Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Twelve things journalists can do to save journalism

Begin with this premise: Newspaper journalism is structured around the packaged goods nature of news on print.

We have developed "news judgement" (how important a story is) based on our need to order news within the confines of a certain package size and design.

We developed inverted pyramids both to fit wire service needs and because the nature of the print package sometimes required stories to jump, so we wanted to get the news up top.

We developed certain professional standards related to the content of the story because with mass production, we essentially had only one chance to get the story right. We had to put a premium on accuracy and fair mindedness.

Because we had to reproduce the same package every day at a specific time, we developed highly structured organizations full of rules and rulers.

Because our product was write once, read everywhere, it was essential for us to acquire mass appeal, meaning we had to determine what the news was with little input from individual readers. Editors made decisions based on training and experience with the goal of producing a package that appealed to as many people as possible at one time.
Digital, distributed media, of course, changes all that. The new rules of the game are:

  • The user is in control. They decided what, when, why, where and how to consume media.
  • Users aren't interested in our deadlines and desire to make sure we have the full story before publishing what we know. They want to know what we know when we know it. They want their news now.
  • People want to participate. They want to talk back. They want to add to our stories, correct us and just spout off as need be with their own opinions.

We have decades and decades invested in doing things based on old rules. Now, the rules have changed, and newsrooms need to change as well. We need new attitudes and new cultures. This will only happen if individual journalists put forward the effort to change their minds about what their jobs are and how they do them

Here are twelve things journalist can do to help us recreate journalism for the 21st Century.

  • Become a blogger. By this, I don't necessarily mean "start a blog," but that is never a bad idea. More importantly, become an avid blog reader. Blogs should be a daily routine for every dedicated journalist. They should read every blog related to their beats. They should read blogs about their own interests and hobbies. They should read blogs about their profession. To get blogging is to get how things have changed.
  • Become a producer. Pick up a digital recorder, a point-and-shoot camera or a video camera and start producing content beyond text. Do this as part of your job, fine, or do it on your personal time. The goal is to understand DIY. Post stuff on YouTube, Flickr or any number of other UGC sites.
  • Participate. As you read blogs, leave comments. If your has comments on stories, read the comments and add your own. Become known as somebody who converses on the Internet.
  • Build a web site. It will greatly expand your mind about how the web works if you go a bit beyond just setting up an account on Blogger or WordPress. Learn a little HTML. Better yet, learn some PHP, Cold Fusion, JavaScript or other web development language. You should own your own domain, anyway.
  • Become web literate. You should know what Flash is, and how it differs from AJAX. You should know the meaning of things like HTML, RSS, XML, IP, HTTP and FTP. You should understand at least how people use applications and tools to build web sites. You should know the potential and the limitations of each.
  • Use RSS. You need an RSS reader and lots of RSS feeds to consume. This will help you better grok distributed media.
  • Shop online. Part of your goal is to become immersed in the digital lifestyle. You will learn stuff about the digital life if you shop on Amazon, Ebay and other ecommerce sites. As you do, think about how these sites work and why they're set up as they are.
  • Buy mobile devices. Get a video iPod. Get a smart phone (an iPhone, Treo, Helio Ocean or Nokia N-series are all good places to start). Learn about distributed, take-it with-you-anywhere content. Buy a laptop and tap into some free wi-fi while you're out and about. Learn what digital life is like when you're not shackled to a desktop machine.
  • Become an avid consumer of digital content. Watch videos on YouTube. Download video and audio podcasts (take them with you on your iPod). Visit the best newspaper sites in the world and watch what they're doing. Turn on your TV less and your computer more.
  • Be a learner. Technology and culture is changing fast. You can't keep up unless you're dedicated to learning. I love this quote from Eric Hoffer because it is so appropriate to what our industry is going through now: "In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists."
  • Talk about what you're learning with your co-workers. Be a change agent. Get other journalists excited about the new digital communication/media tools.
  • Finally, read Journalism 2.0 (PDF) by Mark Briggs. You'll learn about the stuff covered above and how it is changing modern journalism. Brigg's book is the best primer on the topic you will find.

Quality journalism, and the news organizations that finance it, needs individual journalists to become personally responsible for their own role in changing newsroom cultures and practices. The smartest publishers with the greatest strategic plans (even if they had bottomless buckets of cash to execute on all the best ideas) can't save news organizations without the concerted support of individual journalists.

One last bit of advice: Don't wait for a boss to tell you to become a learner and an explorer. Your job is just where you collect your paycheck. You career is what you do. Your boss isn't responsible for your career. You are. Solely. Don't wait on others to make changes. Start making changes now for your own benefit. It's great if your employer benefits from your growth, but you will benefit more.

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