Tuesday, January 27, 2009

After all: A three-week trip through the changing world of media

Many call this modern era in which we live the “Age of Information,” and for good reason. In centuries past, societies have assigned value to a range of commodities and treasures. Imperial England valued tea and opium. Nineteenth-century Americans valued gold or other precious medals. Ancient Rome valued land. These values, in each case, helped to define the time period and the culture. Thus, the term “Information Age” is an appropriate designation our own American society—for what, these days, is more desired and consumed than information itself?

Like the valued goods in these past civilizations and eras, we must now also have processes by which we assure the integrity of our most prized merchandise. In England, they had to know the origin of the tea and opium to assure its veracity. American gold traders tested the weight, color and shine of purportedly golden nuggets before purchasing them from hopeful profiteers. Romans would seek land already thriving with agriculture and business to guarantee themselves an advantageous acquisition. All societies have mechanisms for assuring the value of their most important possessions. Today, however, Americans face mounting difficulties in acquiring truthful, worthwhile information with the advent of the Internet as a news source and the importance of citizen journalism to our modern news cycle.

I began my journalism major at Whitworth University enamored by the practice of telling a story through words. In the last few years of studying journalism, holding key positions at The Whitworthian and interning at professional publications, I have learned the ethical standards and technical norms of journalism that, to me, turn writing stories into a profession with tremendous meaning and weight in American society. But as I have watched the development of citizen journalism—which I will define as reporting by non-traditional journalists through alternative means, mainly made possible by the expansion of the Internet—I have grown increasingly wary of journalism. Reading online sources from which many members of the public glean their news or other information, I began to question the virtue of a degree in the field of journalism. To me, it began to seem like a degree in mowing lawns; the yard of a professional lawn-mower is very possibly just as well-mown as the yard of the person next door with no professional or academic experience in lawn mowing. With an Internet connection, everyone and anyone can “do journalism”—it is quite plausible that a mechanic’s blog is every bit as credible and accurate as The Washington Post’s homepage.

So the question in my mind when we departed to New York City earlier this month was this: Is there still a need for professional journalists in a society in which any citizen can post news and disseminate information? In other words, do we really need journalists? Does society need me?

When we left, I believed that journalism was becoming a game for amateurs. I believed that competition between the bloggers and YouTubers on one side and professionally trained journalists on the other would only whittle everyone down to the lowest common denominator, leaving consumers to collect their news from an assortment of questionable and undisciplined news sources.

Now that we have returned, I feel quite the opposite.

This reflection essay will detail how the visit to New York City and Washington changed the way I view news outlets and the mass media. I left skeptical and have returned awed. I tried, from our meetings and other experiences, to always ask how we may define the term “journalist” and how that definition will determine how we consume information from journalists. Not only was I surprised to find that professionalism is still a priority in modern journalism, but I gained an appreciation for the value of citizen journalism through a small civic reporting project of my own.

It seems now that the profession of journalism is very much alive and will be for some time. But it appears that adaptation to a new consumer climate will be crucially important.

The business model

I heard it first from Michael Oreskes, managing editor for U.S. news at the Associated Press. (Oreskes has an impressive background in traditional mass media, including a long tenure with The New York Times.) In response to a question of whether people would lose interest in traditional news sources in the near future, Oreskes pointed out that it wasn’t the demand for news that was diminishing—in fact, he said, the ultimate demand for news has always been extremely high. Columbia University media expert Sree Sreenivasan echoed Oreskes’ comments by comparing journalism to the record industry. Just as the record industry is slowly dying while the demand for music continues to skyrocket, so the traditional media industry is starving while the demand for news reaches unprecedented heights.

Public relations professionals confirm Oreskes’ and Sreenivasan’s statements. Sarah Yeaney, representative for Ketchum Public Relations, said the idea that traditional media are being deemphasized as news sources is a myth. In fact, she said, traditional media still represent the greatest delivery of audience for public relations purposes—more, at least, than the digitized and fractionalized media on the Internet.

It is clear, then, that demand for news remains high from traditional sources. So what’s changing?

The answer, according to all three sources above: The business model.

Traditionally, news outlets sell space in their pages to advertisers, who then will see a spike in revenues as a large number of people read about a particular business in what they believe to be a credible publication. But as more and more news moves to the Internet for free consumption, commercial outlets are seeing less incentive to post advertisements in the pages of a print publication. Simply moving the advertisements online, however, is not very effective, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence in Journalism. Online ads are easily ignored and deliver less of a revenue increase to businesses. So businesses may look to other ways of advertising, and media outlets lose their source of income as a result.

The business model question is a particularly interesting one because no one really has a coherent answer. Every news outlet I visited told me, in so many words, the same thing: They haven’t figured out a way to make money off their Internet publication yet. Everyone is trying to “monetize the Internet” (to use Washington Post Online editor Chet Rhodes’ phrase), but so far, paid content—and especially paid news content—lacks popularity among the public. So for now, publications will continue to provide free online news from which they make little return. In Oreskes’ words, “If I had an answer to that [business model] question, I wouldn’t be in this position anymore.”

Clearly, the practice of reporting news will never disappear as long as there is a demand for it, and the demand thereof remains high. The Internet, however, is a great equalizer in that perfect strangers can provide content in much the same way as can, say, the New York Times—free of charge and easily accessible. Here, I arrive at the heart of my problem with the shifting world of journalism. Professional and citizen journalists operate from the same plane and have the potential to grab the same audience. Who, then, is a journalist? How does the audience know who to believe?

The journalist

I will examine the definition of “journalist” first. The topic came up in several of the meetings I attended, and as I might have expected, the media representatives gave a range of answers to the question of what type of person actually constitutes a journalist. Several of the definitions valued traditional journalistic roles and discounted the conventional blogger, or a writer that simply contributes to discourse about a particular news item. The following is a list of definitions different media professionals gave:

Bill Bastone, editor of The Smoking Gun: Journalists are those who do original, credible reporting through any medium (as he does on his news-breaking Web site owned by Time-Warner).

Charlotte Mangin, coordinating producer for PBS program Wide Angle: Journalists introduce multiple viewpoints in order to maintain maximum objectivity, as opposed to many bloggers who simply interpret and analyze from a single perspective.

Michael Botein, professor of law at New York Law School: Journalists are those who, legally, can represent the credibility of mainstream media outlets in a court of law (this definition typically excludes bloggers, Botein said).

Rosenstiel: Journalists are those who are accepted by professional organizations or societies, such as the Society of Professional Journalists. These organizations usually exclude bloggers and one-person news operations.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Journalists are those who identify themselves as such to sources, assemble and process information and disseminate that information to a wide audience. Bloggers who simply editorialize upon real news do not count.

These media representatives all seem to have a certain definition of “journalist” in mind. One common thread can be drawn out of these separate definitions: A journalist, in order to be considered as such, must engage in independent fact-finding and original reporting. Beyond this central descriptive statement, the title of “journalist” can be applied rather loosely. None of the above sources specify a particular medium by which a journalist must practice his or her trade, an indication of the multimedia era in which we live. Interestingly, only two of the five sources attempt to connect the term “journalist” with a greater, standardized organization, suggesting a growing acceptance of independent news gatherers and citizen journalists. As a profession, it seems, journalism has adopted (or is adopting) a broad-minded definition that encompasses several media and non-mainstream news sources.

Or perhaps, as Rhodes suggests, a journalist really isn’t a professional at all. Rhodes noted that a journalist “can be anybody,” because without a formal licensing system, it is difficult to say who a journalist is or should be. Personally, he believed that anybody willing to follow the ethical standards of journalism could be a legitimate journalist, but then Rhodes made a particularly poignant point.

“In the end, the audience decides who a journalist is,” he said.

To those who have studied and practiced journalism as I have, that is a frightening thought.

Still, Rhodes may be right. In this changing world of reporting and information-gathering, a world in which most information is available at the consumer’s command, it may be the audience who controls the definition of “journalist” by flocking to media outlets they deem to be acceptable.

Overall, the definition given for journalism and its practitioners is important for the sake of credibility. As Rhodes says, journalists are simply those to whom the audience goes for credible information. The next logical inquiry, then, is into the audience’s behaviors and preferences. I thought at first that readers were flocking to blogs and other questionable outlets for information—a belief central to my overall disappointment in journalism. After this trip, however, I have come to realize that consumers are pleasantly smarter than I gave them credit for. In fact, consumers themselves may be upholding the standards of journalism in the new media age.

The audience

As I sat in our meetings and watched the people of New York City and Washington consume news, I realized that the readers, indeed, have developed a discerning eye and a critical mind for media. Newspaper trays line the street corners of New York, but it is almost always the New York Times’ tray that is empty by noon while the other newspapers sit abandoned. People in the Washington Metro read The Washington Post or its affiliates instead of alternative newspapers or news magazines. Janine Jackson, program director for media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said her publication’s efforts to create a more critical audience had been showing signs of success. Readers and consumers are becoming more skeptical and questioning, she said, which indicates a high level of critical awareness and knowledge of media ownership.

Sources at Channel Thirteen in New York agreed. John DeNatale, executive producer and director of local programming, said the station is confident in the consumers’ ability to discern good information from bad, and that the biggest challenge in the modern era of journalism is proving to the consumer that one’s information is correct. At Channel Thirteen, he said, there is a high standard of journalism that its audience recognizes and appreciates. Producer Mary Ann Donahue said the station is “relying on the good sense of the consumer” to continue to remain marketable to readers and viewers.

The Washington Post’s online publication holds a similar connection with its discerning consumers. Rhodes said the Post has been successful in the past because of its standards of accuracy and honesty with the audience to which it gives news. He was quick to add that the moment that standard is breached, the Post’s readers will punish it by switching to other publications.

Most consumers of media, it seems, show the ability to be critical when reading or watching news, both in traditional outlets and in online publications. Critical readers demand clear standards of journalism and credible information from trustworthy publications.

Who, then, are the trustworthy publications that stand as bastions of credibility in an increasingly uncertain media world?

The answer: all the traditional mass media.

I will define “traditional mass media,” here, as those media outlets that have been long established, have a wide consumer base and maintain an online presence in addition to their print- or broadcast-based news coverage. And it is to these types of publications that readers continue to go for accurate and honest information.

According to research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the top-visited Web sites for consumption of news online are connected with traditional mass media. Msnbc.com holds the top spot. Yahoo.com, which acquires most of its news from the Associated Press, is second. The New York Times’ Web site is fifth overall in online readership. In fact, the top 20 news sites on the Internet are all connected with traditional mass media except Huffingtonpost.com, an alternative online newspaper. Rosenstiel noted that all the big news publications, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, are only getting more popular online because they represent credible information and have a history of accurate and (arguably, anyway) fair reporting.

So it seems that, in the end, it is not journalist societies or organizational standards that are maintaining the professionalism in journalism—it is the audience that looks for credible, veritable and confirmable news through established media sources with a history of telling the most complete truth. For those journalists wary of the negative effects online journalism can have on the profession (like me), this is a very encouraging indication. If the audience can show a preference for information provided by trained professionals rather than a one-man operation with a news ticker, an educational and vocational background in journalism is not a waste, but a virtue.

This is not to say, however, that the professional journalist of today and tomorrow will have the same skills and expectations as the professional journalist of yesterday.

Indeed, while journalists’ professionalism is remaining intact, journalists’ skill sets and expertise are changing quickly. The tools available to reporters are changing, and what is more, the audience expects reporters to make use of these instruments. Rosenstiel said that while print reporting allows only six elements to be included in a news package (headline, photograph, caption, informative graphic, body text and pull quote), online reporting allows for 56 different elements, including all the elements of print in addition to video, audio or document links. These elements demand a broader expertise from traditional reporters, but do not damage the profession if skillfully executed, Rosenstiel said.

Sreenivasan used the term “tradigital journalist” to define what is expected of the modern era’s professional reporters. A “tradigital journalist,” he said, is one who has all the skills and ethics of a traditional journalist (one skilled only in interviewing sources and writing a story, for example), but has in addition an ability to utilize new media over the Internet or through other means. The profession is becoming much more demanding than it once was. As the Internet can provide the audience with newer and fancier modes of storytelling on the Web—like the Washington Post’s TimeSpace, which it used to cover the Presidential Inauguration this month—journalists themselves need a higher level of expertise in order to remain viable in their profession.

The citizen journalist

I have established so far that mass media are seeking new business models and journalists are having difficulty defining their position, but it appears that the audience has developed a taste for professional journalism at the online publications of traditional media sources. So journalism, as a profession, will remain firmly in place in American society, despite the threat of citizen journalism.

But does citizen journalism have a place, as well?

Before this trip, I would have scoffed at the question. Citizen journalism? What a waste of time for the American media consumer. All citizen journalists do is frustrate the mission and credibility of professional journalists by muddying the waters of media with their baseless claims and unrepresentative surveys.

In the days leading up to the Presidential Inauguration, however, I did a little citizen journalism of my own and discovered that, despite my previous thoughts to the contrary, civic reporting can indeed be valuable to society.

The project was as follows. Three friends and I decided it would be fascinating to gather video interviews of people from all 50 states in the nation talking about why they had congregated in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. With nearly 2 million people in town for the event, we figured it would be easy to find representatives from most states, and with a little digging, we believed we would eventually find someone from every state. I was not wild about the project initially; I thought it would be a waste of time journalistically, and asking everyone in sight from which state they came would detract from my ability to enjoy the inaugural ceremonies the way I wanted to enjoy them.

Our very first interview changed my mind.

It was a man on a street corner north of the city. I forget his name, though we have it recorded on one of nearly 60 videos we gathered in the process of collecting interviews. He was carrying a suitcase and appeared to be waiting for a friend to pick him up at the Metro station nearby. I walked up to him and asked him where he was from. When he replied that he just flew in from Massachusetts, I motioned for Jasmine to come with the camera. I told him who we were and what we were doing and asked if he would like to comment on why he was in town for the Inauguration. He welcomed the opportunity and told us that he had volunteered on the campaign and had voted for Obama. He wished us luck and told us he thought what we were doing - covering the Inauguration from the people's point of view - was a great idea.

That is when I realized what citizen journalism has to offer.

The New York Times or The Washington Post just covered his speech and the overall event itself. Very few from the Inauguration Day crowd were covered (and most of them were African American, despite Obama’s lack of emphasis on his own race during the campaign—but that is another paper). Online, traditional media outlets did cover some citizen observers through videos and photos, but the emphasis was (and remains) on Obama’s speech and his actions during his first week in office.

What citizen journalists can do is capture a different side of events. Citizen journalists can work outside the confines of mainstream media to produce a truthful and accurate look at a situation—from a citizen’s eyes. Citizen journalists can even serve as watchdogs of mainstream media by covering something from every possible angle, thereby exposing the stones left unturned by NBC’s or CNN’s reporting efforts. Mike Hoyt, of the Columbia Journalism Review, said that amateur journalism is still journalism, regardless of who does it or what it produces, and many times amateurs create more insightful productions than the professionals themselves. After trying it for myself, I see that value.

In the end, we found people from 45 states. The remaining five states (Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, Nebraska and New Mexico) were tough ones to find, even in such a large crowd. I don’t think we will end up producing any video from our efforts. But I did gain a newfound appreciation for the role of citizen journalism in the modern media environment—and that, at least, will last a lifetime.

Media Impact’s impact on me

Overall, the trip to New York City and Washington was invaluable to me, for reasons going beyond the simple educational value. As a prospective law student, visiting two of the hotbeds for American legal practice and scholarship was eye-opening, especially considering that I received an admission notice from George Washington School of Law right before traveling to the District of Columbia in which the law school is situated. I loved being in the cities and trying to gauge my ability to live and work there. I do not think I would be able to live in New York City for much longer than a month, but I could see myself thriving in the somewhat smaller yet intensely meaningful environment in Washington.

As managing editor of The Whitworthian, going on a trip with five other members of the editorial staff was also extremely beneficial. We bonded as friends, and the relationships we have established outside of the context of The Whitworthian will (I hope) be quite useful as we produce weekly Whitworthians and daily online updates. We have a much greater understanding of our goals, interests and abilities after this trip, and more importantly, we know how to work with each other.

Newsroom relationships are important, but so are the new understandings and skills we have gleaned from our meetings and experiences. I think I speak for us all when I say we have a renewed understanding of how much we need to emphasize our online publication at the Whitworthian and how well we can (and should) utilize the tools the Internet offers us. Danika and I, for example, are discussing a live sports channel to broadcast sports games through the Whitworthian Web site, based on information given to us by Sreenivasan during our meeting with him. This trip has showed us ways we can improve both our Web site and our own skill sets to become very marketable candidates for the dwindling number of media jobs available.

I arrive now at my somewhat awkward position. Despite my journalism major, I have also nearly achieved a degree in political science and have essentially planned out a future not in journalism, but in law. There is some crossover here, especially when dealing with selected First Amendment issues I talked about with Dalglish and Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center. But the awkward position stems out of my renewed interest in journalism. I said at the beginning of this paper that I had been discouraged by what I saw as an increasing “amateurization” of journalism. This perception constituted a small part of my focus on the study of law—I saw no future for myself in journalism, despite my love of reporting and writing.

Now, however, I believe I could happily work in journalism as a career, based on what I have found on this trip and have tried to explain in this reflection paper. While I still ultimately prefer the pursuit of law to the pursuit of a good story, my experiences in New York and Washington will stick in my mind as an indication of what might have been—or might (who knows?) still be. The trip has proven to me that journalism is still a very professional occupation that has and will maintain the mission of informing citizens in the society in which it exists—the very reason I began studying journalism in the first place. Now I feel compelled to pursue journalism almost as much as I feel called to study law.

Ultimately, I will continue on my path to pursue law for reasons I will omit from this paper for the sake of brevity. I wish, however, that I had taken this trip two years ago—and I wonder how that might have affected my decision to enter law or even continue with my political science major. I doubt that it would have changed anything too much; my passion for politics and law is ultimately stronger than my love of journalism.

But I wonder.

-James Spung

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