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.

  • Love it. I often hear about how “journalism is dying!” Absurd. Journalists are dying. And the wounds are self-inflicted. There is still a demand for good journalism, and you lay out a solid and logical case for it.

    If you’re looking for input, I’d throw in a few lines about the efficiencies of new digital production tools. Your observation that the Rocketboom crew did a three camera HD shoot at your place, for example. I have seen more people sitting on a set doing nothing than it took for the people to shoot your interview.

    So journalists have to get over themselves not just in terms of the platforms on which they appear but also in the tools they use. If I started a TV newsroom today, my first order to the reporters would be this: do not come into work. You will get your assignment via email by the time you wake up. Go to it. Send back the video you shoot as you shoot it. You will report live over the web continuously, over your laptop. The web will be the sum total of our newsgathering; the newscast will be the summary.

    Good luck!

  • Choire

    Well, you know I agree with you, in essence, on so much of this stuff. But I always have trouble when you say things like: “So what is the role of the professional journalist?…. I say it is to come down from the castle parapet.” I don’t know who you’re talking about when you issue these sort of oddly class-war tinged statements. All the great reporters I know (and those I work with) are on no parapets–they’re on the streets, and on the phones, and helping their readers. That sort of talk reminds me a bit of Dinesh D’Souza and the sort of post-PC wars attacks on the “ivory tower” which were, let’s say, complicated at best. I always think I’d find myself nodding along a bit more with you if you got specific. I think you’re using the vague language of the op-ed page instead of the detail-oriented language of the reporter.

    If I may blather further about my opinions (whee!) then I’d also say it’s important not to conflate delivery services and news-gathering services. Digg may have beat Google News, but those aren’t news-gathering organizations in competition. Those are aggregators of material created by someone else, at expense and cost of time. This goes back to my questions about Daylife and about news aggregation in general. Like you, I’m in favor of news getting to people however they best like it. But I still think it can’t be denied that, well, news comes from somewhere–and that the most useful service for readers is a human being immersed in a beat or a community, regularly issuing reports both small and long, both snacks and meals, incremental and global.

    Which is to say, what doesn’t get mentioned so much in this day and age of news aggregation is the importance of interpretive journalism.

    The “cutting back of the newsroom” to which you refer has largely already occurred. But you know very well the resources it takes to make things happen immediately online. Take election night. I could go out and shoot all the video I want live on-scene for near-immediate web use. That must be transmitted, then edited, posted–all at high speed. That’s at least one person on-site (juggling a note-pad and a camera) and two skilled people, who can make editorial and format sense of raw material, working quickly back at home base, right? So who will you cut?

    So, I guess what I’m saying is: When you talk, my humble opinion is that I’d like you to put more journalism in your speeches. Who exactly are these not “able stewards”? Who is recalcitrant to serve readers? What processes are preventing news organizations from succeeding financially–for those that are not, of course. (As we all know, the LA Times makes plenty of money.) And what of those leading the way in digital newspapers? Do you think Jon Landman’s attempts to change the NYT are a failure, or a success? Or Richard Rushfield & Co.’s, at the LAT?

    So tell us the story as you see it, buddy–as you’re always insisting the rest of us should.

  • Jeff it’s your life, so if you find it a good use of your time to attend conferences (isn’t this so 20th Century?) I certainly don’t want to suggest you do otherwise. But, you seem to spend a lot of time meeting with people who represent mature industries.

    When was the last time that a mature industry changed into one offering a new product? The changes in the information industries will come (as they have for the past 40 years) from young innovators, who don’t spend time at such meetings. Every major innovation has been the result of a “man with a dream” from the first Sun workstations to the PC (Apple) to Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, and the brains behind Google. Not one of these people were attending the hand wringing conferences of the time. Just in the past several years we have had a flurry of community based services (Napster, YouTube, blogging and Wikis) – none of which was even on the radar of the media leaders.

    Perhaps you feel you can best serve progress by alerting those running the old media to what is happening outside their walls, but it seems to me to be a mostly hopeless task. If they wanted to learn they wouldn’t be attending conferences or meeting with media gurus like you, but meeting with the innovators and trying the new services themselves.

    Startups backed by wise heads and establishment financiers haven’t fared much better. Products designed by committee seldom catch on compared to those designed by someone with a really new idea.

    However, if it pays your rent, keep at it, just don’t expect to help these ocean liners change course.

  • You say that the professional journalist should be “moderator, enabler, and educator.” I don’t think gets them off the parapet.

    How about “window?” Transparent, fully disclosed, whole. They have access that we in the cheap seats don’t have. I don’t want them to moderate. I want the whole conversation and the entire view exposed. I don’t want them to educate me. Too often, that asks them to interpret, and I don’t trust that.

    The future of news is a future where I, the consumer, choose my sources. My selection of a news source is based on trust. Too many news outlets use news sources that many of us don’t trust any more. The more window and the less moderator, the more trust.

  • Brave to lay bare your speaking notes. Stepping back, let’s imagine an AAAS member posting to this particular blog might write –

    “I say, Benjamin Franklin is in our ranks, so be braver in your plan to address the industry, inventions, and arts to come. Don’t tell us, make us see (for many of my fellow members cannot), through your exciting adventures and important lessons about all media. As I understand, the Internet is everyone’s content connected. And it is the new media for tomorrow. Robert Feinmen above is closer to the mark to focus on Franklinian innovators. With art, rather than reportage make us see how (Rob Curley) starts with a newspaper frame, yet builds upon the labors of television, magazine, newspaper to create the new media – farther in reach than existing media has imagined.”

    “I say, take us to that new world more. Though you don’t mention it, I imagine you have said things like –
    ‘The economies of the new media lets the audience print when they want, share their watching when they want, send media links to friends, create movements on topics. In the end, culture is what we choose to repeat. It seems that the new audience already has the new “radio”. They are waiting for new stations, a new form of communications trust to build new culture. The good news is that the economies of building new digital relationships are cheap, it just takes some care and thought and someone more like a DJ to satisfy. ‘”

    “I’d like to hear more about the new culture than the precedents. To make new culture, the arts are critical. I am glad you teach them. The new journalism, but what of voice talent, and the acting talent you already use when you yourself present?”

    Back to editor opinions on your speaking notes. As to your plan proposed, keep the concise headlines – one for each media. You have newspapers, add in more of your famous mantras. Safran above, reminds us of your TV mantra – Rocketboom vs broadcast trucks. This blog draft has good examples, but for speech select the essential few.

    Too much on journalism and the newspaper focus, other media and encouragement of those teaching arts are missing. Power of the pixel, power of voice, power of ink.

    On the minds of many, invert your paragraph, move to the beginning, “What is a healthy democracy?” maybe answer in colonial terms.

    I have to go and shape my backyard trees now. Good luck. Finally if you can lampoon a series of bombastic assertions, (from a foreign or old-world point of view) since you are on the stage, perform it elliptically, end it with, “Chenquieh”.

  • Delia


    This all sounds nice and dandy (re: “I am most optimistic about the fate of journalism”)… but I’m wondering if anything worries you? Assume all the promise of the “new journalism” comes true, would there be anything essential missing?


  • Patricia

    Great post, Jeff, but I fear you are spitting into the wind with this group.

    I would suggest to them if they want to remain editorial high priests preaching (and advertising) to an ever smaller choir, they should charge more for their papers. If they or their advertisers want broad-based readership, they should be more evenhanded, give us the sections we like, and charge less for their papers. Isn’t the news business still a business?

    Also noted is that all their dopey attempts to adapt, like Times Select or the OC Post, are so wrongheaded I’m sure they were thought up by the same guys who were responsible for the free fall in the first place.

  • Anna Haynes

    Thanks Robert Feinman for the above comment. It is interesting, there’s a structural bias (remuneration) holding Jeff in “explain the new ways to the old institutions” mode.
    It brings to mind the via-Paul-Graham question, “what’s the most important thing you could be doing and why aren’t you doing it?”
    Specific corollary – how/where, empirically, _should_ resources be directed, in order to produce a news ecosystem that will best inform the citizenry?

    no, I don’t have answers, but if you choose “reform the existing institutions” (aka “help these ocean liners change course”), you need to do it very, very intelligently.

  • i am surprised you say that, how come more UK journalists are not asking question about 911 or 7/7? Such as they are asking in america where most people are of the opinion that george bush did 911 himself and it was simply a gold bullion robbery carried out.

  • Investigative journalism is DEAD

  • I’d like for you to say something about two things: credibility and original reporting.

    Credibility: Too many journalists use it as a defense for not going online. They think they have credibility because they’re professional, and they’ll lose it by becoming involved with the crowds. But too many professional journalists have done too many sleazy things for journalists to look down their noses at the crowds.

    And too many bloggers think they have the time stamp that will take down the next Dan Rather. Beware of the word “conclusive.” It almost never is. I call it “evidence inflation.” Professionals and nonprofessionals alike need more critical thinking skills.

    Original reporting: Bloggers do more of it than they get credit for. Sure, it’s surrounded by lots of opinion-mongering, but it’s out there and deserves to be showcased. A journalist at your conference will inevitably say that bloggers don’t do any original reporting. It’s too easy. Journalists may do more original reporting than bloggers do, but bloggers do more than they get credit for, and journalists do less than they think. And by bloggers I mean the whole nonprofessional network of crowds.

  • Most of what passes for “television journalism” on television is unwatchable crap. Because the medium has pretty much been a monopoly for so long, the standards of what can be put on the air have detiorated to close to zero. The rise of the ‘digital revolution’, online video, and so on are going to give these guys a run for their money that they have never experienced before. My guess is that they won’t survive. You might start by turning to Jon Klein (CNN) and asking him if he put his daily newscast on a DVD and sold it at Blockbuster’s for 99 cents, how many people would buy it. (If you want to ask how many people would download it to a iPod you can, but the whole concept might be too confusing for him. Stick with the Blockbuster’s thing… and come to think of it, use VHS instead of DVD).

  • Amazing. Thank you, my editors. You should all go in my place. But it’s hard to split up a canape 12 ways. A few responses before I get to revising the spiel (which, by the way, is just an introductory statement in a panel, not a speech; I’d cram much more into a speech):

    Steve: You’re quite right about the efficiencies. That’s going in. And I quite like your newsnonroom. Once all your correspondents are out in the field, then anyone in that field can be a correspondent if they do good work.

    Choire: I agree that great reporters do not live in parapets. But bad editors do. I have stood in newsrooms and heard editors shout at me that they own trust, that you can’t trust the people out there — that is, us. So perhaps I react strongly to that but I fear that too many journalists, especially those who don’t get out onto the street to see life at eye-level, remain separate from their public (a separation Jay Rosen has taught me about).

    You are quite right about the specifics. I will try to include them liberally in the rest of the discussion and will cram some more into these five minutes.

    Robert: I don’t do as many of these as you think. But I still do too many.

    You are quite right about the need to spend more time with the inventors. That, after all, is why I decided to teach at journalism school; those people are the inventors. Perhaps I should just give up on the old institutions — it sometimes sounds as if I have — but, like Choire, I still see the good and intelligent people in those places and do not think they should go to waste.

    Brett: Yes, I get into trouble when I use such language. I don’t mean to put the professionals above the amateurs. But I do believe there is value to be added in taking the time to find the good stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with education. WKRN in Nashville taught people how to shoot video and the people who came loved it. I worked on getting a grant from Knight so a journalism prof with law-school training at CUNY can teach citizens how to avoid libel and court. Everyone can learn; everyone can teach. And everyone should do both.

    Mark/Ben: Great spiel, founding father. Quite right. And I will include more views of more media. The discussion is too often newspaper-centric.

    Delia: Oh, lots of worries, but they are mainly timeless ones about accuracy and spin and motive and effort. The pros tend to concentrate so much on the worries and fears and why not to do things that I chose to concentrate instead on the opportunities. The worries will present themselves without my help!

    Patricia: Yes, I believe that journalism is and still can and should be a business. That’s what supports reporting. Many don’t agree these days, but I think they are surrendering the ability to win in the marketplace too soon.

    Anna: Yes, I hope to keep addressing that question about resources.

    Brian: Credibility does not come from a job title but from the work done. Anyone can have it. Everyone must earn that. Put that in brass, eh? And, yes, I’m tired about that blogger-v-pro argument and I hope we don’t have it that night.

    Michael: Yes, I want to dig into a local TV news show and catalog just how much journalism is being done, per minute. Not much, eh? I love the Klein question.

    Thank you, all! Keep it coming, please.

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  • Jeff,

    You have some great thoughts already, but I feel that you need to explicitly mention at least one other issue in this presentation.

    With all the emphasis on networked journalism, it is important to realize that someone somehow still has to present news and information that may otherwise escape a group’s attention. No matter how well traveled, educated, experienced, or aware anyone is, a person’s understanding does not span the entire globe.

    In fact, the focus on involving citizens in journalism enhances news outlets’ ability to cover a broader range of events. As you have said, we do not currently have a major journalistic presence outside of the Green Zone in Baghdad, but there are many normal Iraqi folk who live and travel there. They can help shed more light in to what is really occurring out there.

    As old fashion as this may seem, news outlets have to provide some information to their patrons simply because the editor or producer feels that it merits attention — especially if it would otherwise naturally fall outside the scope of a group’s cognizance. That is one way in which traditional journalists can act as an educator.

    I know that some discussion about this is transpiring, but I feel that it deserves at least a mention in a presentation like this.

  • Anna Haynes

    > “This requires that we change the essential relationship of
    > the journalist to the public, to be more collaborative and open.”

    …and to be willing to undergo the sunlight-induced reform that this openness would bring, for media properties that have historically been run as businesses, with “business” priorities and constraints.

    (this prospect likely scares the bejeezus out of newspaper ownership and management; perhaps better not to mention it, Jeff.)

    Lex on the subject; some ‘castle parapet’ examples for Choire

  • Delia

    re: “I chose to concentrate instead on the opportunities”


    Well… it’s hard to critique your stuff if it’s not *supposed* to be balanced… The way I see it, this “new journalism” can certainly do a much better job of giving people what they want and getting them to participate at a level previously impossible.

    But would that be enough to fulfill the traditional function of journalism? To at least STRIVE to give a *balanced view* of what’s going on around us and thus act as one of the prongs of democracy? Unless you think that peoples’ aggregate special interests would necessarily lead there (and I see no good reason to believe that), that is the essential thing that would be lost (and it’s no small thing).

    And what happens if the “old journalism” collapses before a functioning new one (however insufficient) takes over? (quite possible…) That’s why I don’t think that “accelerating” the process (“exploding” things before their time) is such a good idea…

    But if you are *expected* to be the CHEERLEADER… you are certainly doing a fine job at that!


  • A Reader

    I had a conversation with a former news reporter yesterday. He remembered being at the Inquirer as a summer intern years ago. He sat near one of the investigative reporters. Throughout the whole summer, the investigator did not have a story in the newspaper.

    My friend asked someone else, Is this guy working on something? Why doesn’t he ever have any bylines?

    My friend was told that this reporter worked on a long complicated stories that sometimes took a long time to get into the paper.

    For better or worse, I think those days are over. Information is more available and travels faster.

    If you want to keep one reporter to do these stories, then everyone else has to be working productively.

  • Guy Love


    You did a very good job of capturing the flavor of this site if that was your intent. For some reason, I picture you as Don Quixote charging into the windmills as far as the audience being receptive to the message. This is one very complex multi-tiered discussion that is ongoing and evolving as far as the transition from industrial age news gathering and distribution institutions to informational age counterparts. It seems that the current industry leaders are flailing to get their bearings and are looking to someone like you to point them in the right direction. They appear to want concrete line by line directions that show them the light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, you are blitzing them with an array of new ways of thinking that quite frankly most of them probably have no clue about. Good luck.

  • So. . . .what is, as you put it, Jeff Jarvis, an “act of journalism”? That seems to be the crux of the division between “bloggers aren’t and can’t be doing journalism” and “citizen journalism is the wave of the future.”

    The bricks and wood pulp folk seem to be coalescing behind: journalism is writing/reporting coming from a person who has been shaped by a profession with internships, apprentice periods, and working through the ranks (small town, state capital, big city), and whose final product only sees print after a collegial dialogue with fellow journalists/reporters and editors. Skip any of those screens, and you have personal opinion.

    At least that’s what i’m hearing. So the challenge here is — what parts of that definition can be dispensed with, or modified, and if so, how far? Can they not be journalism majors? (maybe) Can they not have editors? (no) Can they dialogue as the story sees print/pixels with colleagues, rather than before hitting the page? (depends on what their past experience with professional formation was . . .) Can they revise as more input comes in from readers? (heck no)

    But what is “an act of journalism”?