Friday, February 17, 2012

Is journalism hung up on tradition?

Core should remain; tools change
(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
Although the discussion has been ongoing for two months now, it was only within the past week or so that I had stumbled upon the thread, which was hosted by the LinkedIn Online reporters and editors group. I am not sure why I had not come across it before, because the question at the center of the thread has been a common discussion within the profession for years.

But the question appears to find fault with a normal, measured reaction human beings typically take when encountering change. As newsrooms allowed their staffs to have access to the Internet, there was the usual curiosity — kind of like a dog carefully, even suspiciously sniffing over a new animal that’s been brought into the home for the first time.

Certainly in the newsroom I worked in at the time, in Elgin, Ill., there was a lot of that — and a fair amount of shock and awe, as well. The “oohs” and “ahs” as new websites were discovered sometimes fell sharply into a muttered, “What the hell?” as popup ads for porn sites erupted and began multiplying all over the computer screen. Internet filters and popup blockers either did not exist yet or were poorly understood.

So much of what seemed to be out there appeared to be either geared toward entertainment, wanted a credit card number, or simply was not fit to be viewed in an office environment.

But as time went on, more useful things came to light — free reverse phone directories or address finders, websites like Wikipedia arose. In the case of Wikipedia, some blindly accepted it as an online resource. I and others like me did not because the site had an overt flaw that would be exploited by politicians at some point during an election season, perhaps as early as the late 1990s. Going in to edit your opponent’s Wikipedia page to alter a view or misrepresent the past could cost that person votes. Wikipedia’s greatest strength also is its greatest flaw — its open-source nature allows anyone with a PC to edit virtually any entry. Hard copies (books) of Merriam Webster or Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, are heavily vetted before they are published. But Wikipedia envisions a constantly evolving modern encyclopedia that is updated continually by members as new bits of information are discovered, a new theory comes into prominence. It was a beautiful concept marred by mankind’s inherent shortcomings.

Reporters had to be cautioned repeatedly against quoting Wikipedia in stories. Some just could not see the flaw.

But therein was a sign of adaptation to new media, a willing acceptance, even if in this instance it was poorly chosen. Certainly new journalists were coming out of school with an appreciation for the Internet’s capabilities. Copy editors found uses for it, too, in terms of checking addresses, phone listings, trying to find the correct spelling of a person’s name, a street, the location of a town.

As more websites opened up, there were more we actually could trust as sources, or to put us into contact with experts who could be official sources for topical news stories, such as city planning and zoning trends, or business trends that were beginning to manifest themselves locally.

Some sites, however, actually served to become stumbling blocks.

Craigslist’s arrival many rightly perceived as a threat to newspapers’ classified advertising. But we never believed it would take off. How could a website make money offering free classified advertising? But take off it did, and newspapers have been reeling from that pain ever since.

When newspapers started putting up their own websites, there was all kinds of angst about what stories should go online and when. There was a fear that simply putting everything on the website right away would be giving the stories and pictures away for free and take a toll on our print circulation. Papers experimented with, and gave up on, the idea of trying to use paywalls to get online readers to pay for access to our stories. Websites became showcases for more unusual content — video, for example, which could not be printed.

But the game continued to evolve, and the eruption of social media played a role in that. Newspapers watched circulation numbers spiral and revenues drop. Greater emphasis was placed on finding those digital ad dollars, Social media was becoming understood as a tool to draw readers to your websites, perhaps click on ads — and come back to do so again if they liked your stories, pictures, video.

In the newsrooms, I watched as reporters with little or no formal training figure out new media for themselves. On the copy desk, we did the same. But some things — social media, for instance — seemed more like toys than tools.

In the meantime, cuts were being made and workloads were increasing. That further hampered the ability of the “traditional journalists” from expanding their skills in this new arena. There were fewer people doing more work.

Then there came nudges to get more dynamic stories and content onto the Web as soon as it was ready, Over time, this became a Web-first initiative — to publish everything on the website as soon as it was written and vetted, even if it had not been in the paper yet. Many failed to see the reason for this — many still fail to see it — and that created its own backlash of suspicion, I suppose, related to this new technology and the Web-first initiative.

Are traditional journalists truly hesitant of accepting new media? I imagine some are. I was among the eager ones.

It’s like stepping into a pool — some want to wet their feet first, others prefer to jump in all at once and get past the shock before they get used to the water.

But here’s the thing. Technological change happens quickly, and in the tech industry, there have been chain reactions of innovation explosions, each with its own nuances and ramifications, occurring regularly for more than a decade. This kind of change is really, really messy, and that probably has made it more difficult to adapt to by many in the industry.

Technology is merely a tool to be used to achieve a certain task or set of tasks. Learning to use it is essential to maintaining relevance.

In the discussion board I mentioned, there were some who held the view that those who resisted new media were Luddites who never would be able to adapt to the new technology. I find that generally silly. Certainly there are those who cling to the ways that are familiar to them. But over the past 27 years, I’ve never known a journalist who would prefer to go back to typing on an old black manual Royal typewriter and abandon their PC.

That romantic notion is raised from time to time, certainly. The conversation, however, always ends along the lines of, “but I’d hate to give up …” the spell check, or perhaps the ease of copying and pasting paragraphs or sentences to move them around in a story as opposed to rewriting the whole thing from the start.

Simply put, technology is a tool(s). In this case, the tools are being used to gather, interpret and disseminate information. That requires communication, understanding, gathering, reacting, compiling and putting it out there in a format for readers.

It used to be the start of that process was a phone call or a stop at a coffee shop or diner. Now that part of the process includes email, smartphones, social media networks.

The process may look different but really has not changed. Still, you must understand how to use the tools or you are lost. Period.

If there has been a loss in quality, chalk that up to the decimated workforce. Copy editors are far less valued today. Publishers don’t seem to think they’re essential anymore — I mean, no one cares about all the errors out there on websites, right?

And yes, there are huge wrinkles to work around in terms of ethics and quality. The industry has lost a lot of experienced journalists in recent years and already is paying a huge price for that. I like to think the valuation once put on ethics and quality will be restored in time.

I worry, however, after 14 months without work, will the industry ever truly will recover from its own lack of foresight over nearly the past two decades?

I hope my worry about the future is unfounded. In the meantime, I'm plugging away. I blog, I use social media and work part-time as an online reporter for one site and an online copy editor for others. I am seeking out new training in the technology of websites.

I'm not particularly bitter, really, but I am very sad. There are so many of us who have been sidelined, those who remain are saddled with so much more work and under much greater expectations, still others are subjected to far less pay. While all of us are feeling the pain these days, my greater worry is what will happen to what attracted me to this industry to begin with? The idea of shedding light on truth in dark places remains a beacon I admire, but its light is dim. Where is our truth at the moment, and besides us, does anyone care?

Where will the light bearers be if the industry fails, even for a short while?