Storming The Newsroom

This is a bonus post, because what I am really interested in is newsroom dynamics, but I had to cut this from the original blog post in hopes of only having a  very long post rather than a ridiculously long post. The class assignment post is below this one (and linked here.)

Letting The Public Into The Newsroom

In his book Clay Shirky notes that “journalist” has become harder to define when the scarcity of the resources that defined it — people who wrote with access to publishers– disappeared with the advent of self publishing on the Internet.

The debate rages on; I am particularly tickled by the straightforward, rolling-my-eyes-because-it’s-so-obvious answer offered at compared to  hand wringing over at Buzz Machine where  Jeff Jarvis  writes “I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner.”

But for me, the issue is not “what is a journalist?” because I haven’t run up against any libel suits or need for a shield law. For me the question is, “if I consider myself a journalist, how has my responsibility changed in light of an expectation that communication on the Internet can go in more than one direction and that group-formation and personal blogging is changing the definition of news.

Shirky offers the example of Trent Lott revealing his segregationist sympathies at a Birthday party speech that was at first ignored by the mainstream media and picked up by that media only after Lott responded to what was blog-driven outcry. In the intervening years, I would tentatively offer John Edward’s affair (it was ignored by the mainstream media, but was broken by the Enquirer not by blogs though blogs fueled the flames).

To me, the biggest change is that newspapers can no longer say with bravado that they know what is news.

When I was working at the Columbia Spectator, there was a quote hanging on the wall  that I believed in full-heartedly. I incorporated it into cover letters and quoted it righteously as justification for writing another story about the flaws in the New York City Gifted and Talented program.

“Give the public what it wants to have and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not.” ~ Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the New York World

To the college-aged version of me, this quote from a dead  editor of a shuttered newspaper was the epitome of doing journalism right. Journalists were the arbiters of news, and readers were going to learn something whether they expected to or not. The Internet not only gives readers a way to ignore news journalists think they ought to have, but it also provides newspaper editors with a clear way to find out what the public (or at least a vocal online section of the public) actually wants. When Swope made that statement, he was presumably making arbitrary decisions about both what the public ought to know and what it  wanted to know (well, blood and sex sell newspapers, so that could have been a rubric, but not a very precise one). Now, the first is harder to provide and the second is harder to fudge.

How does that change the way newspapers are run? It would make them a lot more reactionary to the Internet than they are now; and a lot less self righteous. The question is if newspapers really need to go down that road and if they risk losing out on an important part of their mission by catering to voices and the groups rising up from the Internet. I don’t know the answer.

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