Why it’s time for Journalism First

The week’s started with plenty of fuel for the ‘what next for journalism’ debate. And it seems we’re still arguing the toss over form rather than content. My previous post contained some initial thoughts on The Guardian announcing its ‘Digital First’ strategy, and now Jeff Jarvis has added a few thoughts. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger also fleshed out the idea. And there was a very good post on Wannabee Hacks this morning which takes things off at a tangent, in the process sparking some interesting discussion.

Let’s start with Jarvis, who I’ve taken issue with before. His argument is that the article is just a part of the mix and that the process of reporting is much more fluid now than it ever was. This is a good thing, we can both agree. There is plenty of opportunity provided by the new. But, as always, Jarvis’s eagerness to herald the new, or perhaps to be seen as a herald of the new, leads him to misrepresent the value of the old. He at least seems now to concede that “Telling stories will always have a role” after once arguing that “I’m not so sure journalism is storytelling any more”. But his argument that the journalist’s role is more collaborative than it ever was, which it is, leads him to some strange conclusions. Check out this quote…

Digital first means the net must drive all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that when journalists know something, they are prepared to share it with their public. They may share what they know before their knowledge is complete so the public can help fill in blanks.

Sharing what you know before your knowledge is complete could also be described as not standing the story up, and that final sentence of Jarvis’s quote could serve as an accurate description of the football media’s reporting of the summer transfer market. What’s missing from so many analyses of what journalism will be like in future is an understanding of authority and power. It’s tricky ground to venture on to as it can so easily draw accusations of elitism. But the reality is that journalism traditionally drew on resources and time that other people didn’t have in order to produce information that could be trusted.

Bunging up information

Again, I know that last word will prompt howls of derision and lists of all the scams the press has ever pulled. But you could also come up with a list of all the stories that have stood up, that have been true, that have added to the sum of human knowledge. If journalism is simply to be bunging up bits of information and waiting for the public to fill in the blanks, that’s not journalism. Instead, it’s this, a story about the AOL/Huffington post merger* that runs with this fantastic opening.

AOL bought Huffington Post for $315 million earlier this year. So far, according to an anonymous reader who sent us the following note, the integration is going badly. We haven’t checked any of this (including the reader’s identity), and some of it sounds preposterous.

So, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s true, and it’s probably not, but we’ll chuck it up anyway and generate some traffic.

Keep doing that, and eventually people will stop reading. A journalistic approach would be to devote some time and resources to checking out the tip and standing the assertions up. That’s what distinguishes journalism from rumour. But it’s that resources and time bit that brings us to the crux.

Jarvis characterises the argument of some of his critics as “Without me, the storyteller, you can’t have a story” and seems to suggest that this is just a self-interested argument by journalists who see the end of the line. (Or should that be byline? I’m here all week). Let’s leave the matter of whether it is acceptable for people to try and defend their jobs to another post (in short, I’d say it is). For many journalists, and people who care about journalism, there’s a real concern about the quality of information and a reduction in the ability of journalism to report what others don’t want reported. Media organisations have more power and resources than ordinary citizens and that has been used to make the kind of challenges to authority that are threatened by the squeezing of resources.

It’s about job cuts, stupid

Several days after The Guardian trumpeted its ground-breaking ‘digital first’ initiative, editor Alan Rusbridger admitted it would involve “significant” job cuts. Now it’s true that technological change means that if, for example, I was looking to set up the kind of editorial team I did on a number of occasions for new launches in the 1990s I would be looking at employing fewer bodies. But the worry about much of what is coming from The Guardian is that all the talk of investment is in the skills that will process and transmit information. And nothing in the creation of that information.

A scan though a number of journalism job sites reveals plenty of jobs managing, processing, transmitting and organising content. But precious few in creating it. The fact is that creating content takes time and investment, and that is an inconvenience to profit-hungry media organisations. Admitting this would not be good for any media organisation’s image. Far better if reducing investment in journalism can be dressed up as a futuristic argument which breaks up old elites and gives power to the people.

The last debate I remember along those lines was the one which said that care in the community was an empowering and progressive policy, rather than a cleverly-packaged excuse to cut costs and deprive people of basic care.

What’s good for journalism?

I realise I’m setting myself up for a kicking here, but the concern about what is happening to journalism is not just a product of a bunch of blinkered old dinosaurs trying to hang on to the old ways. The nature of the media business has changed, there are some fantastic opportunities to be had, and there’s a welcome bridging of the gap between producer and consumer. But the continued obsession with the means of delivery rather than what is being delivered means that important issues around context and interpretation and the resourcing of proper investigation are being lost. In short, there’s is a tendency to see content simply as ‘stuff’ and to belittle the process of journalism and the skills of journalists. That may be good for media organisations seeking to justify cost-cutting, but it’s not good for journalism.

Rather interestingly, the debate on the Wannabe Hacks post linked at the beginning of this post is touching on that very ground in another challenge to another buzz-phrase – ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. I think there’s rather more that’s positive in what this particular group of young journalists are doing than in much of what the self-appointed standard-bearers of the new continue to foist on us.

 
* Footnote. I freelance for AOL in the UK. My choice of example was not prompted by that fact, but because it’s one of the worst examples I’ve seen. My own experience of AOL is very different to the one described in the article, so there are no axes being ground here.

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