Saturday, 6 June 2009

FIXING JOURNALISM -- A look inside might help

While walking my dog yesterday, the landscape on a clear Northern California late spring afternoon got me to thinking about the whole enterprise of reinventing journalism to make it more relevant to current times and technologies.

It's not just a matter of externalities.

I think American journalists have long taken an 'us vs. them' attitude toward the outside world -- meaning those outside the charmed circle of writers, editors and others who know or are exploring the true picture. Maybe us vs them is too strong, but certainly us and them -- us on the outside looking in, them as the other, the ones we interview, write about, dissect.

Some of that is necessary, of course. A certain degree of skeptical distance is needed to do journalism. Otherwise, it rapidly descends in marketing pure and simple, aka pr.

Nothing wrong with pr or marketing. But if journalism is just a confused branch of marketing, it ain't much, and certainly not what it strives to be. At best, it's a good, sometimes great, way of helping to explain our world and our lives to ourselves. What's really happening, not what we wish, hope or believe is happening, in politics, business, the arts, our community, etc.

The point, looking forward, is learning to use what others are trying to tell us journalists -- that we've been too insular, too sure of ourselves, too distant from the concerns, beliefs and needs of many of those in our audiences. I'm not talking about pandering, or watering down, or doing market research, before writing or publishing stories. But more communications -- real, thoughtful, honest, open communications -- between journalists and the people and institutions they cover would help immeasurably, I think.

Another move forward for writers and reporters, and others in the broad journalism biz, would be to recognize that wisdom isn't our special purview. Neither is the ability to write and express interesting thoughts in interesting and relevant ways. That probably sounds kind of silly, but I think many journalists and professional writers of many stripes have felt that they had the magic gift of researching and writing, and others just didn't.

The funny thing is that now that the world's mad about emails, blogs and Tweets, all the world's a writing lab, and all (or so it sometimes seems) its inhabitants experimenters in a vast psych experiment.

Lots of crap gets written, of course (I'm hoping not on Flocks), lots of self-serving fluff, plenty of inane observations, etc. etc. But lots of rough poetry, many interesting insights, personal observations, jokes and ideas -- a lot to learn from. It turns out that the gift of gab isn't just doled out to the Irish (I'm part Irish, and many other parts tossed in as well) or a special tribe of folks known as journalists.

There's wisdom in watching the wisdom of crowds as it begins to build and blossom, and learning from some of the best of what it has to teach. I hope journalism catches some of that magic, and wisdom, and doesn't just blindly assume that if it's not part of 'us' it doesn't count.

Because that route, I think, will lead to irrelevance. And death, because nothing is more useless than irrelevant journalism.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

THINK! helps the thought process

Today, I'll start by referencing a great (although dusty) post by THINK! The Blog for Readers of the International Herald Tribune, which comments on a Nov. 18, 2008, NYT story by Richard Perez-Pena on San Diego's nonprofit Voice of San Diego news site:

This post showed up on Twitter today, via the in_media feed, and even though it references a months-old NYT story it's still relevant, because the attitudes illustrated are still central to daily journalism's failure to adapt to new challenges.

As THINK! points out, the Times piece is more than a bit clueless, even though it professionally covers many of the relevant bases in the first ten or 12 paragraphs, putting the Voice of San Diego in the context of failing daily newspapers and the need for new models, possibly including nonprofit news organizations. Then comes the lame part -- and, I assume, the reason THINK! rips the Times in its headline: "NYT's media correspondent tells us all we need to know about what's wrong with newspapers," and adds: "I think this speaks for itself. I mean, really, this is like GM backing SUV's and being surprised when Toyota and Renault do better."

VoiceofSanDiego's site looks much like any newspaper's, frequently updated with breaking news and organized around broad topics: government and politics, housing, economics, the environment, schools and science. It has few graphics, but plenty of photography and, through a partnership with a local TV station, some video.
But it is thin - strictly local, selective in coverage and without the wire service articles that plump up most sites.

That's exactly why daily papers are getting it wrong so often -- assuming that the new guys should basically do it their way, down to and including the use of the "wire service articles that plump up most sites" -- and make them boring and indistinguishable from each other. Yikes! Being local, selective in coverage and sans lame and commoditized wire copy is WHY sites like Voice of San Diego have a voice, and an audience.

And on a budget of less than $800,000 last year, according to the Times article, or about what the Times probably spends on catered lunches for visiting dignitaries. Times' columnist Thomas Friedman could pick up $800K singlehandedly in a matter of months, giving canned speeches to business audiences.

But sites like Voice of San Diego, and the Bay Area's Redwood Age -- -- are the future, or at least an intimation of it. While even great, or once great, papers like the NYT are the past, or at least are living there in their current incarnations.

As a longtime reporter in the business journals realm, I've seen the same sort of dynmaic play out for years. Daily papers, like the San Francisco Chronicle here in the Bay Area, could have squished my paper like a bug at any time over the course of many years by simply doing a better job of covering local business news. But they never tried that approach. Just as many daily papers can't imagine trying the experiments organizations like Voice of San Diego or Redwood Age are attempting, even as those daily papers shrivel up, shrink and in many instances die.

Why? The people who own, manage and staff them can't imagine doing things differently. Simple things, like focusing on local news. being selective, and avoiding commodity wire stories.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sometimes outsiders have a clearer view

So, a random friend of the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows, who happens to work at Google, appears to have a clearer view of what ails newspapers than nearly anyone in the newspaper biz. Here's the link to Fallows, quoting his unnamed friend:

So, what would William Randolph Hearst do in the current environment? As the 'oracle of Google' suggested to Fallows, probably not wringing his hands and moping. Of course, Citizen Hearst had his own issues, but it would be great to see newspapers jumping into the future, rather than longing for the good old days.

Friday, 22 May 2009

A bow to the Voice of San Diego

Making a living during this Great Recession doesn't leave much time for other things, like blogging. But, hey journalism needs lots of help, and I'm doing my small part.

Kudos to the Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit in Southern California that's getting a fair amount of praise in journalistic circles and winning fans in the San Diego community as well. It appears to be doing a fine job of experimenting and covering news that might not get covered by the shrinking, some would say shriveling, San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Union-Trib is under new and seemingly bone-headed management. Here, the Voice reports on U-T management's brilliant plan to drain every ounce of entrepreneurial spirit out of its reporters, editors and other staffers:

Ya gotta love it when the bean counters have no idea how to build a brand or inspire a beleaguered workforce, so they threaten people instead. In this case, forcing staffers to promise that if they escape they won't lure other inmates (I mean employees) to join them in new, more appealing workplaces.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

18 things to do this summer for j-students/others

From freelancer Mark Coughlin, via Jeff Jarvis' Twitter post, 18 things journalism students, and perhaps some of their elders, should consider doing this summer:

I'm doing at least one of them, learning the blogging thang, right now.

About that last post

I certainly didn't and don't want to minimize the harm, angst, sorrow, etc., created by the current media meltdown. Like many in journalism and outside it, I will miss much of what's disappearing, and feel for the suffering of those who have been forced to leave jobs, and careers, they love.

But the creative destruction of capitalism, like that of evolution, is hard to avoid. You've got to adjust, got to evolve, or you're toast.

One thing is perfectly clear

The one clear thing in the chaos over journalism's future and definition: Thanks to the Internet, it's going to have to become much faster, more flexible and more interactive. And pronto.

Anyone who uses Twitter regularly for news and information, as opposed to mindless Twitterpation, can see that evolving on a daily basis. Yes, mistakes and hoaxes get made and passed on. But that's long been true in traditional journalism too. What makes all this new and different is that the gap between 'readers' and 'writers' is vanishing. Readers can comment instantly on what you write, challenging your thinking or your facts. Yes, it can be annoying, or in some cases verge on cyberstalking or character assasination. But it can also be enlightening.

Mistakes can be fixed almost instantly. Ideas can change. Progress can be made in real time, or very close to it.

Old-line journalists, especially editors (I think) are resistant to this new world. They liked the old one, where a few letters to the editor or public service announcements did the trick of interacting with the public. But now the public wants more interaction, and wants to help bake the journalistic cake, either by providing news and info, or by commenting, sometimes pretty caustically, on what others are reporting and writing.

Is that so bad? In blogs and many online forums, of course, much of this is old hat. But it's hitting mainstream journalism, and hard. How the mainstream media respond will determine who lives and who dies.

I'm old enough to be part of the old, and experimental enough to be part of the new. I think it's exciting, despite the 'creative destruction' currently wrecking much of the old journalistic infrastructure. It turns out that a format laid out for journalism in the 19th century needs major tweaking as the first decade of the 21st century heads downhill.

That's not so much of a surprise, is it?