Does the New Tech Make Old School Journalism Obsolete?

| Hidden Dimensions

"In journalism, there has always been a tension between getting it first and getting it right.."

-- Ellen Goodman

Apple puts tremendous power in our hands - along with the other players in the computer industry. Sometimes, this technology makes me think of a 12 year old who's been driving the tractor on the farm. Then, one day, he steals the car keys and drives the family Honda into town for ice cream.

What got me thinking about this issue more deeply was an article, and if you'll forgive the bluntness, more of a rant, at TechCrunch by Robin Wauters about how the "Mainstream Media Still has Eyes Wide Shut."

The gist of this essay was that the old time media is blind to the new realities of the Internet. The objection had to do with TMZ.com breaking the news of Michael Jackson's death before the Associated Press could confirm it. What didn't help was a subsequent self-serving Chicago Tribune editorial that took credit for the "heavy lifting" when it came to reporting credible information -- which came later. That offended the TechCrunch author.

Rule #1 Nothing is as it Seems

The issue is complicated. The old time media, which is dying in its physical manifestation, namely newsprint, is nervous about faster, more knowledgeable bloggers and young citizen journalists equipped with iPhones, a video camera and Twitter. However, their journalism practices remain valuable: being sure of sources, keeping sources private and reporting objectively. Separating the angst over new competition from self-confidence in these principles is hard to do.

On the other hand, there is tendency for some people, not all, with a camera, a blog and a Twitpic/Twitter account to revel in the immediacy of the technology without the benefit of training, mentoring, and judgment born of history. As a result, that "need for speed" and the adrenaline rush can lead to demagoguery, gunslinging, and crowd psychology that, if couched in SciFi terms, would be revealed as tacky and distasteful.

For example, in the August 2009 issue of Sky and Telescope, Editor in Chief Robert Naeye cited an example of the Internet echoing technical information, without checking sources. A space organization (not NASA) issued a press release with incorrect scientific information. Media outlets all over the world propagated the error. The space organization was advised of its error, but did not issue a correction. In a world of increasing dependence on technology and severe technical issues facing our planet, we can't afford to get the facts wrong and then propagate them.

Rule #2 Both Sides are Right

When it comes to classical journalism, many organizations fail because they aren't a learning organization. They get caught up in office politics and aren't moved out of their comfort zone. Case in point: the Rocky Mountain News in Denver recently went belly up. The response by a few intrepid but technically unsavvy (and suddenly unemployed) reporters was to:

  1. Start a new venture, but keep the status quo.
  2. Build a new Internet Website.
  3. Solicit for subscribers who would write a subscription check to gain password access to their Website.

This is old school thinking, and it failed. Did they talk to Double Encore? Mr. Burcaw says no. Did they engage Amazon and the Kindle? Apparently not. Did they elect to write an iPhone app and use in-app payments? Likely not. Those experienced, seasoned reporters know a lot about journalism but not much about the modern business models that newspapers are moving to. However, that doesn't mean that their journalism training is suspect.

Emerging journalists, on the other hand, tend to confuse proficiency with the technology for a solid understanding of the role of the press in America and principles that will keep them on a sold, durable, professional path. That's what happened to Robin Wauters. Basically, the suggestion is the old codgers are stupid and they're just trying to save face, while using anachronistic methods, by claiming they continue to do the respectable, "heavy lifting." So we should flock back to them.

That's not gonna happen.

Rule # 3 It's All About Balance and Excellence

In my professional career, I have seen some very smart physicists piss off their managers with attitude and arrogance. They didn't get very far in management, and I have written in the past about that effect. I always tell young physicists to use their intelligence to understand the politics of their environment, be cool, become trustworthy, and move into management positions. Uniformly, they ignore that advice, become ostracized geeks, and then complain about how management is making idiotic mistakes.

The same rule applies to young reporters who are smug about their knowledge of Twitter, RSS, video editing and the blogosphere. Some of the heavyweights in journalism will figure it out. They have the money, in some cases, to get it right. And they'll bring their traditional integrity and professionalism to the new world of high tech journalism. At that point, all the kids who have stolen the car keys will suddenly be revealed for what they are: children in a Honda out looking for ice cream, running over pedestrians, and ditching the family car.

Citizen Journalism is here to stay. The Uptake.org comes to mind as a group that's run by smart young professionals. Listen and learn from them.

Comments

Lee Dronick

Maybe old school journalism could benefit from some continuing ed classes.

I am trying to get into Twittering and us it as an adjunct to email, but habits can be hard to break.

geoduck

The CBC is running a very good two part program on this very thing

Article
http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2009/06/17/f-basen-news-20.html

it includes links to podcasts of both parts. They echo a lot of what you’re saying.

I did find it amusing when one news-person said that the trouble with the New Media is that users have to sift through what they hear and decide what to believe, what they can trust, and what is spin, propaganda, or comes from someone with an agenda. I laughed out loud at that. We’re at least 10 and possibly as much as 20 years out from a time when you could trust ANY news source to deliver The Truth. Big media is corporate and editorial decisions are influenced by advertising and the risk of losing access. Press releases come from someone trying to influence something and are passed through filters. Even scientific research is being influenced as the companies that pay for this or that trial suppress unfavorable results.

I monitor a lot of news sources, but I find that I am eliminating more and more of the big media outlets. TV and radio news is a joke. By the time they hit my front door Newspapers are hopelessly out of date. Alternative sources on the web are where I go and even then I hit a variety and try to see through all the various spins.

Lee Dronick

I laughed out loud at that. We?re at least 10 and possibly as much as 20 years out from a time when you could trust ANY news source to deliver The Truth

Could they print it if it wasn’t true? It has to be true, I heard it on the TV.

By the time they hit my front door Newspapers are hopelessly out of date. Alternative sources on the web are where I go and even then I hit a variety and try to see through all the various spins.

City newspapers are in trouble, losing subscribers and fewer people are buying the printed version. Daily I read our local daily, but it is becoming less relevant because as you say the web usually scoops them. Where they could excel is covering local news, but that section is pretty lame. All too often I learn about an event, festival, or something like that, after it has happened or it is too late to make plans. Furthermore, for a newspaper that serves almost 2 million people there may be 6 or 7 entries in the police blotter, believe me we are not that well behaved. The other week I bought
Emergency Radio the police and fire scanner. I hear all kinds of police calls that never make the newspaper, but should be included.

geoduck

There’s a big company up here that runs many newspapers all across Canada, from big city papers to little neighborhood ones. Last winter they announced they were having some financial difficulty. The trouble was that the big city papers were losing money. They were however doing very well in the tiny papers that served tiny communities. Even the web won’t cover the church bazaar or the two teenagers that broke a window at 6:00am. There’s a lot of interest in the Dragon Boat races here in Nanaimo, but it’s unlikely to make much impact off island.

coaten

The other week I bought
Emergency Radio the police and fire scanner. I hear all kinds of police calls that never make the newspaper, but should be included.

To some extent, that may be the paper not having the staff with the expertise and sheer bravado to tackle police stories. I promise you, not just anybody can do that job. Back in the day when the newspaper I worked for had a glassed-in police rounds booth and extra level of security for the handful of guys (and one gal) who worked the police rounds, I was very much in awe of them. Here were people who frequently crossed paths with hardened, dangerous criminals and wore their press badge as a shield, however flimsy that shield may have been. I have seen these people return to their desk shaking in a state of shock yet still able to tap out a ripper of a yarn.

To some extent it may simply be a matter of restricted resources. There may only be one reporter to cover it now, whereas once there may have been a team. Why the reduction? Pressure from the twitterers and bloggers who do their drive-by reporting and believe they are doing some kind of service for those who were not there - or, and this is more worrying, who report via instant media only for the sake of grabbing their I-got-it-first trophy. Or, most likely, less advertising revenue to pay for a team of police reporters.

To some extent, there’s pressure from the legal system. I can’t speak for what happens in the US but in Australia, releasing names and details of certain types of police incidents may be prejudicial and open the newspaper to charges of contempt of court. So a reporter may well make it to the scene and get a great story, only to find the night editor and legal advisor decided that not running it would be in the newspaper’s best interest or that censoring it to avoid legal recourse leaves you with a story not worth reading.

And sometimes, an event you pick up on a scanner could be very much in the public interest but is being held because it would be a better fit for a “big-picture” story of the sort typically held for a Saturday feature. Running a “scoop” on Wednesday could blow that week’s campaign to push readers to page 36 on Saturday to read the “expos?” of Seedy Town’s relentless slide into a moral black hole. And I can tell you it would royally piss the writer who’d been slogging away at that story for two months. Sometimes, you hold a story for strategic reasons.

And, of course, sometimes a paper doesn’t cover a story ‘cos their chief of staff is a moron. Incompetence plays its part, too.

Now, you’ve probably figured I’m an old-school journo. You’d be right. And the only reason I bothered with this diatribe was to help illustrate John’s point about “there is tendency for some people, not all, with a camera, a blog, a Twitpic account and a Twitter address to revel in the immediacy of the technology without the benefit of training, mentoring, and judgment born of history”. To believe that reporting is merely being a mirror to life is gravely mistaken. There are so many considerations at play - from legal restrictions to strategic planning to exercising a commonsense approach to old-fashioned human decency and compassion.

What bothers me most is that so many newspapers, and my city’s own metro daily is among them, compete with new media so fiercely that the mistakes borne of expediency - such as typos, which readers expect to never see from a “respectable” source - serve only to further compromise the paper’s remaining reserves of integrity.

It seems to be an intractable slide into obscurity for old media… but I have some faith that the news-consuming public who don’t have time to visit multiple news sources in order to distill a version of the truth that they find satisfying will demand a better deal from someone. My expectation is that this someone will be the organisation which can figure out how to be immediate, accurate and reliable all at once, while either being profitable or cost-neutral. It’s not an easy formula.

Oh, and of course, there needs to be two such organisations for any given geographical/electronic distribution grid. Balance remains key, even in new media.

Just my 2c.

Better get back to my freelance work. Used to have a job in a newspaper. Gave it away to run ahead of the pack that only last week got their redundancy packages. I may have missed out on the big payout but at least I’ve got a headstart on my competition.

Lee Dronick

Coaten, what I was looking for is what happened up the street from when 8 patrol cars and 12-14 officers had two guys handcuffed, with the police helicopter orbiting overhead. This was not a citation for holding a cell phone while driving, though they may have initially been pulled over for that. But no matter the reason for the arrest there was no word of it in the local newspaper.

You are right about concerns of having names of suspects in the media. Though here there is not a restriction on that for adults, only that it may taint the jury pool. About tens years ago I was summoned to jury at the east county courthouse where I would normally not serve jury duty. They were looking for jurists from out of the area who were not familiar with the case. It was a grisly double murder trial and I sat in the jury box for four months and in the end we were hung in the penalty phase.

Times change. There are surveillance cameras in just about any business. Most everyone has a camera in their cell phone, some are video capable. News now comes in from non-traditional sources, how do we deal with that?

As Geoduck and I discussed earlier the big town papers are not covering small local events, or not many of them, nor are they not on the calender of upcoming events. Sure part of that is the fault of the event organizers, but make it easier for them to get that word out.

davebarnes

Try reading this:
Interview with Drew Curtis
http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=67&aid=165392

Drew Curtis:  Fark is a curator. I like to compare us to a restaurant, we don’t grow the food but we prepare it and repackage it in new ways. We’re also not doing anything particular amazing concept-wise, picking links isn’t exactly rocket science. Our value lies not in what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it.

Drew Curtis:  This is a complete guess on my part btw: I think that you’re going to see a number of news organizations collapse, then be replaced by entrepreneurs who re-build the organizations from the ground up. The main
problem with news organizations today is that they’re flat out spending too much money. My local newspaper has 475 employees but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re all doing. They’re going to collapse under the weight of bad business practices, not because their product is substandard
or unwanted.

Drew Curtis:  My advice would be (and I realize this is not pleasant or easy to do) reduce expenses however you have to. Fire 90% of the staff, go web only, and probably take a dip through chapter 11 to get rid of the debt.
Come out the other side lean and mean. And concentrate more on content less on social media distribution, and is useless otherwise

Drew Curtis:  our standard practice is to quickly identify who in the threads is providing the most useful information, then help them get this information out there. For example, during the Virginia Tech shootings we
eventually had to push out everyone not coming from a VATech IP, mainly because the thread was up DURING the actual event and VATech Farkers were trying to figure out what was going on so they could get the hell out of there.

Drew Curtis:  It’s not on the writers to churn out more quality content, it’s on the managers and executives of the businesses involved to allow their writers the ability to do that. That’s the real tragedy of the decline in mainstream media, it’s not the fault of Journalists at all. Bad management is to blame.

coaten

Coaten, what I was looking for is what happened up the street from when 8 patrol cars and 12-14 officers had two guys handcuffed, with the police helicopter orbiting overhead.

And then there’s the category of “this happens so often in our town it doesn’t rate as news anymore”. That may or may not be the case in your part of the world. What I most wanted to emphasise was that there are myriad reasons for not covering such a story that can’t be put down to “my local paper is not doing its best to give me the news I want”.

You are right, of course, about local events being compulsory coverage in a big town newspaper. Such events may otherwise pass without being noticed by history.

There are surveillance cameras in just about any business. Most everyone has a camera in their cell phone, some are video capable. News now comes in from non-traditional sources, how do we deal with that?

This is a matter of privacy. Do you have a right to identify a person involved in a major police event without knowing the context of the situation? The “perp” may have been victimised, framed or genuinely resisting arrest. Which one is it? Old-school journalism would process this story and determine whether it was a pat-on-the-back story in which justice needs to be seen to be done, or perhaps a police brutality scenario, or just a run-of-the-mill crime story with nothing special about it other than an unusually high police unit response rate. Perhaps the cops screwed it up? Perhaps the perp was a decoy? Perhaps the high response rate was an effort to be perceived as a pro-active police force in a PR stunt by the local law enforcement agency. Gosh! Expos?! Sure, I’m being a bit fanciful now but old-school journalism with a team of reporters and subs and editors provided checks and balances that are often overlooked by twit reporters. And who is accountable for their work? Who takes responsibility when John Doe’s life is ruined by a citizen journalist whose careless coverage portrayed Mr Doe as guilty of some wrongdoing for which the only explanation is Mr Doe’s misfortune of being within the citjourn’s frame of view?

New-school journalism often reduces to an argument of everyone has right to bear witness to the event. Well, that ain’t necessarily so. OTOH, being able to witness events from far-off lands such as Iran brings context to a situation with power and meaning.

JulesLt

A few thoughts :

I suspect journalists aren’t the right people to reconstruct the industry, in that they weren’t the people who created the business models than fund(ed) existing newspapers.

The same argument applies with the music business - most musicians I know are not particularly good at things like marketing - which has been the most significant thing a record company has done since Amazon flattened distribution.

In both cases, the fundamental skills - songwriting, or proper journalism - are still required, but what we’re seeing is a radical transformation - and reduction - of the amount of money going into the system, and number of employers.

A second problem for newspapers is that opinion content (editorial, and arts criticism) is something that has always drawn people to papers, rather than quality of journalism, or original stories - but that is an area where journalistic standards don’t really apply, and where bloggers are genuinely every bit as good.

(It’s notable that in the UK editorial columnists can earn far more than journalists, for doing little more than expressing their opinion in a witty or politically charged way).

I’d also concur with the comment on the Internet as echo chamber - there are a large number of times when I encounter blatant untruths being passed on as ‘fact’ - and then when I hear these things being cited by work colleagues, you realise that this stuff sticks.

And while old style media organisations have clear political bias, they are at least clear targets to be sued in the event of libel, lies, etc.

(There are some disadvantages there, in that sometimes they sit on stories that cannot be proven, for fear of court action).

Lee Dronick

This is a matter of privacy. Do you have a right to identify a person involved in a major police event without knowing the context of the situation? The ?perp? may have been victimised, framed or genuinely resisting arrest. Which one is it? Old-school journalism would process this story and determine whether it was a pat-on-the-back story in which justice needs to be seen to be done, or perhaps a police brutality scenario, or just a run-of-the-mill crime story with nothing special about it other than an unusually high police unit response rate.

This is what I want out my local newspapers either:

1. A routine traffic stop on Park Street resulted in the arrests of two men who are suspects in a string of violent bank robberies. Over a dozen patrol cars and Chopper 1 responded

or

2. The large police response you may have noticed on Park Street was a case of mistaken identity and the people were released at the scene.

I am not getting that so I am seeking my news elsewhere.

old style media organisations have clear political bias

Yes and often they color the stories one way or the the the other. Was it the newspapers who got Obama elected or the internets? Did I read a selected excerpt of his speech in the local newspaper or did I watch the video of the entire thing on some blog?

farmboy

Used to be one long, long ago ago (journalist, that is). The major problem with New Media is that there is nobody running the store—write whatever you want and it gets published and distributed with the same effect as a well-researched, fact-checked and editor-reviewed story. Most web-based journalism is absolute crap and often totally made up from whole cloth.

No one denies the appeal of immediate news; I like it too. But I want a real news organization, with real writers who have degrees (more than J School or English/Fine Arts majors), real editors, and the finances (which means ad content somewhere) to support the system and respond to news events with vigor and thoroughness.

The “clear political bias”, which I acknowledge is at least sometimes true (but not always “clear”), usually only shows up on the editorial page. But it is replaced now with very personal, almost virulent bias, unweighted with the power of an organization (any organization) to push content towards the center. It does not matter if the content is arts or opinion. This is a deterioration, not an improvement.

geoduck

If course there’s the downsode of News 2.0

http://candorville.com/comics/2009-07-01.gif

Black_Dog

This is a great discussion. I guess you could say that I am part of the new media.  I test cars and editorialize for an online automotive site.  The obsolescence of traditional print journalism became very clear to me 18 months ago when I covered the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.  I walked from press conference to press conference snapping photos with my DSLR with a laptop in a book bag slung over my shoulder.  Any time I had a break I downloaded the photos to the laptop, quickly sorted out the junk photos and wirelessly uploaded them to the Web ? all done from the floor of the showroom.  Additionally, I typed out a couple of news blurbs and recorded a podcast.  Literally, our coverage of the event posted within minutes of it actually occurring.

Conversely, the traditional print rags (Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, etc.) are unable to get their coverage printed and distributed to readers for a minimum of two months.  Of course these outlets also have web sites that they feed content to, most of which was created or polished in the massive COBO media room hours later. 

Actually, what I noticed most is that most of the top guns for these magazines were not at the auto show as writers but as celebrity reporters.  They were followed around by camera crews recording snippets for later broadcast ? yet further evidence that traditional print media is in its final death throes.

coaten

Any time I had a break I downloaded the photos to the laptop, quickly sorted out the junk photos and wirelessly uploaded them to the Web ? all done from the floor of the showroom.? Additionally, I typed out a couple of news blurbs and recorded a podcast.? Literally, our coverage of the event posted within minutes of it actually occurring.

And this has its place. Indeed, event coverage is a superlative example of a reporting task well-suited to digital media coverage. In effect, you are a proxy for everyone who would have been there but couldn’t. This has value. It’s instant, and the information you pass on comes direct from the source. Your role, in this scenario, is as conduit.

Yet I don’t think you can discount the value of print media coverage of the same event just because it reaches its audience later than does your coverage. In the time between your posts and a magazine coming out, enough time has passed to enable a different approach. For some mags, there will be an opportunity to test-drive a vehicle to see if it lives up to the maker’s claims. For all mags, there will be time to develop a photo spread with tables and expert analysis on new vehicles and present this in such a way that brings context and an easy method of comparison that will have a lot of value to someone making a purchasing decision.

Certainly, this has been the case for a publisher I worked for this year. We did online coverage of the Macworld expo. I was at the keynote as the publisher’s photographer. Like you, my pics were up within minutes of them being taken. Yet this same publisher ran a print spread five weeks later. Despite being so late after the fact, the coverage had value to the mag’s readers because it had the benefit of a broader assessment. On top of that, many of the mag’s readers, even though they are ‘puter-savvy Mac fanatics, still enjoy a print mag.

Something I think is so often overlooked in discussions about new v old media is that in the magazine world there’s another dynamic at play - tactile pleasure. The magazine industry in Australia continues to flourish (about 1100 titles for a 21m population, albeit with declining ad revenue) because so many people still enjoy getting their favourite mag once a month. It’s like a flag that tells them to take a break, put their feet up, put on a pot of coffee, and curl up with a favourite read. This is the moment in a mag’s life cycle that still sells ads and can’t be replicated or beaten by online coverage.

I’m not saying one form of media is any better than another, just that one shouldn’t discount the value of either based on the currency of news cycles.

For another POV on this issue, and one I don’t entirely agree with, in fact some if it I find laughable, take a look at the transcript ofa speech given by News Ltd’s John Hartigan (the top man in Oz) here

coaten

Well, Black_Dog, I had a continuation to your response, but it got flagged as spam. So, in short, the work you do has value for its immediacy, but that doesn’t discount the value that comes with the broader perspective on the same event delivered by a print mag a few weeks later. Each has their own value to readers.

coaten

Oh, and Sir Harry, does your local newspaper know that’s what you want? Have you told the editor? Have you explained that you’ll get your news elsewhere if his/her publication doesn’t fulfill your expectations?

I often hear the mantra: “In print, you lead the reader; on the web, the reader leads you”. I think there might be some room for some crossover there.

Lee Dronick

Oh, and Sir Harry, does your local newspaper know that?s what you want? Have you told the editor? Have you explained that you?ll get your news elsewhere if his/her publication doesn?t fulfill your expectations?

You better believe it, ping them all the time, they probably flag me for spam too. They got bought not too long ago so maybe the new owners will change things and try to increase readership. It could be a case of the old school newspaper baron dying and the heir more interested in spending money than keeping the several newspapers afloat

coaten

@Sir Harry
Good on you. I hope they hear you. Eventually.

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