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 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.