One frequent criticism I hear from readers is that the Death Watch is too negative. While the title of this blog betrays a certain tongue-in-cheek pessimism, my intent is also to highlight the many new and innovative approaches to journalism that are emerging in an information-empowered world. Today I’ll begin a series of periodic essays about how changes in the media landscape are reshaping journalism into a much richer, more responsible and more credible profession.
We are in a chaotic period of redefinition right now, and that breeds fear and cynicism. I am fundamentally optimistic about the future, though. I believe that the wreckage of the newspaper industry will yield a more open and enlightened era of journalism that will be shaped by the institutions that embrace the changes we are now experiencing. It’s going to be rocky getting there, but we will figure it out as we go along.
Many other people are writing about this topic, and I list some of them in the media blogs category. In particular, check out the Center for Citizen Media, Jeff Jarvis, Publishing 2.0, Shaping the Future of the Newspaper,Â Steve Boriss, Mark Potts, Steve Outing and Editors Weblog. Please suggest others.
So what does the journalism profession become when information is free and everyone is a publisher?
Start by discarding assumptions. This is hard for people to do, and it’s one of the main reasons so many journalists are struggling with change. Many of the practices and conventions of journalism today were actually invented to cope with an age when timely information was difficult and expensive to gather and deliver. Basically, we do what we do in large part because we’ve had to deal with plates and presses and trucks and news stands, all of which added time and cost. We don’t have to worry about that stuff any more. This should cause us to completely rethink our approach to the craft.
Here are the new realities:
Today, everyone is potentially a journalist, even if only for a few minutes;
Technology has made it possible for news to be reported in near real-time. People will come to expect this;
The cost of reporting and publishing news is now effectively zero;
Publishing is now a beginning, not an end. Once a â€œstoryâ€ goes online, an update and refinement begins that may last for years or decades;
Any person or institution with an interest in a story has the capacity to publish facts, commentary and updates without seeking anyone’s permission. Responsible journalists need to incorporate that information into their work as appropriate.
All of these realities reverse rules that have existed for thousands of years. This is why we need to rethink everything. Nearly everything has changed.
But some things haven’t. People still want trusted sources of information. They want clear distinctions between fact and conjecture. Institutions need to be monitored. We need to know whom to trust. These needs won’t change if newspapers go away, so someone will need to fill the void.
Traditional Reporting is Obsolete
How does journalism need to evolve? Let’s start with the role of the reporter, because that function is likely to change the most. The traditional function of reporter doesn’t make sense any more. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world put their faith in the hands of a small number of people to gather and deliver the news. For the most part, these people aren’t experts in their topics they cover. In fact, reporters get shifted to new beats all the time. Reporters are resourceful, however. Most of them are pretty good at learning on the fly, figuring out what’s important and presenting that information clearly and succinctly. These are important skills and they’ll be needed for a long time to come.
There’s an awful lot of waste in reporting, though. Most of what a reporter learns in the process of working a story is discarded. Even more waste occurs when a story is cut for space. In the end, a task that requires hours of information-gathering may be boiled down to a couple of hundred words on a page. This was necessary in a time- and space-limited world, but it isn’t necessary any more.
The traditional limitations of print and broadcast media have required reporters to make scores or even hundreds of value judgments during the reporting process. An hour-long interview may result in a single sentence of published information or a three-second sound bite. In essence, one trained person makes decisions affecting what hundreds of thousands of people may know. Reporters do a pretty good job of upholding the trust that readers put in them, but the rules are all different now. No one should be denied access to information just because there wasn’t enough space.
New Journalism is Transparent
Today, nearly every relevant fact about a story may be captured and shared with anyone who’s interested. This service may be provided by the reporter, participants, observers and commentators. This information doesn’t have to be part of the story that the reporter submits for publication, but it should be available to those who want to know. The reporter’s role expands to include not only making judgments about what information to include but also about were to link for more information. The “story” becomes an entry point to an archive of relevant content that may be of interest to different people. The ability to make these associations becomes a core journalism skill. The choice of where to link and what background to provide becomes part of editorial voice.
This new reality should be liberating for readers and journalists alike. No longer do journalists have to make difficult choices about what readers may know. No longer do readers have to regard media institutions with suspicion. Everyone is free to contribute, correct and weigh in on the story. Whatever the media entity chooses not to cite in its published account can be discovered through search. Journalists will be more accountable and readers will be more confident that they can trust the information they receive.
A lot of media veterans are uncomfortable with this idea, though. Their profession has long been shrouded in mystery. Editors are accountable only to a small group of higher-ups who share the same priorities as they do. A self-policing strategy rarely works. Very few readers understand what goes on in a newsroom, and this makes them suspicious. One of the reasons so few people trust the media is that so few people understand how the media works.
Bonds of Trust
We’re going to start opening that up. When readers and viewers have access to the source material for a reporter’s story, they feel more confident thatÂ the account is accurate, even if they never consult that background. Ironically, I believe we will see less accuracy in reporting in the future, but that’s a topic for a future essay. The basic point is that the reporters will increasingly become aggregators and topic stewards. They will be obliged to present a variety of inputs and opinions because those opinion-makers will publish whether the reporter wants them to or not.
Reporters will also come to write not only the first draft of history, but subsequent drafts as well. A story will evolve the same way that an entry in Wikipedia begins as a one-sentence stub and evolves into a comprehensive account representing multiple sources and points of view. In a few cases, the public will participate in this process. Mostly, they will observe, but they will have confidence that the process by which the truth is reported is transparent and accessible if they so wish.
Next we’ll look at the role of editors
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 1st, 2008 at 8:55 am and is filed under Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.