Does the New Tech Make Old School Journalism Obsolete?

"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 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 comes to mind as a group that's run by smart young professionals. Listen and learn from them.