Edit me

I’m on a panel for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences next month with Jill Abramson, John Carroll, Geneva Overholser, and Jon Klein, with Norm Pearlstine presiding. They’re having us write our spiels beforehand so continued on the jump is my attempt to boil this blog down to five minutes. Take a look and comment, please:

News is not shrinking, even if newspapers are.

We are faced with no end of new opportunities in journalism as our definitions of news explode and as interest in news expands. We have new ways to gather, share, and judge news from new sources across new media.

So it is time to end the editorial Eeyoreing and newsroom protectionism that has dominated this discussion to date and instead to focus on the many opportunities we have to update, upgrade, and expand the scope and reach of journalism in society.

This requires that we change the essential relationship of the journalist to the public, to be more collaborative and open. Now that anyone can perform an act of journalism – witnessing and sharing news with new tools to enable both – it is incumbent upon us to find new ways to work together. I was among those who called this movement “citizen journalism,” but I’ve recanted that, because journalism must not be defined by the person who commits it but rather by the act and its credibility – and because many journalists complain that they are citizens, too. So I now call this “networked journalism,” for I believe that by working together, we can commit greater acts of reporting, covering more of society than was ever possible before. No one says that the people will replace the professionals. No one. So can that red herring now. The opportunity is to work together, professional and amateur, toward the same goal: an informed society.

Consider Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.net, which sets out to test whether the public will support journalism with their ideas, money, and, indeed, reporting to fan out and gather more facts than any task force of professionals ever could have. Consider the ability of neighbors blogging or recording meetings and events to help make newspapers hyperlocal in their coverage. Consider the omnipartisan Porkbusters campaign that got citizens to call their senators and, one-by-one, uncover who among them had put a secret hold on accountability legislation. Consider the Guardian’s Comment is Free, where the columnists, critics, and reporters are forced to join in the conversation and where the amateurs show how much they can add. Consider Readers-Edition at Netzeitung, where the people both report and edit news. Consider the bloggers in Iraq who live outside the Green Zone and report where we cannot. And consider my teenage son and webmaster’s favorite service, Digg.com, where news of Donald Rumfeld’s departure beat GoogleNews by 17 minutes thanks to the editing of the people; who says the young don’t care about and know news? They do. That’s why they watch Jon Stewart, who is not afraid of doing what we too long ago became incapable of doing: calling bullshit.

We can work in any medium to tell stories how they should be told. At the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, I am teaching student writers to tell their stories in photos, in graphics, in audio, in video – and the real lesson they learn is how easy it is; that is why everyone out there is doing it. These students are also learning that they very likely will have to work independently as jobs in newsrooms do fade away. But they are not intimidated by the prospect; most are excited by it, inspired by such independent journalists as Deborah Galant at Baristanet.com or Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org or their fellow student Zeyad at HealingIraq.com. They are signing up to take my course in journalistic entrepreneurialism.

So what is the role of the professional journalist – the organizational journalist – in this new age? I say it is to come down from the castle parapet and to speak eye-to-eye with the community, no longer as lecturer and controller but as moderator, enabler, and sometimes educator. As acts of journalism are committed anywhere and everywhere, we must see it as our mission to improve those acts and let them improve ours. We should turn the newsroom into a classroom where we learn from the public, where we share what we know, and where the public learns from each other. We have no choice but to accept and invite the public as our editor; they always were, only we couldn’t hear them. We must abandon our false god of objectivity, which separated us from the public and hid our agendas, and replace it with the ethic of transparency that I have learned from my new colleagues online.

But what of the business of journalism? The New York Times itself has said the newspaper industry is in free fall. So how will we support reporting? Not the way we did before, with monopolies that made us arrogant and complacent. Start here: Journalism in America is wasteful. We squander far too much of our resource on commodity news everyone already knows, on the ego of bylines and prizes, on habits and traditions that go unchallenged, on fear. Does every paper in this country need its own movie critic, its own golf columnist, its tangle of middle managers, its own copy editors editing already-edited AP stories? Must we continue throwing money into stock tables, TV listings, and other features we carry still only because we are afraid of losing one more reader?

I say that the process of cutting back newsrooms must be seen as an opportunity to boil us to our essence. And what is that essence? Reporting, of course. That is how we must distinguish ourselves, how we must establish our value, with reporting. I see the means to build a new ecosystem, a new architecture of news that rewards journalism at its source through the power of the link. That journalism may be performed by professionals or amateurs, individuals or organizations, stars or nameless networks. It will be distributed then aggregated. It will rise from the uncontrolled and glorious cacophony of voices and viewpoints that is a healthy democracy in discussion.

I am most optimistic about the fate of journalism; that is why I am teaching it, after all. But I am unsure whether journalism today is, in fact, in the hands of its most able stewards, who must stop trying to protect the past and who must have the courage to experiment, invent, and embrace the future with the public they serve.