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First Read: Follow the Breadcrumbs

As published in Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2009.

A Laurel to Len Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson for a comprehensive review of developments in the journalistic ecosystem.

A Dart for the mile-wide, inch-deep reportage. We all know about most of these developments. So, what epiphanies are to be drawn from what is working? I wish their calls to action were grounded in more specific context to convince people of their remediative powers. Indeed, most of the fledgling experiments they cite are too young to be prescriptive. Nor are their recommendations advanced by a depth of explanation that would engender legislative or regulatory support.

Besides, many of their suggestions have been happening for a while now: scores of news ventures have launched as nonprofits; more than two hundred community and place-based foundations have invested in news initiatives since 2005; and the public broadcasting community has already announced plans to expand local news reporting.

If we really want to reconstruct American journalism, we need to look at more than the supply side; we need to explore the demand side, too. We need to start paying attention to the trail of clues in the new-media ecosystem and follow those “breadcrumbs.” What ailing industry would look for a fix that only thinks of “us,” the news suppliers, and not “them,” the news consumers? I don’t hear from any of those consumers in this report.

The American public has been giving mainstream journalism a steady stream of negative feedback. Most recently, 70 percent gave the press poor-to-failing grades in unpacking the various health care proposals. And while the public still pays homage to watchdog reporting, only 29 percent of those recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center said the press gets the facts right.

So how are some of the new-media makers addressing this? Many newly launched sites were triggered by frustrations with or vacuums created by mainstream news outlets.

In looking to reconstruct journalism, I’d start not by asking how do we get money for what we’ve always done. I’d ask instead: How do we provide something worth paying for? As a long-time news consumer, I have recoiled at much of what we are rendering as “journalism.”

What if it’s not just the business model of journalism that is broken? What if the way we are doing our journalism is broken, too? How are some of the new media makers trying to fix that?

Some questions that need to be addressed:

  • What if the something-for-everyone, grocery-store model of newspapers no longer meets consumers’ needs—especially in an era of espn, Entertainment Tonight, and Bloomberg’s business news?
  • What if some of the old conventions of “good” journalism, those things we do on autopilot, are hampering instead of safeguarding good reporting? For example: most new-media makers don’t traffic in “scorecard” journalism; they present fewer false equilibriums; con- flict is not the most prevalent definition of “news” for them.
  • How is objectivity being redefined in emerging news sites? It’s not a dispassionate recitation of facts or a he said/ she said paradigm. A new objectivity informed by a sense of place and stewardship for community is taking root. Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, for example, is quoted as saying, “We’re not trying to be  completely impartial but fair and rigorously honest.”
  • What if just producing “journalism” is no longer enough? What if the public wants more—a scope of “news work,” as project researcher Chris Anderson noted in his recent dissertation, that also includes navigation, aggregation, linkages, access, social networking, crowdsourcing, data mining, visualizations, viral marketing, and transparency? 
  • What if the public’s definition of “good” journalism is more than the rewards we give ourselves—the prizes on our walls and scalps on our belts? How would the public define it?

When my organization, J-Lab, convened focus groups of news consumers a few months ago, not one person used the word “democracy” in describing the role of news. They valued information they could trust, and they wanted more connections to their topics or community.

New clues to the content and sustainability of journalism are all around us. They include a melding of good reporting, a sense of place, a passion for community, and information that adds value. To really reconstruct journalism, we need to follow these breadcrumbs, make sense of the patterns and reimagine what news and information needs to be for the future—not just how we pay for it.

For more reactions to The Reconstruction of American Journalism, click here.


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