The rapid implosion of the newspaper industry (advertising sales by U.S. newspapers fell a record 14% in the first quarter) has created a storm of debate in the media industry about what journalism will look like when information is free and everyone is a publisher. Here’s my take on the future of journalism.
The current debate centers upon assumptions that are based in a time when information was scarce and publishing was expensive. Traditionalists see the role of the journalist changing and mourn the loss of the role of reporter as a scribe of history with pen in hand and a deadline to meet.
In order to envision the future, you have to discard assumptions. Many of the practices and conventions of journalism today were actually invented to cope with an age when timely information was difficult and expensive to gather and deliver. Basically, we do what we do in large part because we’ve historically had to deal with plates and presses and trucks and news stands, all of which added time and cost. We don’t have to worry about that stuff any more. This should cause us to completely rethink our approach to the craft.
Here are the new realities:
- Today, everyone is potentially a journalist, even if only for a few minutes;
- Technology has made it possible for news to be reported in near real-time. People will come to expect this;
- The cost of reporting and publishing news is now effectively zero;
- Publishing is now a beginning, not an end. Once a “story” goes online, an update and refinement begins that may last for years or decades;
- Any person or institution with an interest in a story has the capacity to publish facts, commentary and updates without seeking anyone’s permission. Responsible journalists need to incorporate that information into their work as appropriate.
All of these realities revise rules that have existed for thousands of years. This is why we need to rethink everything. Nearly everything has changed. But some things haven’t. People still want trusted sources of information. They want clear distinctions between fact and conjecture. Institutions need to be monitored. We need to know whom to trust. These needs won’t change if newspapers go away, so someone will need to fill the void.
Traditional Reporting is Obsolete
How does journalism need to evolve? Let’s start with the role of the reporter, because that function is likely to change the most.
The traditional function of reporter no longer makes sense. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world put their faith in the hands of a small number of people to gather and deliver the news. For the most part, these people aren’t experts in their topics they cover. In fact, reporters get shifted to new beats all the time. Reporters are resourceful, however. Most of them are pretty good at learning on the fly, figuring out what’s important and presenting that information clearly and succinctly. These are important skills and they’ll be needed for a long time to come.
There’s an awful lot of waste in reporting, though. Most of what a reporter learns in the process of working a story is discarded. Even more waste occurs when a story is cut for space. In the end, a task that requires hours of information-gathering may be boiled down to a couple of hundred words on a page. This was necessary in a time- and space-limited world, but it isn’t necessary any more.
The traditional limitations of print and broadcast media have required reporters to constantly make value judgments about what readers may know. An hour-long interview may result in a single sentence of published information or a three-second sound bite. This decision is entirely in the hands of one person. Reporters do a pretty good job of upholding the trust that readers put in them, but the rules are all different now. No one should be denied access to information just because there isn’t enough space. Space is now infinite.
New Journalism is Transparent
Today, nearly every relevant fact about a story may be captured and shared with anyone who’s interested. This service may be provided by the reporter, participants, observers and commentators. This information doesn’t have to be part of the story that the reporter submits for publication, but it should be available to those who want to know.
The reporter’s role expands to include not only making judgments about what information to include but also about where to link for more information. The “story” becomes an entry point to an archive of relevant content that may be of interest to different people. The ability to make these associations becomes a core journalism skill. The choice of where to link and what background to provide becomes part of editorial voice.
This new reality should be liberating for readers and journalists alike. No longer do journalists have to make difficult choices about what readers may know. No longer do readers have to regard media institutions with suspicion. Everyone is free to contribute, correct and weigh in on the story. Whatever the media entity chooses not to cite in its published account can be discovered through search. Journalists will be more accountable and readers will be more confident that they can trust the information they receive.
A lot of media veterans are uncomfortable with this idea, though. Their profession has long been shrouded in mystery. Editors are accountable only to a small group of higher-ups who share the same priorities as they do. A self-policing strategy rarely works. Very few readers understand what goes on in a newsroom, and this makes them suspicious. One of the reasons so few people trust the media is that so few people understand how the media works.
Bonds of Trust
We’re going to start opening that up. When readers and viewers have access to the source material for a reporter’s story, they feel more confident that the account is accurate, even if they never consult that background. Ironically, I believe we will see less accuracy in reporting in the future, but that’s a topic for a future newsletter.
The basic point is that the reporters will increasingly become aggregators and topic stewards. They will be obliged to present a variety of inputs and opinions because those opinion-makers will publish whether the reporter wants them to or not. Reporters will also come to write not only the first draft of history, but subsequent drafts as well. A story will evolve the same way that an entry in Wikipedia begins as a one-sentence stub and evolves into a comprehensive account representing multiple sources and points of view. In a few cases, the public will participate in this process. Mostly, they will observe, but they will have confidence that the process by which the truth is reported is transparent and accessible if they so wish.
These trends will create a new, enlightened and very different form of journalism. In the future, journalists won’t screen information from view but organize it for convenient access. We will no longer be denied information because space wasn’t available. We’ll learn to search for it in different ways. Journalists will be very important to this process. They just won’t make nearly as many decisions about what we can and cannot know