Saturday, March 27, 2010

How J-Schools and the Current Beat Model May be Killing Journalism

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, after it folded for the last time at about this time last year, launched itself on a bold experiment in community-based journalism.

Note the experiment does not say “Internet-based journalism.” There is a distinct difference here, even though their experimentation is in a wholly online environment.

What the Seattle P-I is doing is, I believe, showing both the good and the bad side of community journalism -- involving non-experts in the activity of producing stories, photos, columns and other content. It’s also showing that part of the failing of current professional journalism is the education model coupled with the business model.

In other words, the Internet isn’t killing traditional journalism. How it’s being taught and how journalists are being trained, however, is.

I applaud the Seattle P-I's approach here -- getting citizens involved, having professionals work with them to turn out better-quality content (sounds familiar, doesn't it). There's a lot of passion out there for creating news and features, photography and all sorts of stuff that papers could use if they'd just break down that "fourth wall" and open their publications to non-professionals. As it is now, most papers do this but only in niche products -- humor columns, occasional op-eds by prominent citizens, gardening columns and the ubiquitous letters to the editor. Our local paper long has lagged in covering the Idaho National Laboratory -- but have never bothered to tap into the writing and photographic talent that's there already because these people aren't their employees or might have “biases“ that would show up in their reporting. As if reporters, on their own, are free of bias, or if the non-professionals can‘t be coached, in just a few hours, to realize how bias shows up in one‘s own writing and enthusiasms. That‘s part of professionals showing the non-experts how to do something, while tapping into their expertise outside of journalism, and the passion they have for writing about what they do.

On the other hand -- there's always an other hand in these arguments -- I can see that reaching out to the non-professionals is going to bring on a more eclectic, less substantive product in many cases (strictly talking here of the news side of journalism; I don‘t see lighter features, columns, et cetera, being affected much, quality-wise). It's just like as is said in a recent article on the Seattle P-I from another journalistic dinosaur, the LA Times (full article here):
The community bloggers produce useful items -- like school curriculum debates and local crime trends. They also offer plenty that is leaden or narrow -- a bride's musings on her wedding or a homeowner's ponderous diary on a visit by a film crew.

David Brewster, who founded and ran the alternative Seattle Weekly and now heads said he finds some PI stories provocative. But the tangle of information overwhelms him.

"I am slashing my way through this jungle and occasionally finding good stuff," Brewster said, "and I think that is a mistake."
There's a lot of passion out there among amateurs, and a lot of talent. Finding that talent and then nurturing it to the point this talent can consistently produce content is a difficult thing.

But a big part of the current problem in journalism is that even for those who are professionals, in the business, the extent of the passion that brought them into the business is lacking, as this article points out:
When a bright young reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer named Monica Guzman mentioned a couple of years ago that she planned to post a story with a Web link to the rival Seattle Times, colleagues didn't swallow their tongues. But close.

Joel Connelly, a veteran political columnist at the Post-Intelligencer, found that his forays away from his beat, to review books and write about religion, made union overseers all twitchy. They didn't like anybody coloring outside the lines.

But in the year since the Post-Intelligencer printed its last edition and laid off all but 20 of 160 employees, Guzman, Connelly and their co-workers have been unleashed to cover and link to just about whatever they want. Amateur journalists have been invited to join their ranks. Other media outlets have been thrown into the mix. A 146-year-old newspaper has been reborn as an Internet-only news site that invites material from almost all comers.
That the Internet is providing outlets for that “misdirected” passion isn’t killing newspapers. That most newspapers in general haven’t -- or won’t -- allow their professionals to pursue their passions in the context of providing the service they do -- local reporting, investigative journalism, et cetera -- is a general failing of the industry model in general, and would be a failing whether the Internet were here or not.

Look at the current model: a person decides he or she wants to be a journalist either because they like to write, they like to poke their noses into other people's business, they like to talk to people, whatever reason. So they go to school and get a journalism degree and then go into the job market and really want to contribute. Then they find that they're slotted into a niche -- school reporting, features, whatever -- and see that if they try to cross that line for the most part they get their hands slapped and are told to do their assigned job, even if it's not their exact cup of tea, even if it doesn't completely fulfill the passion they have; the passion that got them into the business in the first place. The best description of this phenomenon that I've ever heard come from Dave Barry, who before he was a columnist was a local beat reporter for a rinky-dink paper in Pennsylvania: He was ready, he said, to go out as a journalist and expose corruption (that was the big reason to go into journalism when he was in college) but he had no idea how to find any. And that, among many other things, is a big failing of the majority of journalism schools around. I have to confess that I didn't learn anything more in four years of college studying journalism than I did in the two years i was in high school journalism. (I always wanted to ask this question, but never had the guts to do it: "If you (the professors) love journalism as much as you say you do, how come you're working here rather than as journalists?") The conundrum is this: In J-school, they said, "We'll teach you the basics, you'll pick up the specifics through on-the-job training." Then when I got the job, they said, "Hey, how come the didn't teach you the specifics before you got this job? We have no time for on-the-job training." Thus we find our current state of journalism. Passion-filled people whose job descriptions typically misdirect or deform part of that passion, leading to discontent and eventual flight from the industry.

Damn, I think I've just discovered a doctoral thesis if I ever decide to go after a doctorate. This is all anecdotal information, but I'll bet if I interviewed a lot of ex-journalists, they'd find this same problem. The Internet (getting back to the topic) didn't create this problem, but added the felling blow to the traditional newspaper's business model. But does the world need another doctorate babbling on about this kind of thing, or would it be better to get teachers -- and the industry -- putting these babblings into place. Well, it’s something to think about, anyway.

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