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.

  • leolabeth

    You made boatloads of sense on Radio Times today and I came straight home, well nearly, and Googled you. I agreed with the caller who said your show was one of her best. (My link may not work correcly after today because I think it’s the current show page. Look for the second hour of the 1.August.06 show afterwards.)

    As a former print reporter who appreciates the interchange between the old and new media, I cherish your point of view. What was the great phrase you used, the honor of the link, or link honor? Damnation, I can’t remember. Anyway, it’s one of the things I think separates the blogosphere. It translates into instant accountability available nowhere else.

    Thanks. And thank heaven for satellite radio or I’d never have heard this show.


  • I agree with your views on the future of journalism. I myself hope to major in journalism as it broadens its horizons to encompass all forms of communication. People often tell me that writing for magazines and newspapers are a dying profession but I believe that the internet is not looking to replace the printed word. It is basically another form of journalism. Thanks for your insights!

  • Jeff, why would someone pay to go to school where the teacher/instructor/professor says upfront that he/she does not know enough to teach? You suggest that the best way for a group of novices to become expert at a profession is…for them to teach each other? What would they teach other?

    I mean, I get the idea that there’s lots to learn, but I think your role as an instructor is much more difficult than you think it is.

    Meanwhile, your description of journalism makes it sound a little bit like group therapy or marriage counseling. I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more hard and fast skills and strategies?

  • You now express an interest in helping mold standards for journalism. A year ago, though, you soured on standards for bloggers: “It may be contrarian of me, but I will argue that we should not adopt a code of ethics and standards. That is for institutions to declare because they lose touch with their publics.”

    Now, you could be for the notion of re-examining standards without adopting them. Or it may be the case that, to your logic, blogging is not a subset of journalism. But, of course, certain bloggers feel they are doing journalism, that is uncontestable, and many are represented by the Media Bloggers Association, from where your post above came from. The MBA eventually adopted standards, but refrained from playing the role of arbiter or judge.

    Something to consider before the bell rings in a month.

  • Leolabeth,

    You keep projecting that I”m going to go into class and say I don’t know anything. Of course, I better be prepared to teach. But I am saying that no one — teacher, student, journalist — knows exactly where journalism is headed and we need to explore that together.

    Fair question. The difference I didn’t express well is that I’m not suggesting that we create some professional or amateur code to sign onto, only that we have standards upon which to JUDGE the journalism that is done by anyone.

  • Okay, I’ll bite. What exactly are YOU going to teach? Is it that you can learn things from everyone–even people who know nothing about journalism? Is it that students can learn more from each other than you?

    If I were a student in your class, what materials what I encounter on the first day of class? What would be your objectives for me and other students with regard to the materials, and your enactment of them as a teacher?

    As a student, I will spend at least 90 minutes with you and other students on Day One. How will that time be spent? And how will you as an instructor know that they time has been well spent?

  • I liked everything said in the post. It’s always a useful exercise to say what you believe in.

    I know nothing about journalism. Looking forward to hearing about and reading about and maybe even watching these classes.

  • One more element to add to the mix, get it right. Pay attention to the details, pay attention to the facts. Be on the lookout for errors and be ready to correct them when they come to your attention. Correct errors when you spot them and do not wait until readers bring them to your attention. Have the courage to admit to being wrong.

    Finally, the story’s author writes the headline. No exceptions.

  • Alan, what if the reporters are terrible headline writers? Some people are skilled at writing headlines that express the gist of a story, sometimes with humor or irony. Why not use them? What’s more, some stories need to be rewritten by editors, with new lead, new nut graph, etc. Should the authors of those stories still write the headlines? If journalism is a team game, as Jeff says, why not work as a team?

  • If trends continue we won’t have any reporters, they will all be in jail.

    Today two NY Times reporters lost an appeal about having their phone records turned over to a grand jury.

    A blogger/free-lancer was imprisoned for refusing to turn over his raw tapes of a protest rally.

  • This is a quest we are on, I think, and we have been gifted with the tools to be good and true scribes for the tribe. Tools that are awesome yet available to anyone with the wit to find his way on to the web. Google my name and you will see what I mean.
    We can skip around the sidelines to help make more sense of what is happening, we can work in squads, even platoons or as single sentinels, and we can and will swear to be honest and do right things.
    Once all the strawmen and strawwomen are batted aside, and the difficulties hurdled, and the practicalities attended to, we should be able to do a lot of good, and if we volunteered that would be a nice thing, too.
    And , it will be seen, I bet, that the “ease of creation ” does indeed pay huge dividends.

  • I was interested that you say that one of the many things an individual journalist has to become is an entrepreneur and would like to know more about your views on this. As a journalist now running a business, there are all sorts of challenges that this throws up as you will know – not least ethically – how does making money always sit with reporting objectively? Apologies if I am stating the obvious. Also as someone who imposed a self exile into PR work when her children were small, can I ask if you think those ‘journalist entrepreneurs’ can ever make as much money as the hack who ‘sells out’ to PR?

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