Friday, April 3, 2009

The future of journalism: We Report, We Decide

What happens when everybody is a potential media outlet?

In a recent post I argued that blogging is better than newspaper journalism. As a former newspaper reporter, I explained that
unlike the experience of being a newspaper reporter, my experience of blogging is one of jumping in to a conversation. The goal of print journalism is to break the story. In general, the goal of blogging is to comment on the breaking news. When I speak here on sleeping alone, I'm generally picking up on an idea or news item presented in an online paper or another blog; ideally, my ideas will get picked up by another blogger, and so on, and so on.

My former editor, Philip Allmen, posted the following comment:
You make some good points. But I bet that most people haven't put as much thought into the differences between reporters and bloggers. The two, I think need each other to thrive, but most don't realize that.

Phil is right and he's wrong. To support his point, I turned to a recent article in The Nation by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney. The article argues that the crisis of newspapers is not a brand-new phenomenon; in fact, it began in the 1970's, "when corporate ownership and consolidation of newspapers took off." By the 1980's, journalists and editors were "quitting the field in disgust at the contempt corporate management displayed toward journalism."

Here's the result of a decades-long watering-down of journalism:
The news media blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion, spoon-feeding us lies masquerading as fact-checked verities. They missed the past decade of corporate scandals. They cheered on the housing bubble and genuflected before the financial sector (and Gilded Age levels of wealth and inequality) as it blasted debt and speculation far beyond what the real economy could sustain. Today they do almost no investigation into where the trillions of public dollars being spent by the Federal Reserve and Treasury are going but spare not a moment to update us on the "Octomom." They trade in trivia and reduce everything to spin, even matters of life and death.

Obviously, the decline in journalistic rigor has wide-reaching implications. What kind of journalistic environment are we in, after all, when Jon Stewart is the only one who can take on cotton-candy financial reporting like that of Jim Cramer? Stewart tossed Cramer over his knee and gave him a good public spanking. We loved / hated to watch it, and it was a long time coming.

On the other hand (and Nichols and McChesney make this point as well), hard-hitting journalism still exists, though more often it comes at us in books, documentaries (Bowling for Columbine or Sicko, for example) or localized beat reporting in magazines or online news sites. Sometimes it's delivered to us under the guise of a satirical comedy news show. Sometimes it's delivered to us via two of this type of show in a row. Monday through Thursday, Comedy Central, 11 p.m. to midnight.

The problem--and the implications of this creep into every area of contemporary life--is that this kind of journalism is increasingly rare and, as more people choose to become their own media outlets via blogs or first-person reporting sites like, say, Orato, this rarity trickles into the everyday news that we all access. And here's where Phil's argument comes in, supported by Nichols and McChesney:
The Internet and blogosphere, too, depend in large part on "old media" to do original journalism. Web links still refer readers mostly to stories that first appeared in print. Even in more optimistic scenarios, no one has a business model to sustain digital journalism beyond a small number of self-supporting services. The attempts of newspapers to shift their operations online have been commercial failures, as they trade old media dollars for new media pennies. We are enthusiastic about Wikipedia and the potential for collaborative efforts on the web; they can help democratize our media and politics. But they do not replace skilled journalists on the ground covering the events of the day and doing investigative reporting. Indeed, the Internet cannot achieve its revolutionary potential as a citizens' forum without such journalism.

But here's how this argument gets complicated: Some of the best journalism out there is of a kind that folks like Nichols and McChesney would likely not recognize as journalism as it has traditionally been defined. Immediately after the London Transport bombings in 2005, some of the first reports about the event came from citizens who were in the tunnels. They took photos with cellphones and uploaded them to photo-sharing sites like Flickr (you can view them at Flickr's London Bomb Blast Community here.) This is one extreme example, but it's of a kind that's increasingly common--and increasingly important, in a world where governments and corporations are increasingly adept at duping, getting into bed with, or hanging out to dry traditional and mainstream journalism outlets. Citizen journalism, via blogs, cellphone pictures, text messaging, and smart mobs have led to rapid and radical cultural change. Governments have been overthrown. Protests have been organized under the noses of watchful dictators. And inaccurate or outright wrong news reports have been corrected by people with firsthand knowledge of current events and the resources to share their knowledge.

Does this kind of journalism rely on the existence and reporting work of traditional media outlets? Well, yes--at least in the sense that traditional journalism laid the groundwork for a reporting culture. But in a very real sense, information--newsworthy, important information--is increasingly being delivered to the people who can act on it without regard to, and sometimes in spite of, Big Newspaper.

If we think of journalism as a profession, one in which the onus of rigorous reportage is on the elite reporters in the most widely respected media outlets, one for which standards and a code of ethics exist and can and must be learned only through apprenticeship, then yes, journalism is in the midst of a worrisome decline. But if we think of journalism as, to appropriate the language of Clay Shirky, a temporary behavior rather than a professional identity, then we can see how journalism is thriving. Instead of a few thousand reporters stationed strategically around the world, we now have people stationed literally everywhere people are living, any one of whom might have access to and, if we do this cultural revolution thing right, the capacity for blowing the top off of the next big story.


Eduardo said...

You might find the conversation we're building at the Tomorrow's News blog (from the News&Knowledge program at Ashoka, which I'm currently involved with) interesting related to this subject. The program is looking around the world for innovative models for journalism and news distribution, that are using new technologies to engage information consumers as active citizens.

My expectation would be that some, perhaps several, of these models will actually become new versions of how we interpret the activity of journalism in the future - not as a special kind of knowledge or know-how only accessible to those trained within the system, but more of an attitude coming from citizens in dealing with the various information elements around them. New media literacies indeed.

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