OJR 2007: New models create fresh opportunities for publishers

The following is a transcript of comments OJR editor Robert Niles made in opening OJR’s second annual online journalism “unconference.”

A couple weeks ago my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher asked me to speak to her class. She wanted them to put together a class newspaper and asked me to come talk to the kids about journalism.

I thought about how to define to a room of fourth-graders what it is I’ve done my professional life and I settled on this: “Journalism is a form of writing that tells people about things that really happened, but that they might not have known about already.”

It’s pretty simple, yes. But I like it. What I most like about that definition is that it doesn’t say a thing about how journalism is produced – just its end result.

I’ve written many times over the years about conflicts between online and print journalists, between independent publishers and bloggers and mainstream news managers. And so many of those conflicts can be reduced to a disagreement over the proper definition of journalism.

To many in our field, journalism is a process. It requires a reporter who checks out multiple angles to a story and an editing team that checks that report before goes to the public.

But I think there’s a better way to define journalism – one that does not automatically disqualify thousands of blogs, wikis and discussion boards online. It’s a broader definition, one that discounts process and instead looks more toward truth.

Journalism tells people about something that really happened, but that they might not have known already. Journalism can come from a hundred readers on a political blog, sifting through a federal document dump for evidence of White House corruption. It can come from a hyperlocal blogger, telling her readers about the town’s spring festival. Or it can come from consumers on a discussion board, sharing their personal experiences in trying to get the best deal on a family vacation.

New processes create new opportunities. A journalism story is only as strong as the sources that inform it. A traditional reporter might include a handful of sources in his story. But a community-driven website can accommodate reports from thousands more, making its reports potentially far stronger.

The old way of doing journalism served us well before the Internet allowed millions of people to become publishers. But insisting that everything we call journalism in the future be made in the same way we did journalism in the past puts our craft in grave risk.

You can’t earn the fat profit margins newspapers got used to when a thousand new competitors enter the ad market. News publishers must find ways to produce better reporting, to stay ahead of new competitors, while spending less than publishers did a generation ago.

And that’s why we are here today. To talk about a new process for journalism, to work together to find new ways of telling people about things that really happened, but that they might not have known about already. And to make enough money to allow us to keep doing that well into the future.

Part of the solution lies in letting the audience do a good bit of our reporting and fact checking. That’s why we do not have traditional conference panels here today. We’re going to put that principle in action, by empowering you, the audience, to become our panelists. So do not be shy. Let’s be aggressive in finding answers that we all need to help make our publications successful.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.