Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Job of a Journalist

“I don’t have to read the New York Times to be affected by what the New York Times is saying,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting Director Janine Jackson said. Media influences us whether we are aware of it or not.

The past month has brought deeper knowledge about the strength of journalism in American culture and an understanding that journalism, through any media can, and will affect society.

Not only did the twelve of us hear that message preached over and over again, but learned it through interactions with individuals in both New York City and Washington D.C.

The contemporary media influence dialogue and promote change in the American society through a variety of media: in print publications, radio, television, Internet, and by word-of-mouth. Information surrounds us to a degree in which the “consumer” isn’t a consumer anymore, but rather, a participant. In my observation, we are incapable of ducking from strangers, ignoring the talk on the streets, or hiding from newspaper stands. But that’s a good thing. The inevitability of the media’s impact on whom we are and how we choose to live gives validity to the journalism profession, and as a result, journalists become the individuals responsible to provide and disseminate that information accordingly. It’s a big job.
The way I have begun to see it, journalism affects the American society in a variety of ways. The following categories provide organization for recommendations and insight from New York City and Washington D.C. media professionals regarding recent trends in the field and steadfast, traditional journalism. It is my goal in the following pages to define and describe the long-established and emerging job and value of journalism.

Much of journalism is contingent upon on the audience you are attempting to reach, so while some publications and media outlets fall into all of the following categories, some may only apply to one or two. The way The Onion approaches a story about Genocide in Darfur is vastly different from the way Wide Angle, an international documentary program on Channel 13, a PBS affiliate, would tell the story. Similarly, Columbia Journalism Review has a far different business agenda than an advertising agency like Saatchi & Saatchi.

Provide Content and Information

If the three-person team at The Smoking Gun made one thing clear, it was that providing the reader with information and proof therein, and doing so quickly, was the single most valuable service they could offer.
“People may be interested to see documents they can’t get their hands on” editor William Bastone said.

Their collection of public documents is impressive, but their method of obtaining such material, simply amazing. Through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the news source gathers and arranges government and law enforcement documents, distributing information and making it available on the Web, instantaneously.

Fleming Meeks, a daily stock alert analyst for Barron’s Magazine has a different job description with a similar purpose.

“We must get good information out there that other people are not saying, and be right, because better information is better for everyone,” Meeks said. “We are giving information to people who have financial power.”

The provision of documents, sources, and information in general is what makes journalism, journalism. Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that journalists provide an invaluable role in providing the information they have, to the public. She went on to say that journalism is a 6-part job starting with the collection of information, talking to people, digesting that information, synthesizing, providing editorial content, and disseminating the information where it will be most valuable to society.

“The only way we’re going to survive is to produce a quality product,” Associated Press director of career development in news, Robert Naylor said. If it wasn’t clear before entering the newsroom, it was more evident upon leaving, that the Associated Press seeks to provide readers with up-to-date information from across the globe that is both relevant and interesting.
Professionals at Channel 13 agreed. With the massive amount of information available, reporters and journalists need to be investigative, find the truth, and report it well.

Find an Audience and Sell Your Story

Without an audience, journalism couldn’t be called journalism. It may as well be locked away on a dusty shelf, similar to a diary, full of the scribbles from a 12-year old girl. But because there’s an audience, there’s an agenda, and with that agenda, follows maintaining that audience.

Barron’s Meeks is editor to the online newsletter launched last April, but already, the audience remains his first focus.
“My audience is businessmen and women in cubicles on Wall Street and in the financial world,” Meeks said. He added, “My office is either sitting in an office or in a cubicle. Either retired with money or young and currently with a big income.”
Meek’s advice and statistical analysis affects those who make decisions that affect others.

“Every page of the magazine has to sell the story,” Meeks said. Other journalists may define their role differently, but with the same goal in mind.

“Our goal is not to create profit for the owners, but content for society,” Associated Press managing editor Michael Oreskes said.

Newsrooms across the nation are competing for the attention of the American people, and as people multi-task, it makes it even more of an obstacle for media outlets to get their message across.

Without a defined audience, a targeted people with whom to share the information discovered, writing, broadcasting, podcasting, etc. is in vain. President and CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger, understands the significance of finding an audience and taking the necessary steps to keep it.

“Our shareholders are on Main Street, not Wall Street,” Kerger said. The mission of PBS is to create interactive, appealing, accessible television for people of all ages that is based on the idea of educating the American society. The Corporation is continuously generating ideas to strengthen and expand their audience by providing elements like a national satellite, closed caption service, high definition television, and giving consumers varied viewing choices and options.

Advice from Columbia Journalism Review’s Mike Hoyt is this: acknowledge that the audience knows a lot. Hoyt addressed the fact that society can learn about news from anywhere, but it’s the job of a journalist to express that information in a clear, understandable fashion, creating a desire for news across the board. He also expressed the significance of citizen journalism and encouraged students to use the tools we have efficiently in order to reach the audience to whom we desire to communicate.

The big challenge for journalists today is to figure out what audiences want and how to attract them. It’s to create a marketable product, and market it. In the midst of a receding economic climate this becomes not only the goal, but also the necessity in order for companies and organizations to “stay alive.”

Build a Connection

It’s all about the people and the stories yet untold. A Newseum film was dedicated to the point that personalities drive the news and that it’s only after society chooses to connect with the people, that they will truly takeaway something or be affected in some way by the news.

“It may be surprising, but most of the time it’s not about numbers but about people,” Meeks said. As astonished as I was to hear those words from the lips of an online stock analyst, and someone who seemingly has little contact with other people throughout his day, he has a point. Reading and analyzing one thing or the other may be informational to a certain degree, but it’s the people and their stories that help to maintain interest after the numbers are presented.

Channel 13’s John DeNatale expressed that the goal of the station was to, “…build a connection for people to the place in which they live.” And as a result, programs like Frontline and Wide Angle have been established and produced. He added that the role of Channel 13 was not only to bring the viewer information, but also to demonstrate why something should be important to them and why it matters in the community.

“The reporting is driven by the takeaway,” DeNatale finished.
MaryAnn Donahue of Channel 13 reiterated the point that the more the original journalism format is maintained, the more Channel 13 and PBS are able to be a unique news source. Personal stories exhibit why the publication or program is pertinent to New Yorkers.

NBC sportscaster Bob Costas expressed it this way in a Newseum film about baseball: “Really, its just three pillows out on a field-it’s meaningless unless we care, and we care because of the people and their stories.”

Create an Experience

A Columbia Journalism Review article about the history and future of sports reporting communicates the capability of multimedia and the new age of journalism to provide readers, listeners, and viewers with an “experience,” unparalleled by traditional journalism. It is the change to new media that seeks to give the audience the experience they want, using all facets of journalism and appealing to more senses than previously used to communicate a message and share an event.

This idea was made particularly obvious at the Knicks basketball game at Madison Square Garden. After the first half another student and I moved down to get closer to the action. But the “action” we thought we’d witness by being closer courtside was different than what I had expected. We watched reporters, journalists, and photographers working together to create a journalism package and that was going online right before our eyes. Viewers on the Web had access to game updates, scores, injury reports, photographs, and live video feed, immediately.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photo-journalist Eddie Adams said that “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips our your heart, that’s a good picture.” Along with finding an audience and building the necessary connection with the audience you seek to reach, comes evoking emotion through the story you’ve told and ideas expressed.

Assistant managing editor for news video for the Washington Post online, Chet Rhodes, said that it’s not necessarily about telling a linear story, but instead, making news interactive. It’s generally the news that draws them to the Washington Post online, but progressively throughout the last decades, visitors to the site seek ways to interact with news, and ways to change and define their own news-getting experience.

Entertain and Engage

While all of mass media is focused on the entertaining and engaging of the society, perhaps it is The Onion that best exhibited a business model for entertaining journalism.

“We don’t have an agenda, it’s just when something stupid happens, we make fun of it. We’re not scared of breaking a rule if it makes the joke stronger,” Onion editor Joe Randazzo said. He added, “We’re never told what we can and can’t do.” The publication, which started in 1988 and was originally popular among college students who picked it up for the pizza coupons, is now a novelty—written comedy in prose form.

“The appetite for news and information will always be there. If anything, it’s growing. We are looking to discover delivery platforms that allow you and me to choose what we want to see while also trying to cover all the bases,” Associated Press’s Naylor said. It’s exactly these delivery platforms that will create the response needed on behalf of the readers.

Washington Post’s Rhodes said that “Figuring out how to drive people through a package in a way that doesn’t frustrate them…” is one of the industries most pressing, current challenges. Not only is the media looking to create easily navigable packages, but cover the bases that will engage a wide variety of Americans.

“It’s not a matter of just covering the easy, low-hanging fruit but reaching beyond those ideas to generate more engaging, dramatic, and effective story ideas,” said Channel 13’s DeNatale.

Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising specialize in elevating and evolving brands that bring recognition and connect people emotionally. The company uses humor, emotion, and provides philanthropic reasons for purchasing from the brands they represent and create material for.

Engaging media will of course, be defined differently by the individual, but just as finding an audience becomes the job of a journalist, so does evaluating that audience enough to know what news will draw them to your publication and program. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren is just one of these American’s that knows the news he wants to read and where to go to get it.

“I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures,” Warren said.

Promote Discussion, Gain Trust, and Find the Truth

While entertainment is vital to draw readers, listeners, and viewers into the publication or program, it’s not until proven as a trusted news source, that many who seek to find the truth will do so through that medium. If unable to do so, many will abandon the media outlet until they are able to provide content that is both factual and engaging.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting’s Jackson spends most of her day looking for the fallacies in news and reporting such information to the public as to promote discussion about controversial issues and provide society with the truth that Americans deserve. FAIR views itself as a public education group that focuses on news media in particular and monitors mainstream deficiencies in reporting from such sources. Jackson spoke about the big news organizations and how much of what she does is simply holding them accountable since more often than not America goes to those outlets for their news.
Meeks, who spends the majority of his day analyzing stocks and delivering information to Wall Street brokers, says that across the board of journalism, you must have accountability.

“If you’re going to tell people to invest, to have credibility, you have to have accountability,” Meeks said. He finished that the goal was being right most of the time, and giving useful, actual information.

“We aren’t interested in making it glitzy or sensational, and as a result, the show stands out.” Channel 13 has devised a plan to locate and define its audience, and as a result, gain the trust of those who turn to the PSB affiliate for their news. They produce sometimes-controversial pieces but always seek to know the truth and educate society.

According to Washington Post online’s Rhodes, the job of a journalist is to help filter news and provide information that will help people live their lives. A journalist may be citizen or professional, but in all cases, follows and ethical code of conduct and seeks to tell the truth.

“In the end, the audience decides who the journalists are,” Rhodes said.

Employ Business Model and Implement a Marketing Plan

“You screw up the business and you screw up the journalism,” managing editor for United States news Michael Oreskes said. While the media professionals that we spoke with over the past three weeks had a wealth of knowledge about journalism, their confidence in the growing necessity for a successful business plan was even more impressive.

“We’ve been tinkering with our business model to figure out how to respond to what people want to hear and provide readers with what they want to hear and provide them with a news package that satisfies that interest,” AP’s Naylor said. Between Oreskes and Naylor, the Associated Press acknowledges the need for a business and marketing model, and the sooner the better.

Columbia Journalism Review’s Mike Hoyt understands that the goal of media and journalism specifically is to get the news where people want it, and recognizes that the Internet is largely the commander in chief of the change. He offered advice to promote yourself and manage your brand, and new media is the fastest –growing, most effective way to do that.
PBS’s Kerger has a different idea about a business plan than most other media outlets because of the station’s non-profit title, but maintains the idea that a business model would be a welcomed aid.

“At the end of the day, we’re not trying to sell eyeballs,” Kerger said.

The role of PBS is one of service to the American people, and while Kerger and her colleagues at PBS stand by the idea that it’s service over selling that drives the station forward, without a business model and marketing plan in place, the provision of free, public television will be abandoned.

The goal in reporting is to do the piece and then stop to think, with the information that was just put on the table, what the next question the viewer will look to have answered. Start on plan A, but plan B needs to be in place long before you need to employ it.

Be Open to Change

“Change has always been a part of journalism,” Sree Sreenivasan, professor of professional practice and new media expert at Columbia University said.

“You become what you eat and what you read.” Political and civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson said during a January 11, 2009 address to the Harlem church congregation at the Apollo Theatre in New York.

Jackson delivered a political sermon, asking church members and visitors to think of themselves as links in a long chain, and accompanied that advice with the following: have a strong mind, courage, see others as they are, and take pride in your religion-who you are and what you think. His points were engaging, but his message even stronger: change is right around the corner.

The state of the media is such that Americans have a recent privilege to pick-and-choose the news they want to hear, and with the changing chemistry between how people get their news, journalism is evolving into a different type of storytelling (Tom Rosenstiel, director for Project for Excellence in Journalism).

A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought some of what New York media professionals had been saying into perspective. In the same way media is changing to suit the needs and wants of the American people, so was art and language designed centuries ago. Journalists may write and broadcast to influence or to describe, but the reader or listener has the power and control to define the message through a lens of their own. Interpretation of each message is vital to the understanding of the individual.

For the sake of brevity, I will compile the strongest, most effective advice and observances received from media professionals in New York City and Washington D.C. regarding the change to new media and the persistence of traditional journalism.

• Experiment. Make information accessible and interactive. (PBS)
• “I love all my children,” Hoyt referring to print vs. online journalism
• Online is the direction things are going but believe in the partnership between the two. (Mike Hoyt, CJR)
• Print provides a chance to go deeper into the stories but online, writers and editors and finding this incredible, unleaded creativity that is shaping the future of the journalism profession (Hoyt).
• “You are assembling your own diet of news. And that adds responsibility,” (Rosenstiel, Project for Excellence in Journalism)
• Just as television didn’t replace radio, Internet will not replace newspapers, it’s just a different experience (Kerger, PBS).
• The challenge facing traditional news sources is not an audience problem, but a revenue problem.
• Online is making for richer journalism because of the vast amount of elements that can be involved to tell the story.
• Excessive time spent on Twitter or blogging can detract from the event the journalist is covering—and avert their attention.
Be careful to use the power tools in the right way.
Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Rosenstiel had a wealth of knowledge regarding the history and future of journalism. Decades ago, Walter Cronkite acted as what Rosenstiel called the “god-like narrator”-telling America exactly what needed to be heard (at least, according to one news source) but through technology and creativity, individuals are not just passive consumers, but proactive hunter-gatherers of news. Americans have a new ability to consume news from a variety of sources, and do so “on-demand.” Before, society read or listened to the news for complete content and information, but with the rise of the Internet, technology, and independent news writing and gathering, many choose to skim, looking for what information may be pertinent only to their situation.

“It’s more like research than having the news wash over you,” Rosenstiel said. Promos, teasing, foreshadowing, etc. have become essentially irrelevant in news because we will find what we want to regardless of what’s presented. He added, “We are becoming our own editors.” Growing amounts of Americans are assembling their own diet of news, and with that comes the responsibility to digest healthy information.

“The only change we can predict with absolute uncertainty is change. The past wasn’t all a waste. Some things need to be preserved,” Associated Press’s Oreskes finished.

-Danika Heatherly

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