Sunday, June 14, 2009

Journalism won’t die, but the end of the news organization is here

My apologies for a long hiatus. I have been, as usual, sulking thinking intelligently about the news industry. Here's some of it...

Regardless of whether journalism is going to exist several years down the road or not, the case for “journalists” not existing is getting stronger. James Poniewozik brought up this point in Time last week, arguing that while journalism as a process would have to go on, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be practiced by “professionals who belong to a profession.” It’s easy to discard some of this argument as mere terminology, but the prospects he raises are grim, made grimmer by the impending realism of them.

As one of my go-to bloggers on new media technology says on his blog, “journalism is a process, not a product.” His argument is that journalism, very soon, will cease to exist as an institution, but news will continue to happen because it will find its way on Twitter or a blog or a Facebook news feed and become news.

While this may seem more plausible for a story about a protest outside City Hall or a local state fair, it seems highly unlikely for an investigative piece on the crisis in Darfur. But even that does not necessarily need a profession called journalism. Carroll Bogert makes a pretty compelling case in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review that Human Rights Watch has done more research on issues around the world than perhaps the international bureaus of all US newspapers put together. In CJR’s fascinating series, which imagines the journalism world in 2014, Bogert writes that the HRW Web site would take over from newspapers in bringing to light significant issues like the Guanatnamo Bay hearings and the Israel-Gaza conflict. HRW would be reporting on its own work in these regions, but in the process, it would also be disseminating much-needed information.

A more terrifying vision of publicists-turned-reporters is that of PR professionals from companies and public offices being exclusive sources of news on their respective organizations. Not all PR professionals lie, Tim Cavanaugh assures us. And that is certainly the sort of integrity I’d like journalism to follow! Cavanaugh does make the indubitable point that newspapers are not exactly exemplars of objectivity either, and that at least in the case of PR professionals, you would know who they’re working for. Isn’t that what we said about bloggers a few years ago?

Gratifyingly, at the other end of the spectrum, are the tirelessly striving nonprofit foundations, and strengthening their case is the recent announcement by the AP that it will start distributing content from organizations such as Propublica, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, and the Centers for Investigative Reporting and Public Integrity. These organizations have been so far distributing content to several news outlets already, as has the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

This is not to say that journalism will be confined to PR departments or NGOs in future, but that different genres of content will be provided predominantly by parties or organizations that traditionally have authority in specific areas. This is not very different from Jeff Jarvis’ idea of “the ecosystem of news,” where he insists that news of the future will not come from one entity, but from a collaboration and consolidation of information gathered from a variety of individuals and resources.

Not surprisingly, there is already a push toward individual entrepreneurial news reporting (Shamless self promotion alert!) in areas that are most feeling the effects of a declining industry; this is particularly true for foreign news reporting with most news organizations having shut down their international bureaus.

Citizen journalism sites like Ground Report and AllVoices are paying contributors based on individual traffic to their articles, and Global Post allows its reporters grants of shares in the company. In other words, the trend is shifting toward large groups of independent journalists providing content to a news site, rather than a group of journalists under an umbrella organization, and this is perhaps where the future of journalism lies.

As Poniewozik and Jarvis and others have pointed out, while news has to and will continue to exist, journalism may soon cease to exist as a standalone, profit-making profession.

Unless, of course, all the bigwigs from major news organizations sit in a dark, smoke-filled room and decide to force people to pay for news content.

Oh wait, that’s already happened.

To that end, API has presented a report on how news sites can start charging for content. And Steven Brill has founded “Journalism Online,” which aims to help news organizations explore options for paid content. The Nieman Lab reported last week that several newspapers have already signed up.

It’s still hard to imagine this idea working out.

As Paul Bradshaw points out, even if we get our heads around the idea of paid content, these organizations will have to demonstrate an exceptional ability to provide unique information, as the "other" free sites will not only attract more readers, but on account of increased eyeballs, will also draw away advertising revenue from the paid sites.

It looks increasingly likely that the era of journalism by an organization is coming to an end.