Lies, liars, lying – just three of the delightfully negative words journalists shouldn't be afraid to use

If by any chance you’re feeling good about the state of journalism today, allow Mr.-Gloom-and-Doom Me to wipe that away with a single link.

Take a look at Barry Ritholtz’ Yeah! The Housing Bottom Is Here! It catalogues six years of compliant reporters dutifully shoveling up quotes from real estate industry sources proclaiming a bottom to the housing market, implicitly urging readers to get out there and buy some real estate right now.

Each article follows the rules of good journalism. They include stories from many of the nation’s leading news organizations. Many articles offers multiple sources, in well-edited narrative. There’s no indication in any of the stories that their reporters misquoted anyone, or misrepresented what their sources were trying to say.

Yet, every article on that page is spectacularly, dangerously, and offensively wrong.

And that illustrates the gravest problem facing journalism today. It’s not competition from the Internet, or even the loss of local advertising monopolies. If journalism as an industry were producing consistently accurate, forward-looking, and unique reports that helped people live better lives, without ending up underwater on a crappy mortgage, competition from inferior news sources – even cheaper or free sources – wouldn’t threaten the industry’s survival.

The gravest problem facing journalism today is its continued adherence to a stenographic model of reporting, one that accepts accurate recitation of quotes and data as truthful reporting, overlooking the very inconvenient fact that people very often lie to reporters.

J-school cliche says “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” But far too often in news reporting, “checking it out” means simply calling up another source, and presenting their confirmation or denial of mommy’s alleged love in the next grafs of the story.

Ideally, a reporter would check claims by sources not just with other sources but his or her own investigation of relevant, accurate data and other eyewitnesses. Of course, to do that, a reporter needs time (often in short supply in understaffed newsrooms) and expertise. A reporter needs training and experience in the beat he or she is covering so that he or she can select and perform the appropriate analysis for the issue at hand. Not only that, the reporter must be able and willing to perform an accurate analysis that checks regular sources’ accuracy over time, to determine whether a source is trustworthy.

To that end, in 2012, it should be obvious to anyone working in financial journalism that the National Association of Realtors is the “Baghdad Bob” of the business beat. (Heck, that should have been obvious years ago.) If you’re quoting an NAR spokesperson, or NAR-affiliated analyst, in a real estate story, you might as well just label your piece “advertising” and ask the NAR to cut you a check for it. Because it’s likely of no service to your readers, given how often NAR sources have been wrong over the past six years.

Unfortunately, too few reporters do any sophisticated, data-driven source analysis – as evidenced in part by the long list of stories linked above. I suspect that, while lack of time and expertise contribute to that failure, fear of being labeled as biased or partisan drives much of our industry’s reticence in challenging certain financially or politically powerful sources.

As I’ve written before, partisanship and ideology only creates a problem for reporters if it influences their reporting, driving them to ignore or suppress information that contradicts their political beliefs. If accurate reporting leads a journalist to a partisan conclusion, the only problem for journalism is to ignore that conclusion or soften that reporting because you don’t want to look partisan.

Yet we live in an era when just about every issue’s been politicized – from housing prices to birth control to student test scores. Even the weather. Heck, it’s hard to find a beat outside sports and movie reviews where reporters aren’t afraid to take a stand.

We’ve got to change. If traditional news organizations are to survive in the Internet era, they’ve got to make changes that keep them from consistently barfing out stories that mislead their audience and fail to stand the test of time. The ultimate test for journalism doesn’t lie in how a story was reported or presented. It lies in whether the information the story presents is true.

Let’s stop being naive. Accusations of partisanship and bias are being used by people on the wrong side of the facts to bully us into not pointing that out. Let’s quit accommodating them by dumbing down journalism to stenography.

We need to do better. If we’re to win over more readers (which makes our publications more attractive to advertisers) or even to convince some of those readers to pay us for our reporting, we have to be find a away to be right more often. And that means calling out the liars and fools among our sources.

10 Reasons Why Online Journalists Are Better Journalists (In Theory)

1. We’re fighting to still be here
All the on-the-fence journalists have left the field, leaving behind the few, the passionate and the dedicated — as well as those who are just plain bewildered. But they’ll figure it out soon enough. The new new (new?) journalist can’t be the grumpy introvert of yore, but an engaged member of the community, and an energetic entrepreneur. And while newspaper journalists would say they weren’t in it for the money… we could really make that our catchphrase. Online news is still figuring out how to pay for itself, and hiring journalists is a substantial investment in a world where information is largely free.

2. We have to be more useful
We’re providing more information and more background, but keeping it to the point. Because users won’t read a long story, we have to be better at determining the most important points, presenting them succinctly and knowing when to stop. We then offer you a choice to delve more deeply, if you want, by including links, PDFs, photo galleries, videos and a whole host of other assets for you to explore or ignore.

3. We’re paying attention to what people want
Online newsmakers can see — in real time — how many people are reading our stories, how important those stories are, and who thinks so. Being a successful journalist means paying attention to those numbers and responding to what people want and need, rather than what we think they want and need or — worse — what we think they should want and need.

4. We’re ditching the “he said, she said”
Inserting a quote in between every paragraph to support the former or upcoming statement is a dead practice. No one was reading what was in between the quotation marks anyway, but skipping over it instead, and now all the supporting quotes are provided after the story has been published — by you, dropping your thoughts into the comments box.

5. We’re getting out from behind our computers
The most important stories take what’s offline and put it online for the first time. The web is flooded with stories, and different versions of stories, that were found online in the first place. Anyone can re-post a YouTube video of a riot, but someone has to film the original. We want to be that person.

6. We’re better writers
SEO will not allow us to write vague headlines or use bad puns, and we only have the attention our audience for about three blinks, so we have to practice all of George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Effective Writing at once.

7. We’re everywhere at once
Thanks to Wifi and 4G, we’re posting updates and pictures directly from the field, while still on scene talking to officials and community members. In fact, if you’re quick enough, you could send us an email or tweet a question and we can try to answers while we’re reporting. There you have it: news on demand.

8. We’re held accountable — immediately
Is there an error in the story we just published? We’ll know about it in… oh, let’s say 30 seconds after we tweet it.

9. We’ve got to be better than the competition
Anyone with an email address can publish information and most are doing it for free. We’ve got to be quicker, better, clearer and more reliable than everyone else on the Internet.

10. We’re providing a service that is more valuable than it has ever been
We’re Internet users too, and know that the only cure for information overload is intelligent curation and efficient navigation. We’re grateful to those who do it well, and strive to be of service likewise. At the same time, we’re also playing our part in trying to figure out how this whole industry is going to work and who’s going to pay for it — and to do that we have to adhere to everything listed above.

Agree? Disagree? I’ll see you in the comment stream below.

Want to cover local? Then you'd better BE local!

Allow me to suggest one more mistake that the newspaper industry made that we shouldn’t allow the slip down the memory hole. It was a practice that I am sure struck many newsroom managers as a smart one… at the time. But it ultimately helped sever ties between publications and their communities, leading to less informed, less engaging coverage that left readers – and advertisers – with fewer reasons to support their local paper.

What was this practice? It was conducting national job searches to fill local reporting positions.

When I began my journalism career, J-school advisers told us to expect to start out at a smaller paper in a national chain, then try to work our way up to larger newsrooms, bigger cities, and more desirable places to live. You had to “pay your dues” in some small town before you could move up to a major metro.

The model was that of an assembly line, where you started by proving yourself on low-risk tasks that weren’t particularly critical to the overall operation, before moving up to higher-speed, higher-pressure jobs with national visibility. (By broadening the candidate pool for every local reporting job, this helped chains keep labor costs down, too.)

But while the smallest papers in a chain might be next to invisible to the suits in corporate HR, they were real, and important, to the people living in the communities they served. Most of those readers weren’t trying to “move up” to some bigger city. They were home, and happy there.

The old newsroom hiring model saw the nation’s communities as interchangeable rungs on a corporate ladder. But, despite the billion-dollar efforts of companies such as Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, and Applebee’s, people in those cities and towns continue to resist their commoditization. Sure, they shop at Walmart and eat at Applebee’s, but only because they’re cheaper than alternatives. (Which often were run out of business by big-chain outlets operating at a loss until they killed off that competition.) Cookie-cutter newspapers could hold onto their local customers only so long as they offered the cheapest way to get information, too.

When online competitors such as Craigslist and Yahoo! News gave readers a cheaper alternative for classified ads and national news headlines, they bailed. And understandably so. It’s hard to appeal to readers’ sense of loyalty to local voices when those voices are recent college grads who’ve only lived in the community for a couple years and who flee the state whenever they get three or more consecutive days off. Those new hires didn’t grow up in the community. They barely know anyone outside the newsroom and the official sources they encounter on their beats. And frankly, they don’t care, either. They’re looking to “move up,” and get out of town.

If you’re a local, you might as well get your local news from a discussion board. At least the people posting there actually know the town, send their kids to school there, and are planning to stick around a while.

My first full-time job in the news industry was in Omaha, Nebraska – a community I’d never stepped foot in before my job interview at the paper. To my surprise, the paper offered me a gig, and with my first student loan payment looming, I took it. I had no business writing for anyone in Omaha, or the states of Nebraska or Iowa. Hey, I tried my best, but I didn’t know the names, the places, the people or the unique issues that mattered to anyone who’d grown up in that state. So I took the hint when the paper tried to run me out of town and eventually rented a truck to move to a city my wife and I knew and loved – her hometown, Denver.

(I worked there for nearly four years until I got recruited to a job in my hometown, Los Angeles, where I continue to live today.)

So as we look for new companies to emerge and redefine the journalism industry online, let’s hope those new leaders won’t make this same mistake, too. Readers deserve writers who are as invested in the community as they are.

And if that expression of idealism does nothing for you as a cold-hearted capitalist, allow me to frame the issue another way: You can’t collect a premium price for a bargain-basement product.

If you’re producing product in the cheapest way possible, you’ll only hold your market share so long as you offer the lowest price available. (Walmart’s learning this the hard way as its bargain-hunting customer base begins to abandon it for dollar stores.) Trust me, even if you think that the cheapest way to run a newsroom is with fresh college grads desperate for a job, they’re still more expensive than outsourcing to writers in Bangalore watching Web cams. Or script kiddies in Eastern Europe writing scraper algorithms. If you want to publish using actual live, local journalists writing your publication, you’ll never be able to operate at lower costs than your online competition. To survive as a business, you’ll need the higher income that only a premium product can command.

So your local writers better really be local writers, people are from – and of – that community. This goes for niche topic sites, too, and not just for geographically focused publications. Writers for niche sites must be insiders of the community they cover, as well – individuals with passion for and personal experience in the topic they cover.

What does this mean? If you’re a manager at a national news chain, it’s time to zero out the relocation budget, if you haven’t already. Make local publications hire exclusively from candidates in their local markets. It’s time to reconnect with those communities. Promote from within at your titles, too. If “outsiders” really want to work at one of your publications, insist that they move to that community on their own, first.

For journalists, it’s time to make an investment in your future by relocating to the community where you want to live and work, if you’re not there already. Then start blogging as soon as you arrive. Build the audience that you will leverage into either your own publishing business or a job at an established local publication.

For journalism students, do the same. Start your career right by going to the best J-school you can get into in the city (or state) where you want to live and work. If your goal is to work in niche-topic publications, rather than covering a geographic community, go ahead and look at big national J-schools. But select the one that also has the best available program in the field you want to cover, too. Either way, immerse yourself in the community you’ll be covering. Only by being in and of the community you want to cover can you make yourself an attractive candidate to the smart publishers who recognize the need to remain connected to their communities.

The market is speaking to us. It wants the era of clueless, disconnected, outsider coverage in journalism to be over. And thank goodness for that. Let’s make it happen.