Posts about jschool

Bigger, better journalism

At the end of my response to Columbia J-school Dean Nicholas Lemann’s drawing of a line in the sand between professional journalists and bloggers, below, I challenged him to tell how he proposes to meet his proper desire to bring more reporters (I would say, instead, reporting) to citizens’ journalism. Well, I should pick up my own challenge. So here are some of my notions. As I embark myself on teaching journalism at CUNY this fall, note well that I haven’t even started yet and so I am sure to be wrong in countless ways. Note also that I don’t speak for the school here. These are simply notes on how I hope to learn and teach, study and explore some of the new possibilities for journalism.

First, journalism will become more collaborative — because it can, thanks to new tools; because it must, thanks to new business realities; and because it should, to build a new and respectful relationship with the public. So our challenge is to find the ways to help this happen.

To begin, I believe we have a cultural challenge to break down the walls in the newsroom and classroom. I’ve said before that as a small act, which may just be symbolic (though I hope it’s more), I plan to webcast my classes not to teach the world but so the world teaches us. I’ve also argued that newsrooms should become classrooms where the public teaches the journalists and each other and the journalists share the skills of their trade with the growing world of amateur journalists. I want the sources for stories we write to come to class and judge our work and teach us because — cue Dan Gillmor — they know more. I want to find projects that bring together professional and amateur journalists to report together in acts of networked journalism.

I am assuming that the classroom is a good place to experiment with collaboration and learn what can work. But I also think a school can be a meeting ground to bring together the pros and the ams to also discover their shared goals and meet each others’ needs. The challenge to all — journalists, citizens, educators — is not to protect against the shrinkage of a changing industry but to find the ways to expand the scope and work and quality of journalism, taking advantage of the many new opportunities before us.

Second, journalism will no longer be defined by its medium. It will be unbundled, in Terry Heaton’s words — and so journalists must learn how to tell stories and deliver information in any of many ways.

Thanks to the incredibly easy means of creating media today, there’ll be no more need for priesthoods of the tools. Yes, the tools will be taught (after my son teaches them to me) but as Rich Gordon emphasizes, the one sure thing is that they will change. We need to realize that the ease of creation pays a huge dividend: It means we can put less effort and resource into production and more into reporting.

Thanks to all the new means to gather and deliver from and to anywhere, this also means that the process of news must change — not just extending deadlines around the clock but also allowing reporting to become open: the story is never done and can always be better.

So this is about much more than just deciding whether you are a print, broadcast, or online person; those are soon-to-be meaningless lines and possibly career dead ends. This is about changing the essential architecture of news. But note well that I am not saying one medium will replace another (another common strawman in this discussion). See this week’s Pew study, which argues that the internet is a supplement to other media, though I’d put that slightly differently. What is a supplement to what depends on which medium gives you the most relevant news for your attention, I think. Still, online recognizes that there are other media people will still use and it also complements them. I think that newspapers never respected the role that TV and radio played. But online has to respect the role that newspapers and broadcast will always play. So it’s not about competition among media.

Third, journalists must take some responsibility for the business of news. Only a few years ago, this would have been heresy punishable by banishment to PR and in some quarters, it still will be. But today, we have to recognize that journalism will no longer be subsidized by closed monopolies and that the business itself — and the call on the public’s attention — is now highly competitive. There will be no magic bullet to save newsrooms. Newsrooms will change and those that don’t are the ones that are doomed. And there will be many business models. This is why I applaud NewAssignment.net as one model and why I keep flogging the idea of an open-source ad network for citizens’ media and why I am so heartened to see people like Deb Galant begin to succeed and Rafat Ali hiring reporters.

Fourth, journalists must redefine their roles and relationships as more than reporters, editors, and producers — which, yes, they must still be — but also…. Moderators. Entrepreneurs. Teachers. Students. Helpers. Enablers. Networkers. Filters. Partners. Community members. Citizens. I think in some ways this is the most exciting quest of them all.

The greatest benefit that can come out of all this is that we rediscover the essence of journalism and its standards. In most of the discussions of this, we hear about standards in a bundle — without enough discussion of the standards themselves — and they tend to be thrown around as the badges of professionals. But when we extend the definition of journalism and open the doors to all who commit acts of journalism, then the discussion of standards no longer becomes one of ‘we have them and you don’t’ (aimed at the amateurs) or ‘you think you have them but you’re failing at them’ (aimed at the professionals). Standards can stop being cudgels and start being what they should be: goals. But I do not think we should assume that the standards of journalism are signed, sealed, and delivered. As more people gather and share news in more ways and as the roles of journalist, citizen, newsmaker, and advocate mesh and sometimes merge and often conflict, I agree with those who fret about standards. I b elieve it becomes more important than ever to restate and reexamine them and be open to new standards that fit some of our new roles, standards like transparency and generosity.

I will — I’d better — change and adapt these views with every class and every discussion. But that’s my starting point.

Talk of the town

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

His strawman king: that bloggers believe they will replace journalists. I don’t know a single blogger who says that with a straight face. But that is what professional journalists — fewer and fewer of them, actually — think they hear bloggers say and so they snipe back with very straight and sometimes red faces: ‘Yeah, you and who else?’

His next strawman is that some blogging is not journalism or is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. He points to some quaint examples of human speech in blogs — more on those in a moment — and dismisses it because it is not institutional and profound. Well, I can point to lots of allegedly professional journalism — somebody paid for it — in lots of newspapers — like the wee daily near me — and on lots of TV and radio stations in this country that is folksy, chatty, uninformative, badly written, and often utter crap. Does that mean that all professional journalism is crap? Of course not. It’s a lazy argument. And while I’m at it, dare I say that I can dig out lots of Talk of the Town pieces and letters from correspondents over the years in The New Yorker that did little or nothing to inform the nation and were written in a once-anonymous, faux folksiness that tried to simulate the humanity and real life you hear in the excerpts Lemann mocks.

The strawman he presents at the start of his essay is that bloggers think they are all inventing something new and that they are really just descendants of the pamphleteers who spread their words with opinion and agenda at the time of America’s founding, long before modern institutional journalism was invented. Stipulated. Says Lemann:

They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

I don’t know a blogger who does not agree with that — at least writer-by-writer, if not regarding the medium as a whole. Bloggers proudly point to the pamphleteers as parents. They don’t say they are new against the history of conversation and publication, information and advocacy. Bloggers say they are new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust — a kind of journalism that Lemann himself concedes is relatively new. Says Lemann:

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against–journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses–is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man.

But he is a strawman of your making.

The next strawman is me: I am held up as an example of unrestrained blog snarkiness and for that he found quite the juicy tossed tomato, a snitfit I had in 2003 when The New York Times’ John Markoff trotted out his own strawman (one I’d thought to be extinct by now) about blogs being the next CB radio. Markoff also said that he didn’t need a blog because The Times is a blog. I fisked that interview with Markoff and looking back — this came out two weeks after the first Bloggercon — I have to say I still enjoy it. Lemann didn’t even quote my nastiest line: “You know, institutions worry about letting reporters blog without editing but they don’t worry about letting a jackass like this out without a leash.” Opinionated, blunt voices scare big-J Journalists. But we don’t always yell. Only when provoked.

And finally, if there’s any hay left, there’s Lemann’s belief that journalism’s standards were set by the professionals. I’d say they are still being set by the public who have always decided every day whom to believe and whom to trust — only now, we get to hear their decision process.

So Lemann continues to paint this as a fight: bloggers v. journalists. He continues to try to define journalists as the professionals, to define the act by the person who performs it (and, implicitly, the training he has) rather than by the act itself. He continues to try to limit journalism to journalists, wanting in his last line for reporters (note, he didn’t say reporting) to move to citizens’ journalism.

I so wish I had seen him instead imagine the possibilities for news when journalists and bloggers join to work together in a network made possible by the internet. I wish he had seen journalism expanded way past the walls of newsrooms and j-schools to gather and share more information for an informed society. I wish he had used his lofty perch to see beyond the horizon to a new future for journalism and the students he — and I — are teaching now.

But no. Pity.

(more…)

Teaching the teachers

Jonathan Last has lots of suggestions for J-schools.

Time to break some rules

Adrian Holovaty, the most creative and the most creatively productive guy we still have in the news biz in this country, gives the commencement speech at his j-school alma mater:

…But, most of all, the foundation is important because you need to understand the rules before you can break them. And now, more than ever, this industry needs to break some rules….

Graduates, the fire should be burning under each and every one of you. You should be yearning — aching — to bring this industry into a new age. Your generation — our generation — is going to be the one to do it. You’re going to be the people breaking the rules. You’re going to be the people inventing new ones….