Networked journalism will move value from “brand” to “contribution”

Journalism is not in crisis. The media industry — and journalists — might be, but the journalism itself is actually improving.

Such is the argument made by international documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak and Annenberg professors Michael Parks and Manuel Castells in a recently published article about “Networked Journalism.”

As the authors see it, the problem is that most of the doomsayers mix the concept of journalism with the business of journalism. In their article, journalism is defined as the “production of reliable information and analysis needed for the adequate performance of a democratic society.” Not mentioned in the definition are “profits,” “professional journalists” or “traditional publishers.” Just the pursuit of reliable information.

When the authors discussed their paper at Annenberg last week, Castells started by saying, “This is the beginning of the golden age of journalism.” People have greater selection and better access to information than ever before to help make democracies perform better. Or to make democracy happen in the first place, as we’ve seen in several “Twitter revolutions” in recent years.

But the golden age comes with a few caveats for traditional journalists. “Journalist” is no longer defined by background, schooling, and salary, but by the contribution to the expanding body of reliable information about the world.

Making that contribution is getting harder. Van der Haak predicted that “robots will produce most of the basic stories we see in newspapers today.” And the more developed automated journalism becomes, the more journalists will have to specialize in interpretation, analysis and storytelling. Mere transmitting of information doesn’t count as a meaningful contribution, since anyone with a cell phone and a Twitter account can do it.

This is where the power of networking comes in. In networked journalism, journalists are not working alone at their desks but instead act as nodes of the network, adding value instead of competing against each other. Journalists collect different feeds from various sources and create a meaningful version of the story, contributing to the body of information already available. With  networked journalism, they can optimize resources and generate synergy, and new creativity will emerge from our sharing. It is very similar to any other industry in a networked society.

This will mean growing pains for journalists. In a networked system, “pointing all the microphones at the same time at the same person” doesn’t make sense, as van der Haak noted. Instead of sending all the reporters to City Hall to listen to the mayor’s speech, a news organization might serve readers better by fact-checking the speech in real time at the office.

Michael Parks noted that journalism is evolving far more rapidly than journalists are. The most sought-after skills in journalism will be analytical capacity and the ability to network. This is what the authors call “sense-making,” or professional processing and understanding of information.

And this is where the authors hit their most controversial point. They argue that “not objectivity, but transparency and independence are vital for journalism to be credible in the 21st century.” People have multiple sources of information and they are more aware about how all of the sources serve some sort of interest. It might be political, as it is in partisan media, or financial, as it is in traditional, for-profit publishing.

In this environment, the authors write, “journalism with a clear perspective is more convincing than neutral narrative, and there is increasing value placed on the voice or vision embedded in the story — that is, on a point of view. This, however, calls for analysis grounded in reporting, not opinion or ideology.”

And this, according to the authors, will distinguish the journalism from the “informed bewilderment” that the world has become. Networked journalism is not a threat to quality or to the independence of professional journalists but rather a liberation from corporate control. But it requires a massive shift in the minds of professional journalists, who are taught to determine the value of journalism by which organization produces it, instead of measuring its value to the vast body of information we already have on the Internet.

So next time you read that “journalism is in crisis” and start getting depressed about the state of the media and our democracy, make sure the author is actually referring to journalism — not the industry or the profession of journalists, but the actual “journalism.” Because while journalists may have their work cut out for them, journalism itself is thriving.

About Pekka Pekkala

Pekka Pekkala is a freelance writer and Visiting Scholar at USC Annenberg, writing a book “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” on a grant from Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.