Michael Skoler and the evolving newsroom

A video link is making its way around the blogs bookmarked in my RSS reader. Generally, when you see the same video linked on different journalism/new media blogs, you know it’s time to start paying attention. And pay I did.

The video is a 12-minute speech by Michael Skoler, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Journalism. He was speaking at a recent Neiman Foundation panel on the future of journalism. (Link) In the talk, Skoler describes three factors that newsrooms will have to content with in order to adapt to the “change.”

Skoler describes the situation in newsrooms around the world as they come face-to-face with the new forms of media and information dissemination. When Web technology began getting popular, he says, and people began getting their news from places that weren’t television and newspapers, media analysts and editors and publishers across the country decided that the newsroom had to change to reflect those new media.

But rather than decide how best to bring the content, quality content, to the masses with those new media, many newsrooms began adopting things like video segments, podcasts and blogs for no other reason than to have them. New media for new media’s sake, not for the reader’s sake.

New methods for disseminating news weren’t the problem facing newsrooms, Skoler said. The problem was that journalism in general was lost. “I think we still have a role in society,” he said in his speech. “But the bad news, the tough news, is that we don’t know what that role is.”

New media technologies exposed the deeper problem with modern journalism: a lack of trust. Journalists are no longer the social activists, seekers of justice, righters of wrongs and voices of the voiceless they used to be. More often than not, people see journalism as having an interest in telling lies and other harmful falsehoods.

People fled to non-mainstream news sources not simply because they were there — a sort of information/attention vaccuum effect — but because they wanted something they weren’t getting at home. Now, Skoler said, people tend to get their news relayed to them through social networks, linked to the good stuff by the people they talk with and interact with every day. The news comes from the people they trust.

Skoler’s second and third points came in shorter order. He asserts that readers want to be part of the “conversation” in some way because America (and maybe the world) is no longer an information-as-commodity culture. We have become, he says, an information-sharing culture. “Knowledge is no longer viewed as congregated and only accessible to an elite,” he said. “Knowledge is open on the Internet and available to everyone.”

His final point was to mention the shift in influence on the Web. “Sharing is power on the Web,” he said, meaning that news sites that do their best to keep readers inside their walled cyber-gardens aren’t faring well. That’s because the old model, the idea that information is something to be owned and controlled, doesn’t work well online.

From my own experience in reading news online, I have to give the obligatory shout-out to the New York Times here. I refer specifically to two big steps they have taken (in addition to all the RSS feeds and widgets the Grey Lady uses to get its news out the door). First, the Times opened up its archives and tore down the pay wall. Second, the Times, just last week, began giving readers the option of seeing links to outside sites right on the Times homepage.

I suppose the old saying about love is germane here: “If you love someone, let it go. If that someone comes back, then you know it’s for real.” Letting the readers leave nytimes.com for other sites makes the Times look like more of an authority, a portal where people will go to find the best content, not just written by the Times, but the best content anywhere.

“We need to get closer to the audience,” Skoler said, winding down his talk by addressing a lingering journalistic belief. “But deep in our souls, we feel that’s dumbing down our journalism.” But that’s simply not true, he said. Connecting with readers, making your material easier to access and understand, thereby getting the news out to more people, that’s actually smarter in the long run.

I’m torn over Skoler’s advice. Yes, it makes the best sense to adapt to the new things that are changing your business. If you don’t adapt, you face extinction. That is abundantly clear and gets clearer every day thanks to news of newspapers reducing their publication or shutting down entirely. But…

Journalism is about giving people the news, whether they like that news or not. Skoler is asking us to walk a fine line between journalistic ethics (which I think I just described) and meeting the audience’s demands (in reality, pandering, but that word has such negative connotations). In the new media world, we’re going to have to sacrifice some of journalism’s egalitarian prescriptivism.

Whether that is a good thing or not, I don’t know.

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