Michael Arrington’s recent TechCrunch post about old media “guys” who don’t get it made me realize how far things have come — and how much better they’ve gotten — in the world of journalism.
I worked for more than 15 years in what’s now called “legacy media” as a reporter, news editor and business person. All along, there were a bunch of things that made me scratch my head.
The Way Things Were (Wrong)
Why, for example, could we could lift from other sources without offering attribution? I remember when a librarian at ABC News taught us how to use news databases to find stories from local media that could serve as grist for our mill. On another occasion, I pretty much re-reported a Japanese magazine’s story for Newsweek. The Japanese magazine’s editor called me out privately, but I never paid any further price.
I marveled at how expensive databases with reams of news and information benefited us at big media companies, but weren’t readily available to the public. One of the reasons I worked for large media companies (such as ABC, Newsweek and AP) was because of the information access they afforded.
I saw how my colleagues and I could resist calls for transparency in disclosing sources or methods because it was very hard for people to vet what we did and then share their concerns widely.
Meanwhile, the viewer or reader or listener pretty much had to take whatever we thought they should be given. At top-flight news organizations, we seldom talked about what the consumer might want. I would get sometimes looked at cross-eyed if I brought the topic up.
I remember the frustration I felt at always having to repeat the nut graf and essential information in a story, just in case someone reading it might not know the basics of what had already happened. I remember the Newsweek bureau chief in Tokyo telling me he was annoyed at being assigned a story that would cover the same ground as one done well by another news outlet.
As both a news professional and a news consumer, there was a constant feeling that I was missing something.
The Equation Is Changed
Digital media — can we please stop calling them “new”? — have changed it all.
I was exhilarated in my early years at ABCNews.com, where I was its founding international producer, when I got a Serb from Belgrade within the NATO bombing zone to email me missives, which I posted on the site. Sure, they were biased and sometimes myopic, but it was great to have someone who had bombs falling all around him making observations from his window, sending images, showing his feelings.
I remember, too, the enjoyment I felt getting screamed at from China for allowing what I believe was the first real-time chat between people in China and a major news website. In both instances, the experience was raw, unfiltered and direct from the source — without any correspondent to tell us what was being said. The unlimited space, flexibility of time, and ability to bring others into the conversation broke down the barriers that the journalist can place, even inadvertently, between those involved in the news and those interested in it. (These were adjuncts, not the main story, and I don’t believe we can or should do without journalists, editing and packaging. But I do think coverage is greatly enhanced by direct access to those involved.)
While watching the Paley Center’s recent session, Education of the Entrepreneurial Journalist, I was glad to see Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, promise that, “We will have journalists who need to care about where audiences are and how they are going to reach those audiences.”
But I was almost shocked that it had to be stated. Isn’t it a given that journalists have to care about the audience? Are we still in an era when they don’t?
Change for the Good
Access to information has, obviously, improved as well. Search engines such as Google and myriad other information sources, from Twitter and Facebook to Digg and Delicious, have made it easier to be sure we don’t miss what’s relevant. They can also enable us to find serendipitous links that take us on new journeys. Sure, there’s still proprietary information locked up in Factiva, Nexis and Bloomberg terminals, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince me we have less access to good information today than we did before the web.
Journalists are also now held to a higher standard, and have to be more transparent. As everyone from Dan Rather to The New York Times and Reuters and many solo bloggers have found, any mistakes or distortions will be called out and publicized. You’ll be hounded until you make a prominent correction. You may even have to find another line of work. No longer is it simply enough to say, “Trust us and our integrity. We have the brand and the access and the information.”
The ability to link and refer to source documents has helped, too. I remember how I had to convince a boss in those early days of ABCNews.com to let a link or two replace a few paragraphs of background in order to save us space and effort, while also sparing readers the annoyance of repetition. Today, the link and search are our friends, and can give us not just the background, but also the source documents, raw interviews, and much more. Done right, journalism has new authenticity and credibility.
Democratization has also come to the business side. I used to wonder how it was that advertisers could place their ads without ever knowing much about the effect of their placement. Of course, we all knew that even though a placement in the front of a publication was deemed a choice spot, readers might pick up Newsweek just for the arts section and never get to the “front of the book.” In the Washington Post, they might not go beyond the Style section, so a chunk of subscribers weren’t being reached by ads in the front section.
Today, in digital media, advertisers can at least tell if their ads have been served to (and presumably seen by) a viewer. Yes, it’s imperfect, but you can’t convince me that digital media is less accountable than print or broadcast.
While I feel the pain of those who’ve lost their jobs — I’ve both laid off people and been laid off myself — there are now business models for news that work on the web, even if the traditionalists don’t like it. Just ask Gawker Media, Gothamist, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos or Drudge Report, all of which are said to be profitable. I know it’s still fashionable in some circles to curl your lip when referring to “bloggers,” or to lament the mediocrity of so much web journalism. But there is real, strong journalism taking place, too.
I’m not saying today’s media have made things all sweetness and light, that digital is saving us and everyone is holding hands and dancing together in sun-filled meadows. But we’re getting some clarity about information sharing and attribution, fraud is being detected, fairness and even-handedness are being demanded, the megaphone is being shared, and advertisers are able to demand evidence that their ads are actually being seen.
Meanwhile, there is huge disruption. This is not a time for the faint of heart or those unwilling to learn and change. But, for so many reasons and in so many ways, things are better than they used to be.
Dorian Benkoil is consulting sales manager, and has devised marketing strategy for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He Tweets at @dbenk.