Specialized journalism, a partisan press, online journalism students and cheap laptops: More stuff to argue about

Here are my bloggy thoughts for this weekend. Please feel welcomed to use the comments function below, or your own blog, to argue with me:

Not that many years ago, we in journalism schools taught students to be generalists in what they cover, and specialists in how they cover it. We trained reporters to cover multiple beats for a single medium, usually newspapers or TV.

Today, the highly competitive publishing market on the Internet demands that we flip our approach. We need journalists who have devoted the time to develop a specialist’s knowledge on their beat, while covering that beat using multiple media.

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In my commentary on the closure of Steve Outing’s grassroots media company, the Enthusiast Group, I cited two examples of individual journalists’ online start-ups that worked commercially: Talking Points Memo and DailyKos. The fact that both these sites cover U.S. government and politics is not spurious. Glenn Greenwald this week published a damning report that illustrates why so many readers are looking for an alternative to the political coverage they find in mainstream news publications.

And it’s not a desire for partisanship. It’s a desire to see someone, anyone, call B.S. on people who are demonstrably full of it. That same desire’s fueling the success of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, too (IMHO, of course).

Makes me wonder if some newspaper publishers won’t decide to release the hounds, rather than continue to sit idly while their market share crumbles. If your reporting points you to take someone or something down… do it. And without diluting the piece with out-of-proportion qualifiers like the New York Times did with its attempted dress-down of the Rudy Giuliani campaign this morning.

Fairness and balance are appropriate goals for journalists. But being fair to sources and providing balance among them should not outweigh the need to be fair to the readers, and to the facts. And balance should not be reduced to giving various points of view equal time or space in a story. It ought to mean that truth gets treated like truth and lies get treated like lies.

If you’re going to lose audience anyway, why not take a stand for something on the way down? Maybe that’ll inspire some more readers to stick around, too. Or even to take a fresh look at their local paper again.

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History provides the context for our reporting. I just finished Edward J. Larson’s insightful history of the 1800 U.S. Presidential campaign, “A Magnificent Catastrophe.” I think that other reporters, and journalism students, would find Larson’s work valuable as they try to make sense of this year’s campaign.

One more thought, inspired by Larson: Many folks in our industry like to think that the Founding Fathers wanted to protect objective news reporting with the First Amendment. But Larson’s history illustrates the partisan newspapers of Jefferson’s time looked a lot more like today’s DailyKos than today’s Washington Post. So maybe a more aggressive, even partisan, press isn’t such a radical idea, after all.

(And before anyone accuses me of longing for more organizations like Fox News, let me be clear that I think people ought to let their discovery of the truth drive their partisanship — and not, as Fox News does, let their partisanship drive their discovery for the truth.)

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Last year, I asked Anthony Moor, then of the Orlando Sentinel and now with the Dallas Morning News, to write a piece for us urging j-students to take classes and get experience in online journalism. Yet every year, I get more calls and e-mails from hiring editors in dot-coms seeking online journalism students than we have students to refer them. Why is it that students will devote so many of their free hours to Facebook, MMORPGs, blogs, iTunes and YouTube, but cleave to “old media” print and broadcast production classes when it’s time to declare a specialty? How many more high-paying, big-city jobs do we have to offer to get more students to switch to our side? Are other online journalism educators seeing the same thing at their schools?

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I just bought my kids a laptop from One Laptop per Child (OLPC) for a Christmas present. These are the “$100 laptops” (actually $199) for Third World students about which you might have read. Through Dec. 31, OLPC is selling the laptops to people at U.S. and Canadian addresses under the following deal: You pay $399 for two laptops — one goes to you, and the other goes to OLPC for distribution in the Third World.

I’ve been looking for a good, inexpensive, reliable laptop for my kids to do homework and play with, and folks whose tech expertise I respect greatly have recommended the OLPC’s XO laptop. It’s based on the Linux OS and includes a Web browser, text, music, photo and video composition and editing applications — even an introduction to Python coding. The only problem I foresee with the machine is that my kids might not be able to pry it away from me.

Take a look. If you don’t know kid who could use one, I’ll bet you a local public school would.

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So… what’s on your mind this Friday?

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.


  1. Great post. Regarding your second point, there is a Chomsky theory referred to as the “propaganda model” or “manufacturing consent” that deals with the dependency of mass media news organizations on the government as a major source of news. These organizations would rather keep the govt on their side so they don’t get ‘shut out’, thereby losing readership or getting into a situation of disfavor with the govt, or other such sources of news. Therein lies the paradox – high quality news, which often is a result of journalists calling B.S. on the government, or safe news of lower quality that ensures high readership and keeps in line with shareholder interests. I think its our responsibility as discerning news readers to promote, celebrate and reward journalists who are willing to stand up and take a strong stance.


  2. Halilu Usman says:

    once again we are going back to the fact that ‘he who pays the piper dictates the tune’. Several governments ( good and bad ones ) have relied on big media to promote their agenda and activities, through coersion, patronage and other financially related ways. it is the implication of this relationship that is bringing about the so called bias and watering down of news stories.

    On the other hand some traditional news organisations depended heavily on government funding thereby compromising their credibility.

    As for the Cheap Laptops in developing countries- I am still waiting to see how a primary school pupil who has no uniform, chair to seat in the class, food in his stomach and faced with other miriad of problems would use a laptop effectively. By the way in some African Countries there is just no electricity to run the systems. TOO BAD! We sure need to face the realities of each society and generation.

  3. Halilu – apparently the laptop can be powered via a variety of sources when there is no electricity available, including solar, hand crank, foot pedal etc. Perhaps Robert can confirm.

    But I do agree with you. We sometimes forget the reality of the situation in these developing countries. I’m originally from Bangladesh, and I know that access to technology or the internet is pretty low down on the list of priorities for the really poor. As you said, clean water, improved health, shelter, a free and fair democracy etc are all far more important. However, I still believe that this is a good initiative. If the laptop can help bring new perspectives and new world views to people who currently have very sheltered or controlled access to information, this is potentially very powerful. I’ll be buying one for someone back home.

  4. My boss at Annenberg and I were talking about the XO laptops on Thursday, and he related how he’d heard the criticism about the lack of clothes, chairs, etc. from someone.

    I agree with my boss’s point: Why does this have to be either or? We should demand adequate settings, teachers and equipment for all students, around the world. But we should never turn our backs on providing one because the others are not yet in place. Such excuses provide cover for those who would provide our world’s children with nothing.

    And, yes, from what I understand, you can recharge the laptop’s battery with a hand-crank. I’ve joked that I’ll be using my kids’ XO to update OJR when the Big One hits SoCal. 😉

  5. Halilu Usman says:

    The key issue i raised regarding the cheap laptops, is priotising the needs of the people of the developing countries. Cheap laptops would come in very handy, where some basic needs are already met. While i will personally advocate and promote the use of computers all over the world, i will at the same time insist on good governance, provision of basic necesities etc from the rulers of our developing countries.

    I remain very optimistic that we can make it work- if we try.

  6. What almost everyone seems to forget about OLPC is that the project’s main intent is not to give Internet access to children who shoes and indoor plumbing, but to give them textbooks.

    The cost of a single OLPC unit is far less than the cost of three or four years’ worth of books they need for school.

    Please note that the OLPC screen has two modes: in one, it is a color computer screen. In the other, it is a power-saving “electronic ink” device, similar to the Amazon-hyped Kindle thingie.

    The main OLPC problem isn’t design or its intended use. It’s in its flawed marketing program, which is run by engineers, not marketers, and they have trouble communicating ideas that seem so obvious to them that, by their lights, they don’t need to be mentioned at all. 🙂