With the deadline for applying to our News Entrepreneur Boot Camp approaching, I’m thinking in even greater detail about the steps print journalists must take to make a successful move over to online publishing.
One change folks with print experience must be willing to make is to rethink some of the assumptions they may have had about journalism ethics. I’m not suggesting that journalists should change their core beliefs about this field when they switch media. The central tenet of journalism ethics (in my opinion) remains: Do what’s best to empower your readers with truthful information. Everything we do ought to flow from that goal.
The practice of journalism is an act of service. But if we are going to be able to continue to serve our audience, we will need to change some of the conventions and assumptions we’ve brought to our practice if they now stand in the way of our ability to serve. What good are conventions designed a generation ago to protected our public image if following them today leaves us with a shrinking audience and no advertisers to support us?
Here are three widely quoted tenets of traditional journalism ethics that I believe journalists must change in order to remain relevant in a more competitive online information market.
The old rule: You can’t cover something in which you are personally involved.
The new rule: Tell your readers how you are involved and how that’s shaped your reporting.
The Internet rewards the articulate expert. In an increasingly complex world, readers crave the authenticity of a writer with personal training and experience with the topic he or she covers. There are simply too many good first-person sources out there, on blogs, forums and social networks, for interested readers to waste their time with ill-trained general assignment reporters. Concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest mean nothing when the alternative is poorly-informed coverage.
TV sports figured this out a long time ago, hiring retired athletes and coaches to provide color commentary, off-court analysis and reporting. Sure, some individuals are better at this than others (Cris Collinsworth, meet Emmitt Smith), but on the whole, having people with first-hand, day-to-day professional experience in a field reporting upon it boosts a news outlet’s credibility with far more consumers than having such diminishes it.
The next step is to go with active, not retired, professionals. In fields from medicine to economics to music, professionals are blogging now, in direct competition with news organizations. The successful journalists online will be the ones who write with passion about the field in which they have deep knowledge and experience.
Again, the core principle ought to be to serve the reader. That should drive journalists to put their reporting into context for the reader, explaining how their training, experience and relationships relate to their reporting. Such reporting would be far more “objective” than that produced by less-knowledgeable reporters who might be (and often are) duped by a tricky source.
The old rule: You must present all sides of a story, being fair to each.
The new rule: Report the truth and debunk the lies.
I hit this issue last month, and will amplify here. When newspapers had monopolies, we had a responsibility to our communities not to abuse our power, and to provide a neutral commons for reporting and debate.
Now, as just one among dozens, if not hundreds, of popular news voices within our communities, our responsibilities have changed. Now, we serve our busy audience and stand apart from the competition with reporting that cuts the clutter and identifies the truth among many conflicting narratives.
This is why the first change, above, becomes even more important. A news organization needs people with the expertise, and the long and detailed memory, necessary to make these calls in deciding how to report and present a story in ways that make the truth clear.
If your definition of “fair” meant blasting that which deserves blasting, then this one isn’t much of a change.
The old rule: There must be a wall between advertising and editorial.
The new rule: Sell ads into ad space and report news in editorial space. And make sure to show the reader the difference.
In a competitive market, news organizations must keep their production costs low. And for a start-up, there’s no lower cost than doing it all yourself. But if you are the only person on your site, that means you have to sell the ads, and well as report the stories, if you are to have any ad income.
Sure, you can outsource the job to an ad network, but, trust me, you’re leaving money on the table if you don’t do direct ad sales.
What about conflicts of interest? Well, within the industry, I think your colleagues would be thrilled to see anyone in this field making money online at this point, so I don’t think you’ll hear much complaining from them. As for readers and advertisers, transparency provides the key. (See a pattern here?) Let your potential advertisers know that they are buying ad space, not editorial coverage, and stick with that. Let your readers know, through design or explicit labels, where the ads are. (See what I wrote on this topic in November for more detail.)
Eventually, should you enjoy the success that enables you to add staff, you’ll want to hire specialists. And one, obviously, should be in ad sales. But if you don’t sell some ads now, you’ll likely never see that day.