Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Newsy Conciliation

Marc Fisher, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, has a fascinating piece on what he calls a “conciliation” of old-guard journalism’s emphasis on truth first and new media’s emphasis on publish now, vet later. What he writes should pique the interest of anyone in the old guard – mainly newspapers – but also those who think the Internet is a purely self-correcting creature.

Here’s the core of his piece:

But consider a new possibility: What if conciliation is at hand? As the lines between old and new increasingly blur, are the two schools of journalism’s core values blending into a hybrid? Increasingly, in newsrooms both print-centric and all-digital, the imperative for speed in the journalism of tweets and Vines has triumphed over traditional ways: What’s news is what’s out there, whether or not it’s been checked and verified. Rare is the news organization that doesn’t occasionally jump on Twitter with half-baked facts, and rarer still is the one that refuses to gin up content about the day’s major trending topics.

As I discovered in visits to newsrooms with varying histories and roles, what’s new is what’s always worked: In the minute-by-minute struggle for audience and advertising, old-fashioned notions about credibility turn out to be as essential as speed. Despite utopian rhetoric about the Web as a self-correcting mechanism, getting things right from the start turns out to have considerable value.

“The sheer impact of doing the wrong thing has grown tremendously because of the speed and reach of the new media, and that is leading a lot of these new brands to show a lot of traditional values,” says Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president at the Knight Foundation and former managing editor of the Newseum.

No journalist ever wants to publish something that’s wrong. But it happens to every journalist without exception. I know how much it hurts from personal experience. But as has been illustrated by a friend’s Facebook post last week about a local newspaper not moving fast enough on a significant news story in the community (and the Facebooker in question is a former editor of the self-same paper, not some run-of-the-mill complainer) there’s still a serious disconnect in some organizations between being right and being current. There’s also a failure to realize that you can be fast and mostly correct at the same time, and that as long as you continue to provide your readers with updated information, they’re more likely to see along with you that news evolves and that what was once reported earlier changes as more information becomes available.
But here’s the invaluable part: Even through your errors, your readers were there for the ride. You let them participate in the news event, perhaps even contributing themselves, to get them more involved. And that seems to be working. Back to Fisher’s article:

On the snowy evening before I drove up to south central Pennsylvania to visit the York Daily Record, its editors suggested I check out the liveblog they had created to cover the first significant storm of the year. The blog featured video snippets from staff reporters showing where slick roads were snarling traffic. There were feeds from the National Weather Service and tweets from reporters and competing media outlets. The editors were proud that their blog gave equal treatment to reader-generated content—pictures and tweets with the #pawx hashtag.

Reader Dan Sokil said roads were “slow with a solid layer of slush but passable slowly.” Jhofford20 posted: “What better way to spend a snow day than by drinking a couple beers.” Erin Kissling added: “Winter Storm Advisory: The state liquor stores are closed. this is bullshit.”

No one edits the storm blog at night, says Jim McClure, the Record’s editor, but there’s nothing on the blog he’d have taken out. The beers line “captures the feelings of the community,” and the profanity is fine because “we’re looser online.”

These days at the Record—which has 19 reporters on a staff of 55 journalists, down from 80 at its peak a decade ago—everyone blogs, shoots video, and posts on social media, as well as reports and writes. Reporters and photographers post directly to the site, “so it’s incumbent more and more on the reporter to get it right,” says metro editor Susan Martin. “Editors fix things after they’re online, as soon as we can.”
That sounds like, to me, a news organization working with digital media, and its audience, to find truth together, rather than being the dispenser of truth on its own timetable. And today’s audience, certainly those in the younger bracket, want participatory anything – participatory everything – in order to remain interested. 

That may sound Brave New World-ish, with the entertainment factor of news taking over, but step back and see what’s going on here. Participating readers are readers. And if they’re participating, they’re sharing. And if they’re sharing, they’re encouraging more participation.

And the truth, the accuracy, the gestalt of instantaneous and accurate is coming closer.

So size doesn’t matter. That the media engage with its readers seems to matter.

More from Fisher:

“Everything we do is irreverent, but not glib,” says the editor in chief [of news startup NowThis News], Ed O’Keefe, 36, a veteran of ABC News. “We remove all ornamentation, anything that distances. The YouTube generation understands that stories evolve. It’s dirty and it’s not always right, but it’s instantaneous.”

There it is, the red-hot core of the difference between old school and new. I’ve never had a print editor who said anything like that out loud. But I have heard any number of editors who are struggling to figure out how to compete digitally embrace the idea that putting something up can take precedence over checking it out fully. This is no expression of tabloid amorality; O’Keefe is a serious journalist who is trying to find a standard that works in the new world. He doesn’t want to deliver inaccuracies to his audience. Rather, he wants to give them the closest version of the truth he can while still meeting them where they are, which is on their phone, right now. Wait a few minutes, and they won’t be there anymore; they’ll have moved on to the next story.

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