By paulgillin | July 1, 2008 - 8:55 am - Posted in Google, Hyper-local

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,  Steve Boriss, Mark Potts, Steve Outing and Editors Weblog. Please suggest others.

Discard Assumptions

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 “story” 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 that  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 Google, Hyper-local. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments Off on The Future of Journalism, Part I


  1. July 1, 2008 @ 10:51 am

    Paul, I think you’ve hit on the essence of what needs to be done in newsrooms across the country right now. Clearly papers need to focus on their strengths over other media, which include the ability to compile mass amounts of information, compile databases and collect all the relevant information about a story in one place. It seems like newspapers need to become less like daily products and more like encyclopedias, as much a research tool as a place for news updates. Providing source documents, interviews, background information and all that are good steps in that direction.

    But newsrooms are hesitant to do this because all anyone is concerned about right now is figuring out a way to stay afloat financially. Doing the in-depth reporting (not to mention the web postings, archiving, and data compiling) takes a staff at least as large as most newsrooms would have in their heydays. Blogger sites are able to link, compile, crowd source and moderate and all that, but they don’t deal with issues on the scale that newspapers do. For a small, 20,000-circ daily to embrace everything that’s needed, they’d be better scrapping the product and starting from scratch. Obviously that’s not going to happen.

    Unfortunately, it all comes down to cash — so how do you think newspapers can switch to the new model and get some promise of a financial reward that will keep the Wall Street types happy and let us get back to doing journalism, in all its forms?

    Posted by cowpesh
  2. July 3, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    I mentioned that reinvention requires discarding assumptions, and I see your comments reflecting some assumptions that I think need to be questioned. Why do newspapers need to be comprehensive? Perhaps maintaining that database of community resources and embellishing it with citizen reviews is enough. Or maybe an operation with 10 employees that does an outstanding job of covering city government could be profitable. There are startups that are succeeding right now with just such a model. If newspapers continue to believe they need to be all things to all people, then they will fail for the reasons you note: it simply requires too many people to do that.

    The whole trend in publishing for the last five years has been toward small, focused markets, a concept Chris Anderson called the Long Tail. Small markets can be enormously profitable, but at a much smaller revenue level than papers have previously enjoyed. The mindset that says scale=success just doesn’t work any more. I believe the most successful approach is to look at profitable niches and then go after those opportunities with a much lower cost structure. Shift the emphasis from revenues to profits.

    However, as you point out, most organizations are unwilling or unable to make these changes. Investors won’t accept a strategy that calls for reducing revenue, even if it’s a more profitable strategy. So most organizations will continue to trim and tighten the belt and hope things will get better, which they won’t. It’s not that these people are stupid. They just don’t have permission from their executives and investors to really rethink the business.

    Unfortunately, I think the solution is what you said: scrap the product and start from scratch. A very small number of organizations are doing that, but the change is too traumatic for most publishers to accept. They’d rather see the whole business go down than try to save part of it. This has happened again and again in other industries and, sadly, I see no reason that it won’t happen here.

    Posted by paulgillin
  3. July 3, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    […] The future of journalism, part I – Social media and online news expert Paul Gillin’s take on what newspapers need to do to transform themselves for 21st century. […]

  4. July 6, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    Bravo! Very well done. I have long argued with my print friends that as soon as the bean counters at their respective media companies figured out how to make money online their days as just news”paper” reporters would be numbered. I tried to tell them that the corporate publishers aren’t as married to continuing a newspaper as they are. It’s a business first and foremost. And, while the corporate folks haven’t totally figured out how to turn as big a profit online as they have in print, they have learned print is expensive and online provides a cheeper alternative. However, I always quickly move the conversation beyond pure economics. I argue — citing many of the same reasons you gave — that journalism will only get better by moving the news product to the web. The Long Tail analogy was perfect for what’s going on here in Connecticut. The Hartford Courant, owned by Tribune, announced it’s laying off news staff and reducing the size of the actual newspaper. My suggestion for the Courant, if it insists on continuing to publish a printed product, is to focus on the three things people care about the most in these parts: State and Local Politics, University of Connecticut athletics and the weather. If that’s all they covered and if they covered it well I might want to subscribe to the paper again.

    Posted by Rick Hancock
  5. July 6, 2008 @ 9:31 am

    Interesting idea to confine coverage to those areas. I think you hit on an important point, which is profitability. If you shift the focus from size to profits, an online-mostly model can deliver very nice margins. Listen to our interview with IDG’s Pat McGovern for a glimpse of how nice a business that can be.

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  6. August 25, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

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