this space intentionally left blank

August 1, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Searching for the Future of Journalism

We had an intern at the office finish up his term last week. He'd been there since the start of June, but it wasn't until this month that I really started working with him, having him help out on some Javascript, Flash, and general chart-making. Nice enough kid named Alex. He's decided that he wants to change his degree path a little, sprinkling some computer science into his journalism. He didn't really know how to react when I joked that it was like sprinkling arsenic on your cyanide pills.

After the obligatory farewell lunch, Alex went around the office with a plate of homemade cookies (like I said, nice kid) and he asked me about tools I'd recommend for him as a beginning programmer, since I was the one who told him about FlashDevelop and Firebug and all the other basic tools that I'm using myself at CQ. Now, obviously there are things I could have (and did) tell him: install Python or another scripting language, open up the Visual Basic editor in Word or Excel, try building Tetris or a goofy art project--play with things, right? There's lots of entry points out there for learning to coding.

But at the same time, there's something exquisitely ridiculous about anyone asking me for programming advice. Because while I spend a much-greater-than-expected amount of time at CQ writing ActionScript and Javascript and VBA, and while the rest of the newsroom finds this exotic and a little titillating, I'm not really trained in this kind of thing. I never took any courses in it, and I don't understand most of the theory. I'm just a guy who did some BASIC as a kid, then did some C as a hobby in college, mostly as a way to hack around on the various PDA platforms I'd buy off eBay whenever I got depressed. And it turns out that if you learn some BASIC, and some C, and you read a book or two about Java to wrap your head around object-oriented programming (under no circumstance should you try to write anything in Java, mind), then at that point YOU TOO can be a mediocre programmer in a variety of modern languages. This is not really a coherent learning experience that I want to encourage some hapless ex-intern to emulate.

In backpedaling away from offering concrete technical advice, I tried to riff on more general traits that are going to be essential in "new media" journalism going forward. Which is much more interesting than talking about programming, because part of what new media--a vaguely-defined term if ever there was one--means for journalism is a refocusing of how we view the profession itself. Not to mention that it doesn't require me to bluff nearly as much, and it lets me talk about digital audio, which is what I'd much prefer to wading around in Flash all day.

Here's the central point, in my opinion: journalism, at its most basic, generally amounts to asking people questions and writing down what they say. That's really most of the job. It used to be all of the job, back at the turn of the century, when reporting was basically unskilled labor, but now the profession has gone through a kind of degree inflation, and as a result there's a lot more stress on writing and analysis. Still, at its heart, when you strip away the parts that involve chasing down leads or cultivating sources, particularly when it comes to the more straightforward beats (assuming your newspaper hasn't eliminated them by now--cross your fingers, science reporters!), that's pretty much the job summary right there: ask questions, write down the answers. Repeat.

New media (meaning, in this context, the Web and its various hypertext/multimedia offerings) doesn't change that part of the job description. You may be recording the questions from audio tape or video or a database, and you may be distributing the answers via an interactive graphic or a slideshow or a Youtube clip. But the end goals are basically the same. Of course they are: people haven't stopped wanting to be informed, inasmuch as they ever did. The role of journalism in society doesn't change dramatically just because it's no longer limited to newsprint.

What does change is the relationship that readers have with that journalism. I think one of the big trends resulting from Internet technologies, socially, is that they've privileged the act of seeking information. We love to search, in other words. The Internet made looking for knowledge easy, and kind of fun--it lowered the barrier to entry for finding answers. So we don't necessarily wait for a media outlet to ask questions for us. Instead, we go to Google or Wikipedia or whatever our starting point might be, and we cast our own nets.

This new agency that searching gives us has a couple of side effects. One is that we have to become much involved in evaluating what we find for truthfulness and accuracy, roles that media has traditionally assigned to editors. We're all editors now, to some extent, which has eroded the credibility of "professional" editors. Another side effect is that we're becoming so much more comfortable with search that we expect to be able to use it everywhere. New operating systems come with search built into everything. Mobile devices let you search the geographically local area. Timeshifting television on a DVR is really just a way of searching for programs you want to watch, instead of letting them come to you as scheduled. Search: it's not just for lost keys anymore.

So if we're so much more active as knowledge-seekers these days, and as search engines get smarter, a big part of the new media role is to understand how to provide information--and more importantly, to make a lot more of it available in smart, searchable ways. It means we have to recognize that old limits on space are not just limited to column inches, but also apply to the dreaded soundbite--so make extended cuts available from the edited audio and video reports, with comprehensive metadata. We have to understand that people want to flex their searching/editing muscles and explore your coverage--so provide source data, or give interactive graphics the ability to juggle numbers in ways that might be outside the intended narrative. Instead of despairing the rise of blogs, realize that those blogs represent readers who look to media organizations as primary sources for answering their own, particular questions, and those readers should be harnessed. Tools like user tagging and social networking can be disruptive in theory, but they also improve your searchability--which is important, since every newspaper website I've ever used is incredibly inept at locating stories or features once they've fallen off the front page. Including the publication that signs my paycheck, frankly.

If this seems obvious, it's probably because it is. Why does it take media organizations so long to get their act together? There are lots of theories, but here's mine: the Internet is a great underminer of authority, and journalists are very protective of their authority. As the profession has gone through a shift from unskilled, interchangeable reporters (the reason the inverted pyramid was invented!) to more educated, higher-class journalists, it has also acquired a patina of respectability and a tendency for self-mythologizing. Those will probably not last too much longer--particularly if the industry continues to whine about Craigslist instead of addressing its problems head-on. As Dan Gillmor writes, there are a lot of organizations doing "almost journalism" these days. It's no longer something special and exclusive.

New media provides, for me, an opportunity to drag journalism back to its roots. Ask questions, write down the answers. As I told Alex, the challenge for the future is figuring out new values for "writing down" and learning to be more transparent about the process. That's not the kind of self-development rooted in technical skills. It's about developing the flexibility and initiative to jump-start conversations, instead of trying to dominate them. If that means giving up a little prestige, it's probably all for the better.

Future - Present - Past