the post in question that we should abandon a strategy of quality journalism. I can’t get behind that. And I was also responding, in part, to your statement on Innnovation in College Mediathat students and faculty should “be even more dismissive of print than mainstream pubs are right now.” I’m glad to see that you’ve tempered that statement in a later post on your blog today, because that strikes me as at least as arrogant as the attitude you ascribe to me and others who don’t think we should throw the journalism baby out with the MSM bath water.

    Your paragraph above about what modern journalism requires is a manifesto I can get behind, and I think if you read my book you’d find a lot of support for these ideas, along with many practical suggestions for how to put them in practice.

    But what I won’t do is surrender to the notion that news simply is what people want to see, and that all our business models need to chase people down whatever frivolous road some half-digested research happens to lead us on. We have to acknowledge that, while the institutional reporting models of the 20th century are no longer practical, effective reporting on insitutions is as important as ever — and, significantly, that the citizen participation we should be encouraging most is participation in the democratic systems that will determine all of our fates, from how much of our money we get to keep to how our kids are educated to whether our safety is protected to what country we invade next.

    My invocation of dog videos and bacon blogging is only a red herring if you’re willing to be vocal in distinguishing between this kind of content, which prevails on the Web, and thoughtful, original reporting and commentary that can inform people about their communities. But in your post, you seem to present YouTube and civic reporting as equivalent news choices, and that’s what I see as dangerous. No, the traditionally reported town council meeting that fails to capture the real relevance of that event doesn’t work any more. But YouTube, with rare exceptions, isn’t news. It’s entertainment. And pretending those are the same thing is harmful, because then — instead of using our time and talent and tools to help people participate in the decisions of town council, which funds our libraries and pays our police and paves our streets and regulates the cable companies that provide our high-speed Internet connection — we’ll just go and put up the easy dog-and-bacon video because that’s what people “prefer” in all the surveys and hit counts.

    In talking about how new media will change news gathering, presentation and consumption, it’s imperative that we distinguish between YouTube and the kind of projects supported by J-Lab. We need to talk about how to make these media meaningful. It’s not all about the ability to podcast — it’s imperatively about WHAT you’re podcasting. And unless that becomes an integral part of the discussion about new media and modern business models, we’re not adapting journalism, we’re killing it.

    The most hopeful thing I’ve seen you write is your final answer in the college media interview, where you say, “I believe, that if you’re turned onto journalism because of the romantic myths of journalism (the crusading, typewriter wielding savior of all things civic and good, etc., and getting the scoop, and making a difference), there hasn’t been a better time since the early part of last century to be a journalist.”

    I think you might be right about this, but only if we teach aspiring journalists the value of this work as a pre-requisite to understanding new business pressures and technological tools. I’m not disparaging the latter, I’m simply insisting on the former.

  2. Two thoughts that I hope I can express clearly:

    First, I think you’re looking too much at the content of YouTube, not what it says about what people are really trying to get at through YouTube. There is a lot we can learn from YouTube without paying attention to the back and the dogs (an the cats). That’s what I want people to get.

    That said, we do need to be thoughtful and ask ourselves why 60 seconds of a baby laughing can be the most popular video for a month (last month, I think). That doesn’t mean we go out and film baby’s laughing and call it news. But it does mean that we need to think about the kind of human touch people are looking for, and I think traditional journalism has not been giving them for a few decades.

    Second, I don’t see any contradiction between making time and resources for covering Eagle Scout promotions and bake sales as well as perform a civic watch dog role.

    I totally reject the notion that community journalism, reporting and writing about people in the community and their every day interests and concerns isn’t important and worthy of coverage.

    My stridency comes in in what I see of too many journalists looking down their nose at this kind of coverage, and of blogs and of user-generated content. I think we need to get over ourselves. Yes, what we do is important, but we need to be humble about it and be more appreciative of what other people do and see the real value of that news.

    Why is it that when traditionalists write dismissively of UGC, they talk about dogs and bacon and not the London bombings or Dan Rather?

    (since you’ve had an approved post before, I don’t know why I needed to moderate your post again, unless you used a different e-mail address?)

  3. Howard,

    The comment seemed to have posted, but it still said “No comments” on the home page. Don’t know how to explain that.

    I don’t talk about Dan Rather because that case is too muddled and politically charged to be useful. What’s generally lost in the symbolic shorthand of that case is that the story was fundamentally accurate, with its substance confirmed even by the people who disavowed the authenticity of the memo. That doesn’t mean CBS didn’t screw up or wasn’t too defensive to double-check itself quickly enough, but as a symbol of all MSM’s failings it’s overblown. And we saw similar defensiveness and inflexibility recently with the bloggers who challenged an AP source in Iraq for months until the source’s existence was finally proven. Hubris extends across all media.

    I’m happy to talk about the London bombings and the important content that citizens on the scene were able to provide. That’s a great example of the possibilities of new technologies and media, and the fact that we’re all liable to learn a lot more about the world in the future if everyobody’s willing to share what they know.

    And I’ve got nothing against bake sale and Eagle Scout coverage, either, balanced with more significant offerings.

    My fundamental point, and the point that’s echoed in the Mary Nesbitt post is that almost all the talk about new media, new technology, new business models, etc., completely neglects the quality, and even the subject matter, of the content. It’s nearly all about where we’re going, and nothing about what we’re taking with us.

    Somebody’s got to talk about the second part, and that’s what I do.

  4. Perry, on the Dan Rather thing, you’re looking (in my opinion) too much at the politics of the thing and not at the key event (from a media perspective) — that a handful of arcane subject-matter experts were able to crowdsource the story, use distributed, democratic media, to examine the authenticity of a key piece of evidence. By sharing knowledge, they were able to show this document to be a forgery. Everything else is just related events. These bloggers worked along side MSM, in my view, not at odds with it or in opposition to it.

    All distributed media does is cast a wider net of expertise, opinion, insight, eye-witness accounts, etc. I’ve never been one to argue, per se, that distributed media will replace MSM (but I don’t discount that possibility either). My primary position is, MSM needs to embrace distributed media, become a part and participant in distributed media. I do believe MSM’s survival is dependent on that strategic move.

    Right now, as an industry, for the most part, with exceptions, we’re still at the learning to crawl stage. There is too much emphasis on how do we shoehorn in everything that we’ve always done before and how we did it before into the new tools instead of stepping back and saying, “how should this change what I do?”, and there’s nothing in that to suggest a lessening of standards, ethics, the need to be fair, accurate and honest and all that … but this journalism is changing and we need to change with it or perish.

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