22 February 2012 Comments Off

Is the golden age of journalism upon us?

Could we be entering a golden age of journalism?

That may sound like heresy  when, among other things, ESPN fires an editor for writing an offensive headline about NBA star Jeremy Lin;  Reuters makes five major corrections on one story about Republican Sen. Marco Rubio; London tabloid journalists and cops keep getting arrested and accused of bribery; and the U.S. newspaper industry keeps bleeding ad revenue.

It can be tempting, especially for news veterans of a certain age, to look with misty eyes to the past–a past where, it is said, standards mattered, brave reporters followed stories to the very depths of hell and Hollywood made some pretty good movies about newspaper publishers.

That’s not an entirely false picture of the past but it’s also a portrait of what’s beginning to happen today.

Take John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, whose company runs Digital First  Ventures, MediaNews Group and Journal Register Company.   He recently spoke to the Canadian Journalism Foundation and his remarks diagnosed much of what went wrong with the American newspaper industry and pointed the way toward a brighter future–one that, not surprisingly, has a “digital first” mission.

Among the more quotable parts of  his remarks:

– “Crappy newspaper executives are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than any changes wrought by the Internet.”

–”In our blustering for self-justification we have created a myth of our value. Without ever establishing its economic value, we have argued our value as journalists and journalism itself is self-evident and unassailable. This has been one of the most gut-wrenching struggles for me to deal with because clearly journalism is not without value but, for sure, how it is largely practiced in print today – particularly ‘he said last night journalism’ – nearly is valueless.”

–”Just as the printing press divorced the reader from the writer with the pen and created a whole new world of scalable audiences and techniques of communication, the new digital platforms demand journalists use each platform to its utmost advantage. The first steps in this transition have been our Digital First strategy but clearly it is also a case of Digital Right – the right uses for the right platforms on the right occasions. And not just the simple re-purposing of content from one platform to another in order of priority.

Given the record of the U.S. newspaper industry over the past decade and a half, maybe we should state the obvious: The democratization of publishing has changed journalism more in the past decade and a half than in the previous five centuries. The news organizations that will be successful will be the ones that swim in the social stream with their audiences and develop new editorial models to reach them, engage them and retain their trust.

That means thinking about ourselves in different ways: not as gatekeepers of information (the gate is forever wide open now), but as “gate watchers,” applying our standards of truth to the torrent of information in the social stream. Some of that information is vitally important, some of it entertaining and some of it is useful. Some of it is verifiable, some of it is propaganda, much of it is rumor and most of it is noise.

Paton, as one would expect from a publisher, sees this through the prism of “brand.” He quotes Internet legend Vint Cerf: “People’s trust in journalism has always been about branding.”

That works if “trust” is part of your brand and if you’re transparent about it.

When I was Reuters’ ethics and standards editor, the Reuters Trust Principles, established in World War II to ensure the news agency’s independence and freedom from bias, were a key part of the brand. We extended that in 2009, when Reuters put the entire 500-plus-page Handbook of Journalism online and free to the public.

It’s gratifying to see that Reuters is continuing to update the Handbook to address social media issues, and that The Associated Press is updating its guidelines as well.

The two great news agencies’ guidelines have an important point in common: They both urge their journalists to swim in the social stream.  But just as you can’t throw a child into the water and expect her to swim without any lessons, you can’t throw legacy media journalists into the social stream and expect them to be Michael Phelps. That’s why the guidelines are so necessary.

One last word from Paton:

–”If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies then you better give them a long-term plan that works. Give them a plan they will back. And I would add it should be a plan built on the editorial floor where the core of our business lies.”

Now that’s a publisher who understands that the core of this shifting business is journalism. And one who thinks he can make money with it.

Maybe they’ll make a movie.






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