In the debate on the future of journalism, bloggers say, “We have a better economic model. The future is digital, and we are the future, so whatever we do is right.” Traditional journalists, mourning a passing world, say, “We defined how journalism works, and everyone should adhere to that model, even if it won’t work economically.” This is a gross simplification of the arguments flying back and forth. But sadly, it is a dialogue of the deaf. Neither party seems to want to listen or learn from the other.

Process Journalism Should Not Mean Sloppy Reporting

Jeff Jarvis does a great job of defining a different way to do investigative journalism, which he calls process journalism. I prefer to call it iterative journalism. Everyone follows a “process,” so that word doesn’t really define it. Traditional journalists follow a process, and so do blogger journalists. Theirs are just different processes.

“Iterative” is the way of the Web. Create something, put it out there, get reactions, improve. That has to be the future.

But apart from the name, I take big issue with the way some bloggers seize on this as a way to put a respectable spin on what has always been called “yellow journalism” or “gossip rag” material. You can make a ton of money doing that. No, I won’t name names here, but the best practitioners of this game have no illusions.

I recall an interview with the editor of one of the most notorious gossip rags, one of whose headlines trumpeted: “Hitler found alive in Afghanistan.” I just had to pick it up and scan it while waiting in line at the supermarket. The publication’s evidence went as follows:

  • Here is a picture of a German Shepherd dog outside a cave in the mountains,
  • The cave is in Afghanistan (which looked plausible, if not for Photoshop),
  • Hitler liked German Shepherd dogs,
  • Ergo, Hitler was in that cave.

The editor had just retired, and the interviewer asked him, “Okay, now that you have retired, you can admit it. You made up some of those stories, right?”

The editor laughed and said, “No, I can tell you with 100% honesty that we never made up a single story. Really. We were simply not that rigorous in checking the stories that people sent to us.”

He had outsourced creativity to his readers! Crowdsourcing is not new.

I didn’t buy that paper. I just scanned it in the check-out line. But online, I might have clicked. I would have snorted with derision and left the website quickly, but I still would have clicked. Just as I might click on the headline “Google said to be in talks to buy Apple.”

That click is money. And yellow journalism exists online.

We can do better than that.

We have to do better. No matter what bloggers believe, the “man on the street” view is that they cannot be trusted. Well, maybe some can be trusted, but that trust is earned every day, the hard way.

The Fourth Estate’s Claim to Public Good

In an earlier post on Journalism 2.0, I posited the question, “Would citizen journalists have exposed Watergate?”

The debate was clearly between traditional journalists (“No way. That required serious investigative skills, time, and money.”) and bloggers (“With millions of eyes, the truth will always come out.”).

In this debate, I am 100% in the blogger/citizen journalist’s camp. My opinion has been forged by seeing what happens in countries where government pressure shuts down a story. The Watergate story was not just about tenacious journalists. It was just as much about the bravery of Katherine Graham, the publisher who agreed to take on the wrath of the government by going with the story. Imagine a different publisher, who gets a call from the White House…

In Asia, I have personally seen tenacious journalists stopped dead in their tracks by government pressure and seen their financial backers ruined and exiled. It’s ugly stuff and happens all the time. But now there are far too many ways for a story to get out. That kind of government control is no more, and that is great.

The news from Iran shows that pretty clearly.

But Twitter is unreliable drivel that can be gamed, you say? This is not about Twitter. Twitter is just one piece in a layer in the emerging news/journalism stack.

The Emerging Journalism Stack

The old model was vertical integration. The publisher owned the printing press, bought the ink, hired the reporters, delivered the paper, and sold the ads. As in many technology industries, change begets a layered stack. And like it or not, news is now just another digital artifact.

So, here is the emerging stack:

  • Bottom: millions of eyes, with camera phones, SMS, Twitter, whatever works at the time. No media firm can replicate this. When people talk about funding journalism through non-profit foundations, it should be along the lines of: make sure everybody in the Peace Corps knows how to do this, or give Amnesty International money to report on prisoner abuse, or give Greenpeace money to report on environmental issues. In fact, not much else is needed beyond what is already happening; the crashing prices of cell phones is making this available to billions of people.
  • Middle: the spotters and amplifiers, people who see the potential importance of a story and do a bit more research online and use their network to push the story out. Many of these people have an axe to grind, which makes them motivated, but one has to take what they say with a grain of salt.
  • Top: the final mile of media, the trusted brands. Each has to earn the public’s trust every day. When you see a news item coming from multiple sources, which do you click on? Different clicks for different folks; this is no winner-take-all market. Can be MSM, can be niche. But that trust is earned every day. Facts have to be checked, and that takes time, money, and training.

The truly amazing thing today is our ability to cruise up and down this stack at will: to see the raw reports from the million eyes, to hear the impassioned voice of the amplifier, and to see how the story emerges down the final mile of media.

Finding Common Ground

The future will play out as it will no matter what either party says. The only question for individuals involved in the journalism/news business is, how do you position yourself in that stack.

It is time for both parties to accept some truths.

Traditional media journalists have to accept that the economic model of their industry is fundamentally and irrevocably broken. It will not return. Ever. Get used to it. Adapt. Many people have to adapt to change, and journalists are no different.

Bloggers have to accept that readers are looking for the rigor of traditional journalists. We have to figure out how to get enough money to do that properly or else do it much more efficiently.