You've got to know what you stand for to survive in journalism online

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:

  • That there is value in community, beyond living in one’s narrow self-interest,
  • That truth is found through empiricism, through observation and other evidence,
  • That wealth ought to be pursued through work before other means.

    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.

  • About Robert Niles

    Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


    1. says:

      Can you explain to me how news organizations are going to pay for this raised level of expertise? If we can’t pay for an editing process, can we really cover the expense of expertise?

      I’m sorry but if I have a masters or PhD in some subject area, I’m not taking a 40k journalism job. I’m not going to slave away getting extra training and then get paid at the same rate I was before.

    2. “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.”

      yes but there is an important difference between informed commentary from the university or corporate office and on-the-streets investigative reporting and interviews with key newsmakers. They are just different parts of a story. And the latter can’t be reproduced by voluntarism

    3. says:

      If I’m taking sides by revealing my core beliefs, how can I possibly cover controversial issues and be trusted? The role of a journalist is to put aside personal values and instead present both sides of a news story without bias. I believe there is still an urgent need for impartial journalists. What you are suggesting is that we all become bloggers with agendas which is something very different from journalism.

    4. To

      What if one side is demonstrably wrong? I mean, by rigorous scientific and academic study, one side has been shown to be utterly wrong. By presenting it “objectively,” isn’t that journalist party to spreading a lie?

      Too many journalists practice as if we live in a world of utter relativism – where no information can ever be considered “wrong.” Readers are rejecting that, and appropriately so.

      I say, declare the belief system that you have for evaluating the truth of information – science, faith, relativism, whatever. They apply it in your work. If more journalists would just admit that they are moral, ethical and logical relativists, at least the industry could earn some more respect, even if it didn’t attract many more readers.

    5. says:

      I can make this a lot simpler for the folks in the news business. Ask yourself the question: “What is news?”

      If you answer this honestly, I think you will be shocked.

      Ken Leebow

    6. says:

      I think this conversation misses the original point point of Jon Stewart’s criticism: that MSNBC was able to engage a profitable audience with largely journalism-free content. Cramer complained that it wasn’t his fault CEOs lied to him. Stewart was making the point that journalism means doing the hard work of finding the documents and the data and the alternative sources that reveal the lie.

      It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to see that the high-quality public affairs journalism Stewart was asking for is a public good. We’re all better off when we’re all better informed. But producers and consumers generally don’t consider those community benefits when they make their choices. As with all public goods, tends to be under produced and under consumed.

      High-quality journalism is expensive. Good enough journalism is more profitable. Infotainment is even more profitable. Newspaper journalism had benefited from bundling economies — the fact that people are willing to pay a little extra if the things they really want — classified ads, the TV schedule — are bundled with the things they want a little less.

      The effect of the internet has been to break apart the bundle, leaving quality journalism to struggle on its own. And as newspaper managers now focus increasingly on just keeping the doors open, the biggest constrain on quality public affairs journalism is economic, not cultural.

    7. says:

      “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.”

      Actually, newspaper audiences have grown since they went on-line. Maybe a good editor could have caught that inaccuracy and saved some readers from being mislead this misinformation.

      The problem facing newspapers is that their print version are losing readers to their own on-line versions. Half of their readership is now on-line, but on-line operations only contribute 6 percent of ad revenues.

      So the problem is exactly, what’s the on-line funding model that can support the newsroom staff required for all that expensive empirical fact gathering and fact checking on which the best journalism is based.

    8. Journalism is more as a fun factor in my opinion because the pay isn’t as great, but it takes way more commitment and effort to become a successful journalist. And in this time, I believe lots of journalists are looking for way to make income, however, it just isn’t one of the best ways to make money from the start in my opinion.

    9. says:

      So, is there really no blame to be attached to the fact that the “mainstream media” has been biased to the left for decades? Is there an economic PhD in the house that can explain what happens when you alienate half of your potential readership? And as for the reader who questioned the media’s reluctance to write about government mis-steps in the past eight years- what media has this person been watching since 2000? Bush couldn’t have a shoelace untied without an uproar from every major “news” source. “News” flash from a business person working in the media wasteland- don’t freeze out 40-50% of your potential clients, and you’ll do well. “News” flash from a businessperson with a journalism degree- do you remember what it means to report fairly, without bias, and with the sole intent to inform your audience?