The Project for Excellence in Journalism held an online roundtable that’s here. They edited my responses and so I’m giving you the full text here, for I was critical of many of their questions and assumptions and that was edited out, along with my rampant wordiness.
1. Blog readership seems to have stalled in 2005. Content analysis also shows there is little of what we most would think of as original reporting in blogs. Yet they often write about events outside the purview of the mainstream press. How ultimately do you think blogs and other citizen media will affect news reporting in America? Will we ever see them as a more significant, or even equally important part of the mainstream American news diet as traditional journalism?
Your questions are fairly dripping with agenda. You seem to be trying to push a worldview that says that blogs and online video are on the decline – so pay no mind to them – and that what journalism needs is more staff. Sorry, but that attitude is what is putting American journalism in peril. Head, meet sand.
On blogs, you are concentrating on the wrong statistic; you continue to look at media as an act of consumption. Media are acts of creation – and we should know that, since that is what we in media do. Except now, we’re not the only ones creating; our public, too, has the benefit of the printing press and the broadcast tower online. And the truth is that the number of blogs created has continued to explode, doubling every six months (to 39 million by Technorati’s count… no, wait, that’s 40 million). Those people are not just readers, listeners, viewers, users, or consumers. They are speakers. So are we listening to them? That is the real question. If you are a journalist, a company, or a politician and you are not listening to your public, your customers, your constituents, then you are a damned deaf fool.
How will blogs affect news reporting? Ask the news reporters. They should be listening to blogs, hearing what the people actually care about, getting story ideas, getting help with reporting. I think that is happening more and more every day and that is one of the hopeful signs I see for American journalism.
You – like so many journalism conferences these days – make the mistake of trying to turn this discussion into a cable news shoutfest: blogs vs. mainstream media! Enough! The right question to ask is how blogs and mainstream media can work together to improve journalism and an informed society. You should be asking how any mainstream journalist could possibly imagine not doing his or her job without the help of the public through blogs.
2. A late March 2006 study from the Online Publishers Association suggested that the audience for online video consumption hasn’t grown much in the last year. At the same time, people are downloading video to ipods and watching sporting games on their 2″ screens. What seems to be holding back online video growth? Is it the technology? The quality of video? Is it that people still prefer to watch video on a television?
Once again, you’re trying to dismiss online video because one self-interested survey said it “hasn’t grown much.” So what you do you suggest media folks and citizens should do? Throw out their video cameras? Even the TV networks and producers know better as they suddenly dare to piss off their historic channels of distribution – broadcast affiliates, cable system operators, retail outlets – to distribute their programs directly to consumers via iTunes, Bittorrent, and the web. And advertisers are still dying to get more video time online. Are they all idiots? Hardly. They are made brave by their desperation to figure out how to take advantage of this new world before they are left behind by it.
When I had six months’ use of a high-speed phone (full-disclosure: for free from Sprint, because I blog), the one thing that struck me was watching live – live! – video on my phone. Imagine the next major breaking news event: I will most certainly watch it on my phone, size and quality be damned, because like most of America, I am conditioned to turn to TV during such events. Where will newspapers be? Will they cede this turf, too, to another news organization just because they still define themselves by their medium: ‘We’re print, not TV?’ That is certainly suicidal. Should we worry the quality of the 2-inch screen? No, we should not, anymore than the networks worried about the poor quality of images coming from satellite phones during the war in Iraq. News is news. The public cares far more about the substance of reporting than the style; they do not give the respect to the priesthood of tools that we do; let’s give them that credit.
A few numbers that speak to me: When Jon Stewart went onto Crossfire to kill it (bless him), he was seen by 150,000 people on big, old CNN. The next day, that segment went up on iFilm, where it has been seen 3.5 million times, and on Bittorrent, where I figure it has been seen by probably twice that number. So, rough numbers, figure that CNN brought 150,000 people (median age: 59.5) and the internet brought 10 million (median age: much less). Now see Rocketboom, the popular video blog that has 300,000 daily viewers – twice the audience of big, old, dead Crossfire. Video on the decline? Hardly.
3. In our reporting we were told traditional news companies finally appear to be investing in building their web presence. Yet much of that of investment may be in technology (both software and hardware) rather than in personnel to do more information gathering and original reporting. Do you think traditional news companies have turned a corner in their view of the web? Do you think they are investing in the right place? And how much confidence do you have they can innovate the web better than Internet only companies like Google, Yahoo or others?
Sorry to say, too many still can’t see the corner, let alone turn it. I hear courageous and visionary statements from Europe – from the editor of the Guardian, who knows he now owns his last presses; the CEO of Reuters, who acknowledges that the public is now the editor; the head of the BBC, who is exploding his network; the proprietor of Burda, who says he is investing in online social software (not content); the head of Gruner + Jahr, who says the role of the journalist in the future will be that of a moderator. In the U.S., I too often hear news executives talk about saving newspapers and newsrooms. Sorry, but the old structure must change.
4. If online journalism could make one change in how it is operating, what would that be?
If only there were one change. There isn’t. They must instill fear in the culture of newsrooms to make people understand the strategic imperative for change. They must cut back on all the money they waste on commodities, editorial egos, and the fear of losing even one reader (via stock tables, TV schedules, the 15,001st reporter sent to the political conventions where nothing happens and whatever does happen you can see on CSPAN, the golf writer sent to the tournament that’s on TV for the sake of a byline, the resources put into recreating the news others already have that the audience already knows). They must determine what makes them uniquely valuable and invest in that (for newspapers, that’s about being local, about helping to gather and share news in new, larger, and more effective ways). They must have the courage to drive business from the old medium before it dies to the new (and, yes, the models, margins, and staff counts will not be the same).
5. One broad trend we sense in the media culture is the paradox of more outlets covering fewer stories. As the audiences for particular news outlets shrink, newsroom resources are then reduced, but these outlets still feel compelled to cover the big events of the day. The result is more outlets covering those same “big” events and fewer are covering much beyond that as much as they once did. How do you view this trend?
This isn’t a result of newsroom cutbacks. This is a result of bad news management. Once again, we must stop wasting money on commodity news and decide what our unique value is and invest in that. Do we really need to cover the same “big” events? I don’t think so. In fact, I’ve seen research from young people that screams at us to stop telling them what they already know from the internet, TV, and radio. We need to have the courage to stop covering what everyone else is covering and find stories that matter with perspective that counts. That’s real reporting.
6. How much confidence do you have that traditional mainstream media organizations will survive and thrive in the transition to the Internet?
Oh, I wish I had more.
There are certainly pockets of innovation: see Greensboro, NashvilleisTalking.com, Northwest Voices, Baristanet.com. But we need more than pockets of imagination. We need brave leadership. Where is it?
7. Do you think the economic model of the Internet has to shift from an advertising based model to something else for traditional journalism to survive at a level that we have become accustomed to? If so, do you have any thoughts on what that new model might be?
And why is the standard the “level that we have become accustomed to”? I’m sorry to be such a curmudgeon about the curmudgeonly art of journalism, but that is precisely the attitude that, I believe, could be the death of our beloved craft. Your words presume an agenda of trying to preserve a past rather than trying to imagine a future. We should be trying to find all the ways to take advantage of the incredible opportunities the internet brings us to gather more news and more diverse viewpoints from more sources and to share that more quickly and more efficiently with greater relevance. We should be looking at the role we can play in this new world: reporting, absolutely, but also helping to guide others to commit good acts of journalism and to support them with content, promotion, knowledge, trust, and, yes, revenue.
The question I usually hear after the one you ask is whether journalism can exist in a public company. Of course, it can. A public company is, after all, a company owned by the public and that market pressure is, in the end, both healthy and necessary. I hear people in our business suggest that journalism should be family-owned to avoid that pressure. I’d turn that around that suggest that family-owned news organizations may be best positioned to be brave and to force their audiences and advertisers over the rubicon from print to online and to find new ways to commit journalism in new business models. I hear people act as if journalism is a public entitlement, but that is true only if the public agrees and I certainly don’t want to see us in a position where journalism can exist only on the backs of charity or, God forbid, government aid.
I would hope that you would next send out a list of questions to journalists, professional and amateur, to have them imagine and execute a new future for journalism. Stop grasping at the past. Start creating the future.