Thursday, March 19, 2009

Digital Newsroom: On the inside looking out at journalism

Will the members of the audience please stand up?
Thank you, Stephen Johnson, for re-framing the ongoing “death of journalism” discussion from the perspective of the information consumer.

Too often, when poring over that phrase-no-one-can-define, “the future of journalism,” we forget we aren’t just talking about the future of journalists. We are also talking about every single person who at some time in the future will seek out news.

This point has been lost in not only this discussion, but also in my journalism classes. Our classmates and our teachers serve as a proxy for a public audience, but we rarely acknowledge that fact. The audience is an entity that has gotten lost in the blur. It’s undefined. We don’t interact with it. We don’t know what it looks or smells or acts or thinks like.

In a classroom setting, it doesn’t exist.

I think that’s a fundamental flaw in how we are approaching our training to become journalists in a future that we are going to determine.

Who is our audience, and should they be the ones who define the future of journalism? There is no such thing as a passive audience anymore. Image from Flickr user liz_noise chared with a Creative Commons license.

Images of imminent death
I just got back from a lecture by Barbie Zelizer of UPenn’s Annenberg School for Communication. Her talk, “How news images work: When engagement comes at the expense of understanding,” was really about death.

Or, rather, imminent death.

She addressed how newspapers and television stations chose to show “about-to-die images.” That is, images where death is known, implied, or assumed, not explicitly shown. Her discussion was interesting and relevant, but I couldn’t help thinking that in 10 years – or 5, or 2 – she won’t be able to conduct the same analysis.

Consumers of the news will be shown images less and less, but will seek them out, and choose what they want to see. Thus analyzing how images – or facts or stories – are presented won't be as important as analyzing how they are created, shared and interpreted.

Which brings me to another point Zelizer made, which is that images require the people viewing them to use their imaginations. There will always be something left out, something unsaid. I think the question, "how does imagination function in news?" applies to text as well as images. And that's a question that can't be answered without an audience.

How does what we look at shape how we see?
The way we read, see, and process information is changing. Nicholas Carr’s fantastic article in the July/August 2008 issue of the Atlantic covers this topic. He writes,
Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.
It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s not well understood. But it stands to reason that if what language we speak influences how we perceive the world, then what language we read might do likewise.

Shirky’s essay and Johnson’s speech are reassuring. Journalism and story telling will continue to exist. Information will continue to proliferate and become more accessible. And, as Johnson said, it will take new skills to navigate the crushing weight of it all.

But no one – not Shirky, not Johnson, and definitely not me – has yet found an answer to the question of how or if journalism, information gathering, story telling, analysis, blogging (or whatever new name it takes) will be profitable or economical. For now, the optimistic view is that a new business model will be found…somewhere.

But I don’t think that’s a given. Maybe no one will find a way to make money from the sharing of information.

And if they don’t?

I’ve been spending a lot of time with a dairy farmer for a story (due at 6 p.m. tomorrow – eek!). He made sure to tell me – twice, actually – that while farmers may seem to complain a lot about the government, the weather, the market, the you-name-it, ultimately being a farmer is a choice. They do it because they love the lifestyle.

From my perspective as a journalism student, I don’t think journalists are any different. We came here – not business school or law school or medical school – for a reason.

Now, what I haven’t figured out yet is whether this will be what saves journalism, or what dooms it. I would be content to toil away doing great, relevant reporting for peanuts (check back on me in 20 years and see if my mind has changed, though). I know that I should be thinking about entrepreneurship and business models, but that’s not my nature.

But maybe, if we start thinking about who our audience will be, then the business and entrepreneurship will follow. Maybe, by thinking about our future readers, we’ll become not only better writers, but better business people, as well.

Maybe, by looking beyond ourselves and beyond our subjects to our audience, we can prevent ourselves from taking our own about-to-die self-portraits.

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