At the conclusion of his latest New Yorker article Columbia J-school Dean Nick Lemann writes: "As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away."
Absolutely. Journalism schools are not going to be doing their jobs unless they're doing everything possible to help students get comfortable alongside bloggers and everybody else here on the Internet. Bloggers hang out here every day, ready to engage journalists in debate and conversation, and even to collaborate with them for the sake of a more informed public discourse. The most effective journalists of the future will find ways to utilize the Internet's read-write potential, as opposed to 20th-century media's read-only capacity. (For more about read-write versus read-only media see Ethan Zuckerman's great summary of Larry Lessig's talk at Wikimania.) In the world of read-write journalism, the public is not merely reading and listening to our reporting but participating - as well as filling in gaps that journalists may not be reporting at all for lack of resources, lack of space or airtime, editor's lack or interest, commercial pressures or the parent organization's political fear. Jeff Jarvis has written up a great set of recommendations for how journalism should be taught in the new read-write age. He made a great point about how journalists need to become curators and moderators of conversations related to the subjects they cover taking place across the web. A real value-add that professional journalists bring to the table is solid journalistic editing. According to the latest Pew study,
despite the proliferation of information out there on the web, most
people have not increased the amount of time they spend each day
consuming it. Which means that there is a very valuable role for
professionals to help the overwhelmed public find what they want and
what they need to know - from credible sources - without spending all
day looking. This should of course be in addition to the solid, hard work of infoming those conversations with strong old-fashioned gumshoe reporting that bloggers with day jobs might not have the time and resources to do. Those are a full-time journalist's major value-adds.
It is definitely also true that the read-write web forces journalists to learn new ways to collaborate with bloggers and other non-professional creators of citizens media - not only for the sake of a better story but because audiences, especially younger ones, will increasingly expect to participate, not just consume information passively. I thought Susan Crawford made an excellent suggestion for helping reporters find their voice and impact on the Internet: "...a better approach might be letting reporters have a personality online -- not just the occasional video, but a constant online presence that's more than a byline."
Susan's right. Every journalism student ought to maintain a blog, and experience what it feels like to have your audience talk back to you (or ignore you). They too can discover as I first did two years ago, when I was posting on North Korea zone several times per day, that our readers can help us uncover information we never would have come up with on our own, and that the debates fanning out in reaction to our blog posts can force us to sharpen our analysis because we'll quickly be called out on any contradiction or error. (See this article and this report about my experience - both PDF.) As Jay Rosen points out, learning to survive and thrive in the blogosphere as a journalist is actually very hard work:
...what the sweaty champions of “journalism as a form of blogging” overlook is how hard it is for your average reporter to thrive in the link-filled, argument-rich, emotionally-present, here’s-where-I-stand style that traditional bloggers have cultivated over the years. It takes time. Perhaps the hardest part is you actually have to be interested in what other people are saying.
And believe me, listening is a new skill for many people in the profession. He also says:
We hear every day how “the pros are gonna blog you under the table.” Count me unimpressed. I say a majority of the blogging is going to continue to be done by the traditional underwear types who have the passion and irreverance the pros seem to lack.
Actually, though, lots of journalists are using blogs to do read-write journalism, with passion, in new and creative formats. But many - myself included - have had to leave established big-name media organizations in order to do so. Global Voices Online, an edited aggregator of blogs from outside North America and Western Europe which I co-founded and which is now a finalist for the Knight-Batten Innovations in Journalism award, is working with Reuters figure out how journalists can both serve and inform the rich and truly global online discourse. (See this Mideast Crisis page and this Cuba page to see how blog content is being integrated with Reuters journalism to help inform and serve the public discourse on major world events.) New micro-media organizations run by journalists using blogging software, are doing some very good work that is definitely defined as journalism. One of many examples is Chris Nolan's Spot-on - check out this fabulous dispatch from Jonathan Ansfield in Beijing, examining Chinese reactions to Israel's war on Lebanon. The list goes on.
What's more, if you look around the world, in many places "real" journalism is actually fleeing to the read-write web from MSM. Globally, many journalists are being driven to blogging because the corporate and political climates in their own countries make it impossible for them to do the kind of journalism they want to do within established news organizations. Real journalism being: the kind that informs the public about what they need to know, whether or not various powerful people want the public to know it. Case in point: Roland Soong in Hong Kong (who I hope will come hang out with us at HKU as much as he wants) points out on his EastSouthWestNorth blog that the territory's last independent broadsheet newspaper, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, is being bought by a major corporation which maintains cozy ties with the Chinese government - which in turn means the end to hard-hitting reporting on many subjects. [CLARIFICATION/CORRECTION Aug.7th: Thanks to LfC and an anonymous commenter below for the correction plus some important perspectives and additional information on the HKEJ situation.] According to Roland, a swansong editorial by columnist Kong Shaolin provides his readers with a list of Hong Kong blogs that they can now turn to for the independent commentary they may no longer find in the Hong Kong MSM. Fortunately in Hong Kong, unlike in mainland China, blogs are not blocked or censored. (One of the several ways in which "one country two systems" formula of the Hong Kong SAR still holds.) Not yet, anyway.
Global Voices Online is full of examples of how blogs are increasingly being used to cover events in countries that the mainstream media just simply fails to cover very well, if at all. Many seasoned journalists, like Addis Abbaba-based Andrew Heavens, believe strongly that there is more to say about Africa than editors in the English-language media are willing to publish. Andrew begins this recent summary of reports and commentary from the Ethiopian blogosphere by saying:
Ethiopia’s bloggers kept a nervous eye on their country’s southern border with Somalia over the past two weeks as rumblings of renewed conflict got ever louder.
The growing tension received next to no coverage in the mainstream media who focused most of their international coverage on southern Lebanon.
But the bloggers were there to fill up the vacuum.
Some of them actually have jobs as journalists, some of them have other day jobs, but no matter. The point is they are collaborating to make sure the word gets out when the MSM is distracted and focused elsewhere.
Which brings me to a tough question for which I don't have the answer. What are journalism schools for? Do they exist merely to teach the next generation how to secure and hold jobs in media organizations - whether or not those jobs actually practice anything remotely adhering to the ideals of journalism that we teach? The dean of another major U.S. journalism school recently told me he worries that J-schools are training people to do the kind of journalism which, increasingly, fewer and fewer news organizations actually have any interest in producing. Are J-schools doing enough to equip young people with the values, skills, creativity, ingenuity and COURAGE necessary to help reinvent both the industry and the profession - so that by the end of the 21st century it will still be possible to get paid to do something resembling real journalism? I guess I'll find out soon...