A two-fer today: I’m posting the last two chapters of the first section of Geeks Bearing Gifts as they are both about new roles and relationships for journalists: one explores engagement, collaboration, and membership; the other looks at the journalist as organizer, advocate, and educator. Earlier drafts of these chapters have appeared online before. Tomorrow, I’ll start posting chapters about new forms and business models, which haven’t appeared before. Snippets from these two chapters:
What would it mean for members of the community to be truly engaged in news? At the high end of collaboration, a news organization and its journalists could stand ready to complete the assignments conjured up by a community: “We need to know this,” the community says, “and we want you to use your power as a convener to bring us together to gather this information and then to add journalistic value to that work.” True, the community could organize its own task through, say, Facebook or Twitter. But the news organization can help by convening the work, by instructing people how to meet their goal, by verifying facts, by adding context and explanation, and by offering organization.
What does a member give to become a member? Membership is seen by some as just another word for subscription: Give us your money and we will give you access to see our content. It’s another way to say “customer.” A member might well give money to support a journalistic endeavor but a true member will likely want some voice in return. Of course, a journalist will want to make sure that she is not co-opted by her patron’s funds. Journalists should also see that members can contribute value in ways other than money: giving ideas, tips, content, promotion, effort. Membership requires an exchange of value, with each side of the transaction giving something to get something.
There is one other way to look at membership, one that does not put the news organization at the egocentric middle of the Venn diagram but at the edge: The community already exists and the news organization is just another member of it, contributing value to receive value. . . . Membership is not just a tollbooth. It is a two-way street.
“Community organizer” sounds like a punchline to a Fox News joke about Barack Obama. But if news organizations are to serve communities, they often need to act as community organizers to marshal the forces of communities in very practical ways: listening to their needs, drawing their attention to an issue, convening them to gather together and discuss the issue, urging them to action, and helping them reach their goals. That would seem to violate our professional myths of objectivity and distance — that, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we operate under a Prime Directive not to interfere with other life forms, only to observe them. But the truth is that news organizations have long convened communities to take action — isn’t that our desired outcome in investigative (that is, crusading) journalism: to get our readers to demand action of government, to have an impact, to bring change? I’ll avoid the tired battle over journalistic objectivity and confess that on this question I have a strongly held belief: We are not objective.
If traditionalists in my field haven’t already crumpled up this essay — or whatever one does in disgust, post-paper, with a digital screen — at my contentions that we are not in the content business and are not first storytellers, this may cause them to strike a match or pull the plug. Still, I’ll go even farther and argue this: If it isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism.