Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Is Journalism As We Know It Becoming Obsolete?

Not yet. But a few prayers couldn’t hurt.

Last week Gigaom.com blogger Matthew Ingram resurrected the decade-old question: is journalism as we know it becoming obsolete? His answer – after a nearly 900-word build up:

No. “I would rather say it as evolving and expanding — and I happen to believe that’s a good thing,” he writes.

Pardon the bluntness, but to me that doesn’t read like a satisfying conclusion. The cells in my stomach are evolving, dividing one by one, millisecond by millisecond, year by year. My stomach expands with each new meal I consume. But without a little help from digestion and peristalsis to keep that expansion in check or DNA coding to prevent runaway “cell evolution,” my body would grow sick and unable to function.

If left unchecked I’d land in the Morgue – the place where humans – and newspapers ultimately retire.

To conclude that today’s twitter-centric and blog-frenzied journalism is “evolving and expanding” isn’t good enough. Chalking the process up to the cyclical “rise and fall” of newspapers and bloggers doesn’t cut it either. A more nuanced question is: how is journalism expanding and evolving and what safeguards, if any, are working to ensure its healthy growth?

Ingram rightly points out that journalism is about: “a spirit of inquiry, of curiosity, of wanting to make sense of things.” He’s also correct when he references programming scholar Dave Winter’s suggestion that in today’s world, with often zero mass publishing barriers, anyone can do it.

But the fact that “anyone can do it” doesn’t mean that everyone can do it equally well. Possessing a spirit of enquiry, of curiosity, and of wanting to make sense of things are platitudes that can be applied to almost any profession.

Eighteenth and 19th century journalism, wrought with hyper opinion, political party dominance, and a healthy dose of sensationalism effectively blurred the lines of hard news, soft news, and what today would be called “infotainment.” Not until the middle and latter 20th century did a more separation of church and state-like thinking transform journalism into today’s polished and professional product.

It’s not that today’s citizen journalists, CNN’s iReporters or Arab Spring bloggers are bad. It’s just that too often their skills are unrefined.

To be sure, gathering facts, observing breaking news, and collecting what else has been written on a topic – termed aggregating on the web – is the first step toward quality journalism. But placing that information into a compelling and concise narrative with context and fact-checked sources is where the professional differences lie. A world where citizen journalists, bloggers, and traditional reporters remember they’re playing on the same team, in equal numbers would be the best way to ensure that the hard fought professional standards achievements of the 20th century and the internet mass publishing miracles of the 21st work in concert, not in chaos.

In the last decade, as newspapers and other print formats struggle to engineer the magic bullet of profitable web publishing, thousands of professional journalists have left the profession entirely, jumping ship for the perceived safer and often better-paying waters of public relations, corporate communications and government outreach.

An industry losing its institutional knowledge is an industry in danger of losing itself.

Is journalism as we know it becoming obsolete?

Only if we let it.

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