An exciting time for journalism

The print edition of the Rocky Mountain News has hit the newsstands for the last time. It’s no secret that I have little time for those who are crying over the death of print. In fact, I believe that journalism has never had better opportunities than right now.The money in media has not just ‘disappeared’. It’s still there. The only difference is that now the playing field is opened up and the best will get their hands on the dollars – instead of it being limited to the few who could afford the cushioning luxury of an established masthead.

If established mastheads had moved effectively online, then their brands would survive. I firmly believe that in any business if the market likes your product then you survive. And media are no different. Do a good job, meet market need, and you survive.

The Rocky tried to go online, but all they did was degrade the quality and credibility of their brand in the process. They did a Web 1.0 operation and faked a bit of Web 2.0 by including unmoderated reader comments on everything from murders to the weather. The Rocky added absolutely nothing to the print edition by going online. All they did was further deplete the paid for market.

And that’s not a bad thing. Print newspapers are about the most environmentally unsound yet ‘accepted’ standard thing here in Colorado. I find it completely ridiculous that there are environmental reporters who are crying over the death of the newspaper. But I digress… (as usual)

The Rocky Mountain News online masthead is still up for sale, along with its archives. And it’s the only thing that would be worth buying anyway. So if I had the money, this is what I’d do:

1. Spend money on a relaunch of the Rocky online. Brand it as the community news source it built its reputation on.

2a. Run a couple of workshops for the public on how to be a part of the new Rocky, including how to contribute stories (in either text, video, audio or all of them).

2b. Invite the community to contribute news stories to be edited and considered for publication.

3. Vet the contributions as they come in, and invite contributors to make adjustments as needed.

4. Invite the most vocal, opinionated people to write regular paid columns.

5. Trawl the web to add value to the articles posted (and aim to do it with every story) – by linking to relevant educational sites, background info, interactive elements, etc. This includes other newspapers/sources. It means journalism really gets to be transparent, credible, authentic. You know, all that stuff it should always have been.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until I’m purple in the face – the future of journalism is social. And involving the community to contribute to their own news source means democracy and the essential recommendations of the Hutchins Commission in the 1940s will be enabled far better than it ever was before.

That’s why this is an exciting time for journalism. The only sobbing I’m doing is over the traditional journalists that don’t see it.

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8 responses to “An exciting time for journalism

  1. Matt Mansfield

    Did you try YourHub (a Denver Newspaper Agency production incubated at the Rocky)? Wondering if it does not do a lot of what you’re talking about …

    http://denver.yourhub.com/Boulder

    • Yes, I read a number of issues of YourHub. Also known as the public relations friend – in my view, a bit of a poor job of trying to produce a community paper. It definitely wasn’t what I’m talking about here.
      I don’t think this should be a print entity at all. And while some of the news will probably come from PR sources, if it’s not meeting journalistic standards it shouldn’t be published under a professional masthead. No matter what.

  2. You propose an intriguing idea. My concerns:

    1. When you maintain a staff of reporters, you not only have content generators who are already versed in journalistic standards and ethics that constantly build institutional knowledge with each story. When you deal with a vast group of non-journalists, there must be something more than just vetting their stories. There is no guarantee that they obtained their stories ethically or that the information they obtained will be confirmed by anyone else.

    2. While I’m all for the hiring of more copy editors at news outlets, the time spent editing the average submitted news trip from the public to “get it right” almost negates the benefit of not using a paid staffer to go out and get the story him- or herself. Anschutz’s online Examiner model tries to correct this by paying for hits (which is an indirect way of paying for some form of quality) and having a small team of editors. But I don’t know anyone who truly makes a living working solely as an Examiner blogger, and most of them are former journalists, not the average Joe.

    3. The majority of people who actually do contact news organizations with hard-hitting news about corruption and fraud are the proverbial whistleblowers, people on the inside who ARE the source of the information. How do we reconcile the source as the messenger while also protecting the source?

    4. With a readership heavily invested in the product itself, how will it respond to a number of possibly infrequent and inconsistent bylines. It’s hard enough for an established masthead to maintain credibility (SEE: Dozens of comments on RMN and DP forums blaming both liberal and conservative bias in reporting for RMN’s demise as evidence of public’ perception) with a regular staff of bylines that people can grow to trust. YourHub likely remains a haven for press releases and not the user-generated content heaven it was envisioned; Examiner looks like the next step in the evolution, but I have concerns about its viability (based on quality of contributions, not finances) if it remains a part-time profession for most of its users.

    5. Your proposal is based on the assumption that such an organization will keep its finances in check. I assume this is a combination of low overhead, ad revenues, and something else. Does the business also invest heavily in online ad production? Most of the advertisers community-oriented print products currently do business with have little to no Web presence, let alone the capability to produce quality print advertising (with some notable exceptions: corporations, national chains, larger car dealerships, hospitals and office parks). Does the business also invest heavily in building Web sites for their ad clients to drive traffic to their clients? You certainly seem to have a plan for adding value to the content generated, but is their a rubric for creating value as a business?

    • Thanks for your reply Chris! I think it was longer than my original post :). I’ll try and address some of your points.
      1. A massive problem with traditional newspaper journalism is that the practitioners sincerely believe they are doing a far better job than they actually are. In the US nobody holds journalists to account for ethics and standards – other than the market. Oh and the market has spoken, right? I have seen far better journalism being done on a consistent basis by ‘non-journalists’ – to such an extent I question the validity and credibility of journalism in traditional media as a paid profession. The authenticity and transparency offered by the web means that stories are able to be confirmable. These are not opinion pieces. This is journalism. And yes, it can be (and is being) done extremely well by Joe Citizen.
      2. The pay for click model is not what I am talking about. You, and most traditional journalists (in fact, all of the ones I know of) keep approaching the new era with an old basis. I am calling for a review of professional journalism. The priority here is to provide authentic credible content. The role of the professional journalist in this model will change to one where they don’t necessarily write the story, but instead do a sub-editor’s role (fact checking, etc), add links to other news sites, add value to the stories, and even edit story contributions together. In fact, the role would be dynamic – each story would be different, and what is needed may be more or less detailed – but the traditional elements of journalism are still addressed. When the content is produced, the cash will come – most likely from advertisers who will want to buy space in an outlet where the people will get their news. As they always have. This doesn’t mean advertising won’t change, of course it will. But I’m not working from a ‘money first’ perspective (another failing of traditional media). Instead I believe if you build it…
      3. Again, the model will need to change. While ‘whistleblowers’ have wanted a journalist to cover a story on their behalf in the past, now it can be different. Under this model it could still work – the community would write the stories, the editors would fact check them and protect anonymity where deemed necessary. This would actually reduce the number of ‘whistleblowers’ who are nothing more than disgruntled ex-employees trying to stir up trouble wasting a journalist’s time (we’ve all seen those, right?). And by the way, while it’s ideologically sound, in my experience very few local news organizations have actually implemented the type of hard hitting journalism you’re referring to on a regular basis. It’s definitely in the minority. Perhaps because lots of people who have really valid issues do not really trust the journalist to tell the story?
      4. Democracy is all about the voice of the people. The only reason there have been a small range of bylines is because of the high finance required to get a bit of space in media. That’s definitely not democratic. Journalism needs to be democratic and to my mind, as a commercial operation it has failed dismally to uphold the spirit of the Hutchins Commission. The facts are that the general public believe journalists are NOT credible. There are multitudes of studies which say that journalists are not trustworthy, do not report the facts, are biased, etc. A wider range of bylines offers the opportunity for trust in the masthead to be regained, through the offering of a broader depth of reporting. There will be quite a number of people wanting to contribute, given that they are not limited to just text/print. Look at the number of blogs! Look at the number of reader comments! People are opinionated and when their actual names (yes, no more Mr/Ms Anonymous unless warranted by the editor) and videos of their stories are uploaded, they want to do a great job. This is yet another of traditional print journalism’s failings – the belief that nobody can do the job as well as them and it’s up to them to tell everyone what the news is. It’s such a misconception. The audience knows what it wants.
      5. Again your focus is on money and print. My model has no print component. I don’t think we need to even remotely consider how to port existing print ads online. I’m more concerned about the quality of journalism than anything else. But to entertain the advertising side for a moment, yes, advertisers would need to produce ads for an online format. This is not expensive, and no, of course there would be no impetus for the masthead to create web sites or anything else for advertisers. In fact, as an advertising instructor (yes, I teach both journalism and advertising/marketing. Strange mix, I know, but it gives me a better view for the future of journalism IMHO) I believe moving into more intuitive and targeted advertising is the way to go. I don’t care about reach, I care about resonance. Advertisers would rather spend a 10th of the money on ads and have less lost reach on an audience that doesn’t give a crap about their product. Building a web presence is no longer an expensive thing, even for the smallest of companies. Ultimately, this represents an opportunity for advertisers as well as journalists. The massive savings for the masthead will be in those tangible things you’d no longer need – and yes, some of those are staff; but also the paper, the printing, the distribution. Getting rid of the weight and creating an entity that has minimal costs and maximum potential – and which serves the needs of the community is where we need to work from. And I sincerely believe that if we create an opportunity for authentic, credible, trustworthy content as new journalists then the advertisers will want to be seen under our masthead.
      Chris, thanks again for your response. I really want a future for journalism that offers the profession and the community an opportunity to move ahead. It’s only through valid, rigorous discussion and points such as the ones you raise that we will get there.

  3. Apologies for the misspellings; my arms are a bit sore today.

  4. i’m with you on the need to adapt to the Web and engage in conversations with the public. While the Rocky (where i worked part-time) innovated more than most in Colorado, with great video, having a staffer whose job was to engage folks on the Web in daily chats, using Twitter (poorly at least a couple of times), trying to live blog, there was more to be done – with data, interactive graphics, etc.

    But i’d like to know what example you’d offer of high-caliber, citizen-generated watchdog journalism that A) is done by folks who don’t seek to be compensated for their work; B) have plenty of time to invest in tracking down wrongdoing in government, business or elseewhere in their community; C) have the knowledge and expertise to track down documents and sources, along with the judgment to know who and what are credible, who and what are not; D) has a readership (or ability to generate it) broad enough to encourage citizens to act upon the information – without relying on the MSM to pick up where they started and continue their work.

    Certainly there are some examples out there, but the ones i think of are done by people i’d call professionals.

    FiveThiryEight, for instance, provided a huge service during the 2008 elections and continues to offer that service (while Nate Silver works on his book deals!). But i’m wondering if his site offers the sort of Web 2.0 interaction you find essential? Really, this is a site with a lot of text and static graphics.

    TPMMuckracker has won some prestigous journalism awards, but he’s also worked in the industry and is making a living doing this. i wouldn’t call him a citizen journalist.

    Some of the large sites out there, from Yourhub.com to Associatedcontent.com to examiner.com, are, as you point out, virtually public relations vehicles. They aren’t there to serve what i consider to be the larger mission of journalism, giving citizens the info they need to make decisions in a democracy.

    Finally, i’d point you to this Washington Post story, which i think does a great job of illustrating the need for professional journalists.

    • Hi Fish! Firstly I’d be pointing you to the US-based http://www.allvoices.com for a good round up of the potential of this on a world basis, but I’d see the renewed Rocky as being a type of http://www.norg.com.au, which is geographically focused on the Rocky community.
      I understand that your biggest doubt is that the professionalism of journalists can be met by anyone who is not a professional? Over the last 10 years traditional news organisations have funnelled less and less money into the type of in-depth reporting you are talking about. They instead have tried to keep up with the disintegration of the 24-hour news cycle by creating faster, less dense content – instead of doing the opposite. There is definitely an argument that says people who are not beholden to the pay packet of professional journalism often are capable of doing a better job because their interests lie in the quality, not in the money.
      I am not suggesting in any way that there is no place for professional journalism. I am, however, saying that a: Professional journalism as it stands today is doing an abhorrent job and b: The functioning day to day role of professional journalists needs to adapt to the new media environment, and the market’s new expectations.
      I believe that teaching students to be the journalists of 10 years ago is misguided at best. Teaching them the ethos, values and importance of professional journalism is extremely important, however. It’s how these ideologies are implemented that J-schools need to get up to speed with. For example, every single journalism student should be blogging. Every one. Not just text either. The idea that print is the only credible in depth news media is no longer true. In depth video and audio offer a far greater capacity which haven’t been discovered by trad outlets due to time and budget limitations.
      There is some great investigative stuff out there, and outlets such as allvoices and norg support it. Additionally, blogs and podcasts produced by people such as the incredible Cameron Reilly on his G’day World podcast (http://gdayworld.thepodcastnetwork.com/) offer vital journalism by non-traditionally trained people. Cameron has done numerous insightful commentaries, interviews and expose’s. And I’m sure there are plenty, plenty more. (I mention Cameron because he’s smart and irreverent. I like that.)
      To my knowledge, nobody is doing all I envisage. Nobody. So if you and others are looking for examples of exactly what I mean, I can’t give them to you. I also can’t, as a result, show you how this is unequivocally successful and the total and complete answer.
      But I can definitely show you the facts that the old ways do not work, and I will predict here and now that unless dire changes are made in a hurry, local news organisations will be gone. And if J-schools continue to train people to work in print, then its like they’re preparing them for jobs on the Titanic. And if I were a parent paying over $10K a year for my kid’s education, I’d be pissed.

  5. Agreed we need to be training students for different platforms with different skills.

    But there will continue to be a need for text, whether on the Web or elsewhere, and writing and editing skills are still important. In fact, at a recent multimedia panel, two folks working in the field were asked what skills are important for students to learn. Their answer: writing well.

    And, in the end, the essence of journalism doesn’t change. It’s about stories told and told effectively with a variety of media.

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