Monday, January 30, 2012

Journalism's Emergent Renaissance

Is professional journalism dying?

I've always found this line of thinking to be nostalgic. I believe the contrary: journalism isn't dying, but changing and expanding in ways that may ultimately make it more powerful than ever. The changes in the profession, as in so many, are disruptive and painful. But the changes are inevitable and likely lay the foundation for a better approach.

For most of history, journalists didn't give a damn about their professional standing-- they were happy to be craftsmen, in the tradition of ink-stained wretches. As late as the 1950's, more than 50% of reporters lacked college degrees. At its core reporting was (and is) dressed in overalls: it's about unearthing facts, eliminating noise, assembling context, and building insight. It's hard, honorable work.

The scaling of "big" professional journalism-- investigative teams, large budgets, and relatively leisurely deadlines-- was a modern development, fueled by the big profit growth of traditional media in 1970's and 1980's. "Big" journalism had business success (Newsweek, 60 minutes) and journalistic success (a la Woodward and Bernstein). The fruits of that era were sweet: I miss Ted Koppel's nightly explorations of the world and the heft of the weekly news magazines.

But "big investigative journalism" was never a model that scaled very far. Only a very small subset of media outlets had the resources to fund true investigative staffs of any real scope. Big investigative journalism was mostly not commercially viable, but the beneficiary of cross-subsidies amongst a few powerful traditional media outlets.

There is absolutely no way I would trade my current cornucopia of internet news sources for those "glory days". In the digital world, the reach, breadth, depth and timeliness of coverage is improving at a fantastic rate. It scales.

The criticism of the digital journalistic age is that quality is declining, specifically in these areas:
1. More amateur reporting
2. Less objective reporting
3. Less serious new coverage
4. Over emphasis on frivolous "newsertaintment" coverage

Let's look at each of these issues.

More amateur reporting. Yes, that's true. But there's also far more expert reporting now. I follow dozens of niche bloggers whose expertise massively outstrips that of the traditional media journalists they might have displaced. I mostly ignore the legions of new amateur "journalists" and find the true experts. Many of these experts had no voice before, as they had no access into the very limited "newshole" of traditional media outlets. My news and info diet is richer than ever.

Less objective reporting. This criticism rides with the amateur argument: that only professionally trained journalists that can be objective. While this argument has some merit at the margin, there is a counter argument as well. Since the digital era opens the media to more expertise, that expertise often comes packaged with a better brand of objectivity-- informed by much deeper subject matter knowledge.

Less serious new coverage. This argument says we are now lacking in coverage of the most important issues, like Middle East peace processes or inner city economic woes. I'd again make a counter argument, that as the costs of producing and distributing coverage have declined, there is more of it-- at all levels.

Over emphasis on frivolous coverage. Or, put less delicately:"we're now drowning in crap". Sigh. This criticism is true. Such is the inevitable sprawl of growth-- you get more of the good stuff and more of the bad. Both weeds and flowers multiple in the Spring. The good news is that this profusion will be mitigated by emerging "filtering technologies" that leverage human curation.

Now that the bottlenecks of printing presses and TV towers have been removed, journalism's finest days are ahead. I say this in the same way that musician's best days are ahead. The traditional work of studio musicians may have disappeared, but with the bottleneck of record labels removed, the innovative work of distributed auteurs is multiplying at a terrific rate. Making a living is certainly becoming more difficult in many fields. But this is the consequence of global competition and equal access, not signs of devolving, but evolving.

Perhaps a profession's greatest moments are when gatekeeping collapses and the market sorts out the talented influx of para-professionals and allied professionals. As exclusivity of knowledge and tools propagate, the definition of a "professional" becomes determined by the level of mastery, not by the issuer of one's diploma, license, or paycheck.

With this admittedly optimistic outlook, I say journalism's finest moments are ahead.


  1. Great post! Control of the media has been a means of maintaining power that lives on even today. The internet's sharing of the ability to report and comment on news across all subjects is a huge step forward for our world community. Less visible in countries which have enjoyed journalistic freedom, but enormously freeing for the people in many countries.

  2. I definitely agree that the amount of serious, good quality journalism has become more accessible in the internet age, but the amount of cheap, amateur infotainment has the majority of us drowning. Those who want to pursue better quality news will always finds a means- but these are not the people we worry about. It is the average user that will be bombarded with crap- and not know any better/ bother to sort through it all. Journalism's finest moments may still be ahead, but how many will know about it? Algorithms can only get us so far- if we do not want protesters carrying signs screaming "free press!" and having us just go full circle.

  3. This new paradigm of decentralized media has not only brought about a greater breadth and depth in the quality and expertise of journalistic opinions and information but an experience for the reader that is far more personalized, relevant, and interesting altogether. Even the "trash" that is out there has a place in the ecosystem, providing content for the (rather large) contingent of folk that is interested in that sort of thing. By personalizing my own media experience I can easily choose to ignore those outlets. At the same time, many of those people are able to become privy to information of more national or even global significance (world news, national events of interest) that they may not have even known about before, like the person who clicks on a link for the GOP debate on their Facebook activity stream in the midst of reading an update on Lady Gaga. Also, the speed at which information now travels through social neworks provides an environment of greater acccountability for the integrity of governments, elected officials, corporations, and public figures. With greater access, globally available channels, and greater speeed the higher purpose and ideals of journalism are closer to being realized now than ever before.

  4. Definitely interesting!

    One of my biggest concerns with the future of digital journalism is the growing symbiotic relationship I see between public relations and aspiring / current digital journalists. Just as it's become vastly simpler for anyone to strike up a blog over the last ten years, a competent public relations professional can communicate instantly with thousands of relevant journalists / bloggers and influence public opinion. They also act as gatekeepers to company knowledge, often barring inquisitive digital journalists from entry.

    In turn, this drowns out the true experts with a high volume of articles influenced by PR and makes it tougher for the average Joe to find intelligent reporting from the best digital journalists. If anything, we probably need higher quality content aggregation than Google News or other aggregators currently provide.

    1. Good point. when I took my PR undergrad classes in 2005-2008 and the books said that 80% of all 'news' was written by PR folks [with of course the 'spin' and intent being to deliver and advertised 'value' to promoting some objective] it spoke to me loudly about 'narrative' , rhetoric and mythology in our system of 'news' mis-information, dis-information, propaganda and YES [at times] 'outright lies'..the plethora of 'data' has to be screened rigorously for 'information' from primary sources that speak to interpreting 'reality' in a bubble of mass social obejctives..

  5. Very interesting point of view.

    I share Mike Flacy's concern, and add my own about the merging of "content" with reporting. There is a distinction, and I believe we lose when the two are confused.

    I believe most people misunderstand the role of publishers in the 20th Century. Their real role wasn't developing or distributing, but identifying. Take books, or music. There have always been a lot of books written that weren't worth reading, and I don't have time to read 50 to find the three good ones. It's interesting to watch that process develop, with reviews and liking. it still feels to me like baby steps.

    I read a fair amount of 19th Century literature, and I can say that someone like Mark Twain would have a laugh at the idea that newspapers were an impartial information source. Until almost the World War II they were generally controlled by one of the local political bosses, and their content was anything but impartial. I would argue that what we are losing is more ephemeral than most people think.

  6. I have my own Show and I have never felt more empowered to engage with my community, region, nation and world.

    I am putting a "spin" on local, national and global news that suit me and my tastes and as technologies for aggregating this content get better, I'm sure I'll have a voice in the world louder and more informed that at any time in the "Good Ole' Days".

    Joe Terry

    1. I think you 'nailed it'. you are honest enough to say "I put my 'spin' on...Some of us are 'truth seekers' looking for the most common denominator of the most objective [possible] 'facts' being narrated [since someone still has to narrate what is or is not re-presented, reported - Jenkins 'Re-thinking History] and the 'slant' each person's unique perception brings to that [phenomenological] equation. It is kind of a 'cut the crap and give me the basic elements of 'TRUTH' so I can be fairly informed, justly repeat, and hopefully reasonably articulate in the information I consume and absorb to make decisions about my life, the world and business that makes it go round.

  7. I have found that finding credible news sources without the 'cloud' of 'confirmation bias' [wikipedia] is the challenge if you truly want to be 'objective' as opposed to being 'right' and finding information that supports what you already believe. The top global hedge fund manages know that the 'cognitive dissonance' patterns of [black swan events] make for watching change, allowing for event driven paradigm shifts that rise above the 'mis-information, dis-information, propaganda and often 'mythology' of seeking somewhat 'truthful' interpretations of 'real events' makes for the most difficult part of the process. Once you find a few sources that you know to be 'objective' as you can find [ProPublica research] or perhaps The Milken Institute for policy and watch FOX news for entertainment and perspective and Rachel Maddow for left-leaning centrist perspectives, the only thing left on is deciding what you truly 'agree' on and 'CHOOSE TO BELIEVE' since so little is left un-tainted within the agencies and gate-keepers that promote and advertise what we call 'news' information. Personally, a good cross sections of ipod podcast's seems to do the job for me.