State of the art

State of the art

: So I just returned from a few days at the Annenberg confab on journalism, democracy, and all that, in a room fillled with smart and experienced people, journalists and academics, who care deeply about the country and the craft.

As usual at these things these days, I feel a bit like the stranger in the strange land — probably because I am strange — but it’s also worth noting that blogs are no longer treated like meteors from outer space at such gatherings.

A few random observations at the end:

: Our new world of weblogs and citizens’ media is all about possibilities — many of them unrealized, I grant — while the world of the big, old media is increasingly about worry: fretting over declining revenue, resources, audience, quality, trust. That is one good reason for big media to embrace the small, rather than trying to recapture the old: It’s optimistic, energetic, new, open, growing, and fun; it’s the medium in the better mood and that’s catching. In short: Bloggers make better barmates.

: Related: I sometimes hear a defeatism in journalism today — mixed with anger and defiance: We’re shrinking and can’t make money so we need to take charity or, worse, government help (which I certainly believe is dangerous).

What we should be doing instead is finding new business models for news. Those models can include nonprofit or public-supported journalism but they also should include new, profitable news businesses. But see the next related item:

: I mentioned it before, but I am shocked at the hostility to profit I often hear in some quarters at such gatherings. Perhaps we did ourselves a disserve taking the necessary wall between church and state and putting barbed wire on top, for it made journalists too purposely ignorant of business and the marketplace.

Just because we journalists don’t let ourselves be influenced by the advertisers and certainly don’t sell the ads, that doesn’t mean that we should be ignorant or, worse, disdainful of the business realities that pay the checks and support the journalism… or hurt it.

This institutional attitude has separated journalists not only from power over their products but also — more importantly — from the market, which is to say the voice of the public.

I’ve been there. When I launched Entertainment Weekly, I didn’t have the biz cred sufficient to argue how the circulation department was the one making $30-million mistakes and I vowed I wouldn’t be in that position again, even when editors lectured me that I should let the business guys worry about the business. Learning the business side is necessary to give us influence in the business side, in the creation (or saving) or our own products.

But it’s about more than money. It’s also about learning to trust the marketplace and thus the public. If we dismiss the will of the marketplace, we show a lack of respect for the wisdom and will of the public we are supposedly here to serve; we start to believe that “we” are smarter than “them” when “we” are “them.” And if you truly think that the public is stupid, then you should quit media and become a monk.

All this is why — especially now, as the industry changes — j-schools should be sure to teach courses in the business of journalism.

: I waited until the last hour to say what I thought might get me shot: that media consolidation is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Anger at big companies may, indeed, be a product of the journalistic nose-holding about business (above). But the economic, marketplace reality of it is that in many cases, consolidation is the act of dinosaurs huddling to stay warm in the face of their coming ice age. Without consolidation and the savings that come with it, I said, it’s quite possible that some news outlets could die. And how is that better? But nobody threw a pie at me. In fact, some acknowledged that big companies still have the resources and sometimes even the guts to try new things. We should remember that and remind them of that.

: Related: Some spoke of the need to strengthen government regulation, not only regarding ownership but also to revive the notion of the public trust in broadcast licenses. But I said that the best TV is coming out of unregulated cable today. Regulation is dangerous. Period. The last thing we of all people should want or need is government involvement in speech.

: You will be glad to hear that many people in the room at Annenberg, like me, swatted at notions about credentialing journalists. Some people want to credential those who are trained or adhere to a code of behavior. But, of course, that can also be used to try to exclude others from an alleged elite. It can be used against the credentialed when someone in power withdraws the certification and the rights that go with them. It can be used against the uncredentialed when, to paraphrase one participant in the room, a lawyer in a libel case can say, “what makes you think you can practice journalism when you’re not a real journalist.” And besides, who’s a journalist when anyone can commit acts of journalism? In a world where we want to try to expand by taking advantage of what the public knows, why close down the definition of journalist? Why not expand it by sharing our knowledge and training and experience generously?

: I sat there and wondered whether, 20 or 50 years from now, there will be similar confabs of citizens’ journalism with organizations and reports and academic counterparts and worries. I hope not. I hope that citizens’ media stays loose like fireflies that get away.

: But if you had sat there with me, I know that you would have been impressed with how much these people care. They care about the good of the nation, about informing the people, about quality journalism, about rebuilding trust, about educating children to empower them to run the world.

So I wish you had been there. Future journalism confabs should invite bloggers as proxies for the public both so the journalists can hear their perspective, but also so the bloggers can see the earnest desire to serve that you’ll see in these good and smart people.

Similarly, blogging confabs should make it a point to invite journalists to show how much bloggers care about the medium and the nation and about news…. and also to show how much fun we have (and so we can have somebody who can expense-account the drinks at the bar).

Speaking of which, I think both groups should also invite business people because if we don’t bring them along in trying to create new products and business models, we won’t support these new and better endeavors. Business people don’t have cooties. But they do have wallets.

  • http://www.projectnothing.com Nathan Lanier

    “: But if you had sat there with me, I know that you would have been impressed with how much these people care. They care about the good of the nation, about informing the people, about quality journalism, about rebuilding trust, about educating children to empower them to run the world.”
    In light of Dan Rather and Newsweek’s blunders, it’s important to remember this.
    Good post, Jeff.

  • http://www.DataBasedAds.com Joe Zekas

    Great post.
    Journalists can start rebuilding the newspaper business model in a very simple way, a way at which you’ve hinted in the past.
    Re-prioritize the role of journalism as a filter in categories that the public is clamoring to see more of in the paper, and willing to pay to post there: local events, people’s comings and goings, restaurant and entertainment news releases, and on and on.
    Businesses pay PR people to send stuff to journalists who won’t even open it. Those businesses would be willing to pay to have that information in summary advertorial fashion in the paper. Much of it is “news” that people want to read.
    Journalists need to rethink this, quickly.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I don’t care that they care. Like a lot of people care about the environment, but drive SUVs. Actions speak louder than words, or feelings.
    Proof is reading the drivel on most op-ed pages. Like the local columnist who decides its time to opine about Iraq. Like somehow that’s more important than local issues.
    Or the desperate desire of all journalists to end up as “investigative.” As though there are things that simply can be uncovered by regular journalists and require “investigation.” Ridiculous. Proof again that newspeople devalue what the marketplace wants (news) rather than what journalists want (scandal).

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    Great Idea Jeff:
    “I think both groups should also invite business people because if we don’t bring them along in trying to create new products and business models, we won’t support these new and better endeavors. Business people don’t have cooties. But they do have wallets.”
    That wallet is currently shelling out “one trillion dollars.” And the share going to the media has shrunk to under 25 cents out of every dollar.
    Tomorrow I’m going to interview an expert on this disasterous decline in market share and ask “Why?” That same day I’ll post his answers (in his own words) on http://www.businessblogcasting.com
    I think it could help decide what you don’t want to copy about the traditional media business model.

  • http://renaissancegurl.blogspot.com Jay

    Great Post!
    JennyD: Journalists don’t want scandal. Scandal is driven by the marketplace – ie advertisers want to advertise next to what is being read, people read the scandal and the op ed pieces about Iraq, so the media makes the business decision to write about what will provide the highest ratings or circulation. If people didn’t eat the stuff up, they wouldn’t write it. In fact, a recent survey of Journalism Professionals (Media Professionals and Their Industry – Lauer 2004) Indicated that most journalists DON’T WANT to write about scandal. They would prefer to cover local stories. Unfortunately the readers buy the scandal. Money talks.
    Jeff – Based on your insights from the conference, what can a communications/journalism student going through university do to best prepare themselves for the future? I’d love your thoughts on this.

  • http://www.drcookie.blogspot.com JennyD

    I disagree about scandal. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the work scandal, but instead should have said controversy.
    Case in point: I was working for one of the largest newspapers in NJ. I was assigned to cover a story about a gas tax hike. I was sent to gas stations to interview patrons about their reaction to the 10 cent per gallon tax hike.
    I interviewed 15 motorists. None of them even noticed the tax hike. I called my editor. He said: “This story is slated for Page One. Go interview some more people.”
    Ahhh, I had to interview people until I found controversy. I get it. I interviewed 15 more motorists, and changed the way I asked the question. I had been asking, what do you think about the hike in gas taxes. I started asking, how upset are you about the hike in gas taxes.
    Guess what? I got the story my editor wanted when I started asking leading questions. He wanted controversy (scandal), and I provided it all under the illusion of objectivity.
    For more proof: today on CNN.com there is a story with a headline that says, Was race a factor in Aruba arrests? It’s about the fact that the two security guards arrested were black.
    The third graf says this: “One question swirling around the investigation was whether police initially targeted the security guards — who were released without charges eight days later — as suspects at least in part because of their race or class.”
    But in the rest of the story, there is not a single quote, or reference to anyone who is asking these questions. If there are questions swirling, we can’t tell from this story where they are swirling, and who is swirling them. It appears that the reporter is swirling these questions, and doing so under the veil of objectivity.
    So tell me again, journalists really care, right? And they are really into objectivity, and all? And they don’t care a bit about the bottom line, except someone somewhere is thinking about the next controversial headline.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Jenny: A perfect anecdote. At the Chicago Tribune, I had a top editor who assigned task-force investigations on the basis of headlines he wrote first.

  • ralph phelan

    “how much these people care. ”
    I think that’s part of the problem. They care about making the world a better place – by their definition of “better” of course. I’d prefer they just collected information because that’s what they got paid to do.

  • HA

    Jeff,
    I mentioned it before, but I am shocked at the hostility to profit I often hear in some quarters at such gatherings.
    Shocked? J-schools are churning out thoroughly indoctrinated Gramscian Marxbots, and you’re shocked at their hostility to profit? You’re shocked that they don’t trust the marketplace? You’re shocked that they don’t trust the public? You’re shocked that they want government regulated media?
    Earth to Jeff. There was gambling in Casablanca, and there is Marxism in journalism.
    But if you had sat there with me, I know that you would have been impressed with how much these people care.
    Maybe. But I don’t care if they “care”. They certainly want you to think they “care”. In my opinion, the only thing these people care about is setting themselves up as a privileged class with government protected powers not enjoyed by we the masses of lower class subjects. And even if they do “care”, then it is the same kind of caring as ignorant medieval doctors who bled his patients to death with leeches.

  • http://evelynrodriguez.typepad.com Evelyn Rodriguez

    Jeff, A lot of good thoughts. I’m find myself stammering, “Uh, no, I’m not a ‘professional’ journalist…” at the South Asian Journalists Association confererence at Columbia (where I’m currently writing from) after the cursory where do you work question. Most have heard of citizen journalists and bloggers and now that they’ve actually seen one, it’s not a mythical beast any longer ;-) But I also get the same sense that here are people that have an earnest desire (as you stated) to serve and do good work (although editors get blamed a LOT as gatekeeper/barriers). It’s opened my eyes going to a “real” journalists conference. More when I have digested it all…
    A very symphatic to bloggers editor (she reads blogs) told me she found a lot of bloggers to be almost “vicious” towards MSM journalists – and I see that’s often the case myself. I think good things could happen from talking to each other with an open mind. I’m with you that we need to go to more of these journalism confabs and vice versa.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    >>Businesses pay PR people to send stuff to journalists who won’t even open it. Those businesses would be willing to pay to have that information in summary advertorial fashion in the paper. Much of it is “news” that people want to read.
    Journalists need to rethink this, quickly.

    But, Joe, what journalist would want to write that crap? Not me. That’s PR. And I do agree that some of it is indeed what people want to read but there’s no satisfaction there writing what a business wants you to write. Not for a journalist, anyway.
    And here I’m speaking exclusively of the quote above so don’t take my comments to apply to other areas. Having worked “local” all my career in journalism, it’s obvious that when no one else is covering it, the local guys do. They are there – in your area – through thick and thin.
    It’s also obvious that when a “big gun” comes into town to do a story – CNN, Arizona Republic (any TV really) – people move heaven and earth to get it done. The journalism is rarely better – especially on TV (sorry). The big boys have pull, like a planet. Not earned locally. Not warranted localy (well, rarely). It’s just happens.
    Support your local newspaper, your local weekly. Don’t expect written perfection at the weeklies but do expect to be informed about your local area. (I say that because I just finished training a weekly editor – who has no prior journalism experience)
    And if they had more staff, their Web sites would be better. :-)

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    >>Journalists need to rethink this, quickly.
    This is part of the quoted materal not my comment.

  • http://www.databasedads.com Joe Zekas

    Temple Stark,
    You missed my point completely.
    I suggested that papers cut out the middleman and the filter and let businesses and individuals pay to place advertorials — that are identified as such.
    Local papers need to get real about what they do. Most of what local papers now produce is not “journalism.” It’s semi-literate graduates of third-rate “journalism” programs regurgitating commercial messages that should go into print unmediated and be paid for.