Established journalists and newsrooms making the transition to online publishing should not do so with the assumption that editorial content provides their strength in a competitive online information market. Often, the editorial content established journalists provide is not what online readers want, or even what they need.
That’s a harsh realization for many journalists, who have worked intensely to cover their communities for years. But effort and will don’t deliver readers. Information that engages and rewards them does. Journalists, and their managers, need to take a hard look at how they are producing information, so that they don’t repeat the same editorial mistakes that have driven so many readers to online competition.
A stunning assertion in the Los Angeles Times last month got me thinking about this topic. The Times’ Matea Gold wrote about the now-infamous Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer interview on Comedy Central (bold added by me, for emphasis):
“It was not the first time that Stewart, unencumbered by the restraints of mainstream journalism, has been lauded for his skills as an interviewer, and it was another reminder of how entertainers — whether it’s Stewart skewering pundits, Oprah Winfrey endorsing candidate Barack Obama or the women on ‘The View’ engaging in confrontational debates — can inject themselves into public debate.
“The white-hot spotlight on the Stewart-Cramer face-off — bannered across the front of USA Today and breathlessly promoted on cable news — underscored the public’s hunger for catharsis at a time of widespread economic instability.”
Times reader Frank Gruber articulated my reaction in a letter to the editor:
“I was struck by this in your front-page story: ‘It was not the first time that Stewart, unencumbered by the restraints of mainstream journalism, has been lauded for his skills as an interviewer.’
“The implication is that these ‘restraints’ are what caused mainstream journalism’s failures in recent years. But exactly what restraints encumbered mainstream journalists from writing about securities based on subprime mortgages, credit default swaps and all the government-issue baloney of the last eight years?”
Indeed. When the future of a newsroom is at stake, no industry constraints or conventions ought to be held sacred. Everything must be up for re-consideration. If there is anything restraining “mainstream journalism” from articulating and defending the core values that create, protect and elevate the communities we cover, it’s time for them to go now, no matter what purpose they might have served in the past.
What’s more important to you, as a journalist: Being pure to the ways that things have been done in the past, or adapting to remain relevant and influential in your community in the future?
A thorough discussion of all the conventions within the journalism industry that now inhibit the industry’s competitiveness would fill at least one hefty book. So I’ll bring up just two in my effort to advance this conversation.
First, the newspaper industry has long relied on having a large group of editors look at a story before print to ensure its accuracy. That structure, in turn, allowed profit-hungry newspapers to hire less experienced reporters with little or no expertise in the subject that they were called upon to cover. They didn’t need expert writers to ensure accuracy; they had a process to do that.
Over the past decade, that process has changed, however. With staff blogs, many newspapers are letting reporters publish without any layer of advance editing. And newsroom layoffs have sharply reduced the number of individuals who look at copy elsewhere before it gets to print or the Web.
Yet layoffs have cost print newsrooms many of their most experienced writers, leaving those under-trained and less-experienced reporters to cover the community – without the backstop of extensive editing that was supposed to cover for their inexperience.
The demise of monopoly-driven profit margins will keep newsrooms from again staffing copy desks back to those levels. So journalism must change the way it trains and hires reporters, in response. We now need writers who have more practical expertise and academic training in the beats that they will cover, so they can take more responsibility for the accuracy of their work, without editing assistance. It’s not enough for aspiring journalists to study how to craft a story – they must bring also a passion for and training in a beat to cover.
Newsrooms can’t expect j-school graduates with one 200-level econ course to their credit to be able to attract an audience covering the business beat when they are competing with bloggers who have PhDs in economics, or years of industry experience.
Second, effective journalists must not feel inhibited in expressing and practicing the core values that drive them and their work.
My core values, as a journalist, are:
These are not universal values. A great many Americans believe that people should always act only in their own best interests, and never consider the community around them. Many members of my own family reject the idea that truth comes from evidence, instead believing that science is illusory and truth derives only from the Word of God. A great many people in financial services, such as Jim Cramer, have expressed that the best route to riches is from investing and manipulating investment, not through creating physical and intellectual property for others’ consumption.
Heck, my values, all three of them, stand in direct opposition to the values that I believe drove the last Presidential administration which led this country.
I also believe that the news industry, accustomed to and conditioned by being a monopoly has striven to appeal to all audiences – those who value community and those who practice libertarianism, those who value science and those who promote fundamentalism, and those who value work and those who practice Wall Street wizardry. As a result, the news industry has grown reticent to express any values, lest it offend some segment of the market.
That is the restraint that I believe Gold alluded to in the LA Times, the restraint that Stewart eviscerated on The Daily Show – an inability to confront sources, to demand truth and to hold both sources and reporters accountable for their words as history renders its judgments.
You don’t have to believe in my values. But if you want to attract an audience in the competitive online information market, I think you need to choose some values to believe in, and to express them, defend them, and practice them before your audience. Readers, now that they have more choices, want to know whose side you are on.
Questions about funding models, business structure, technical innovation and social media won’t matter a lick to journalists who can’t attract and hold an audience.
What do you know? What do you stand for? Those who can’t provide strong answers to those questions shouldn’t expect to last long publishing online. Nor should they.