So it’s official. We’re dying. We’re crumbling. We’re so over.
Not so easy. I refuse to play dead.
There IS a future for those of us who’ve lived, breathed and broadcast via traditional media for most of our working lives.
For the last few weeks, students taking Nicco Mele’s course “Digital Media, Power and Politics” at the Harvard Kennedy School have been immersed in reading about the multiple ways in which digital technology is revolutionising our world. Much of the reading, and some of our classroom debates, have left us representatives of the MainStreamMedia wondering if we’re all out there on the industry scrapheap.
Well, no. The institutions may be dying – or scrambling to reinvent themselves – and that’s a subject for many blog posts more. But the art and craft of journalism is alive and kicking, and guess what? Experience IS worth a damn.
Let’s start with this simple quote from new tech romantic Clay Shirky. In his blog post of March 2009, he writes “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism”. And that’s the point.
It should be a given that journalists like me need to reinvent ourselves. We need to be online. We need to be multi-media, broadcasting our raw newsgathering material not just in traditional “bulletins” but via embedded video & audio slide shows on our websites, and via teases and trails and interaction on a wide range of social networks. We need to become brands in order to offer a consistent persona across these outlets, enabling the consumers of any one aspect of our newsgathering to follow it to its source, and find more. That’s why I took the course, enticed by Nicco’s academic motto, “to understand the digital world, you have to live it.” He’s right.
And more, much more than we have done, “traditional” journalists need to make it our business to listen to those who offer their thoughtful reaction. We should be prepared to see our own prejudices, spoken or unspoken, in the spotlight. Who knows where the next angle, another side to the story, or the glimmer of an entirely different story, might show itself? Why should newsgathering be all about returning to the sources we know?
But for god’s sake don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I was dismayed to read, as part of our digital “set texts”, an October 2010 blog post from Dave Weiner , where he writes scathingly about the Boston Globe’s decision to pay bloggers to provide news from the 200 local towns within the paper’s reach, and even more scathingly about a comment from the New York Times’ editor Bill Keller about needing professional reporters to act as our “witnesses.”
Weiner writes, “did it occur to them to simply start new publications in each of those towns, and let people do the witnessing on a voluntary basis?” Well, yes. You might get some great stories. Some inspired writing. But to take his example, you might also get a heap of biased dross, all sheltering under the decades-old, hard-won brand reputation of the “Boston Globe”. Because these things matter. Talent. Training. Credibility. And authority. You can have all four as a brilliant blogger or an online start up. But I submit, you might also have all four from years, or decades, in the professional media world.
Let’s take talent first. The pool of new talent from amateur media is awesome. Look at the example of the 200 amateur journalists who threw themselves into the Huffington Post “Off the Bus” coverage of the White House campaign 2008 , described in March 2009 by the initiative’s mastermind Amanda Michel. But don’t overlook the pool of talent in paid media. The journalism industry is ruthless and competitive. You have to be good to get on.
Right now our readers / listeners / viewers should be in a win-win situation where talent talks, and the wrong kind of barriers to publication are down. Who cares if you didn’t go to the right school, have your path smoothed to that coveted internship, or have daddy play golf with the editor? If what you write is original, and good, and you can make your case online, you will find your groove.
Next, training. Good journalists have it, however they get it. Research skills. Writing skills. Recording skills. Field and survival skills. Editing and design skills. Knowledge of the law and local politics. And increasingly, business savvy: fundraising and entrepreneurial skills. Anyone CAN get these, and so this is more and more the world of the media freelance as much as the media institution. But it matters. It’s worth noting from the Huffington Post experiment that Amanda Michel says she invested huge resources in fact checking, editing, rewriting, and general guidance. And that’s why professionalism is not to be scoffed at. Just sayin’.
Together these two, talent and training, give you the basis of the journalist’s skill set. Throw in experience – listening, travelling, gaining access, taking time to think – across years, across decades. Credibility and authority tend to follow. And just because the time has passed when traditional media credentials earned you automatic respect in the field, it shouldn’t have to be the case that they’re automatically scorned in the classroom.