Sunday, January 25, 2009

The journalist, per se

Here are the facts.

One: The Internet is changing the way newspapers function, creating a need for online aficionados on their staffs and a web-minded production every day.

Two: The economy is changing the way newspapers function. Staffs are smaller, elevating the value of multi-skilled journalists, and in some cases the belt tightening affects the professionalism of the production.

Three: Most people love to read most things on the Internet, including news.

Four: Most people don’t read things fully on the Internet, preferring instead to grab the main points and move onto other things.

So where, exactly, does that leave journalists themselves?

Coming into this trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., I figured that journalism, as a profession, was dying for a combination of reasons. I thought blogs were destroying the credibility of all online journalism with their ranting and fabricating. I thought the economy was creating the need for a flashier, attention-grabbing style of journalism, one not so concerned with accuracy or truth but more concerned with delivering readers. I thought that good newspapers were stepping into the ring with bad news outlets and the competition between the two would lower the overall quality of journalism. When the definition of “journalist” is “he that can usually spell,” how can journalism be considered a profession?

After meeting with several news sources, both traditional media sources like the Washington Post and alternative news sites like The Smoking Gun, I’d have to say I’ve been proven wrong.

All you really have to do is look at the most-visited news sites. Leading the pack is, followed by (which is the Associated Press’ largest customer for news articles). is fifth. In fact, all of the top 20 news sites, as determined by hits, are Web sites run by traditional media outlets with only one exception.

That tells me that whether or not the Internet provides an unlimited base for news outlets to broadcast their views, the public still values accuracy, honesty and reputation. I’ve heard the same from several media representatives on this trip. In the end, I believe the audience is smarter than I gave them credit for. By and large, I believe readers will flock to the Web sites that have established a strong ethic and have been kind to those who visit them.

As such, the definition of “journalist” can’t be broadened to include everyone with a computer and a news ticker. True journalists, as they have since the days of Pulitzer, must have standards. There are ethical requirements of the profession determined not by a professional association but by the audience’s demands.

So, journalists are not a dying breed. Their skill sets are expanding and their approach is changing, but the standards to which they are held have not yet changed and are not really expected to.

-James Spung


  1. Standards and ethics are truly important in any journalistic arena. I think the real standard we have found to be true in our meetings is one that many readers will not forgive you for once you violate it: the truth. As the traditional professional credentials of a degree don't have any bearing on the oodles of bloggers in cyberspace, entrepreneurial writers will be the real winners as they carve out a niche and generate a following of readers. The Smoking Gun, The Onion, The Washington Post and PBS all have high traffic to their sites because the information they provide is important to a broad range of people. From what we've learned on this trip, I think knowing who your audience is and maintaining the standards traditional journalism has held to are two of the most important tools we can put into our toolboxes moving forward.


  2. I appreciate this post a lot because as a journalist it’s reassuring to read this and to have actually heard from these professionals that what we’re doing matters and that it is valid.
    Although I’ve only been a journalist for a short period of time, I often think about where the print industry is headed. It’s nice to finally realize that whether or not print is diminishing, journalistic writing and its principles haven’t changed and won’t anytime soon. It’s important to consider that it’s the reader’s choice to decide whether what they read is credible or not. If you have enough readers then there’s nothing to worry about. If enough people care then we need to keep doing what we’re doing. Even if it’s not the New York Times, if you have an audience, you must be doing something right!
    I’m embracing the digital media era and although I still have very minimal experience, I appreciate that my future profession is growing and changing in an incredibly positive light. Jobs may seem like they’re diminishing, but there also being added elsewhere. And if we listen to people like PBS’ Paula Kerger, our age group might be in the right place at the right time.
    James is absolutely right when he talked about how the belt tightening will affect the professionalism. Maybe it’s a good thing that organizations are cutting down on staff in an effort to keep the best of the best and keep the ones who are willing to work hard and embrace this change.
    It’s funny because I don’t want newspapers to die and hate the fact that people are moving to the Internet to get their news. But I recently realized that I need to wake up because that’s where I get the majority of my news too! I’m part of the change and need to move with it.
    If you tell the truth and hold to the high standards that should be set for journalists, you are way ahead of the game.

    -Erica Schrader

  3. For me, I still have some fears about the influence of ratings and how that will affect the values of journalism. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism spoke about how finding out the popularity of certain stories can alter coverage. For example, if a story about Brittany Spears receives the most hits online, will a news organization shift more of its coverage to reflect entertainment news? Will stories with the lowest hits, which are sometimes the investigative pieces or stories about government meetings, be neglected because they don't draw as much attention? These are some concerns I have about the Internet's effect on journalism which I feel still need to be addressed.

    -Jasmine Linabary

  4. I agree that journalism still has its merits and that journalists have a niche left to be explored. However, I do find it intimidating and scary that journalists which attempt to report on hard, real news are threatened by journalists which comment on B-list celebrities, and have higher readerships. My biggest concern is that people search for entertainment news online before they search for politics,economics, and other themes which journalists attempt to cover in ways which may intrigue the 'entertainment' readers.

    -Nikki Warner


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