The Two Stages of Journalism

Here is the latest in the ongoing series of essays, “Local Media in a Postmodern World.”

The Two Stages of Journalism

Much is being written about the future of journalism in the wake of disruptive innovations to both the business model and the practice of journalism itself. It’s confusing, to say the least, until we start to view the processes of the trade in two different stages: the act of gathering the news and the presentation of what we find. Both are in disruption, but in different ways, and the wise future planner will consider them separately. Making public the gathering of the news – what we call “Continuous News” – can be separated from the publishing of finished accounts, and this opens opportunities in all areas.

What the entertainment press knows that we don’t

Elin Nordegren, the former Mrs. Tiger Woods, gave her first interview — and what she says will be her last — to People Magazine. Immediately, every other entertainment press outlet picked up the story, citing the interview with People. E! Online put it this way:

Her divorce to Tiger Woods is final and in a new interview with People, the Swedish beauty breaks her long-suffering silence, saying that she’s “been though hell” but now feels “stronger than I ever have.”

TMZ.com wrote it like this:

Elin tells PEOPLE, “I’m so embarrassed that I never suspected — not a one. For the past 3 1/2 years, when all this was going on, I was home a lot more with pregnancies, then the children and my school.”

In each case, the media outlet that didn’t get the interview provided a link for readers to follow, which is writing-for-the-Web 101.

You’ll not find a more competitive bunch in all of journalism than the gossip or entertainment press, and yet they’re more than willing to provide link and reference love to each other when one gets a scoop. Their willingness to do this is clearly a part of the process of covering niche news, but why isn’t this the normal practice among so-called “real” journalists and especially at the local level?

It’s because we’re more interested in self-promotion than the news, and this is evident in our silence on matters until we “get confirmation” for ourselves, as if no other news organization is capable of presenting the news properly. The story isn’t a story unless and until we say it is, and we wonder why people are losing faith in what we do. The entertainment press — and the tech press — recognize that “the” story is a story that needs to be shared with their readers. Who cares what source gets credit?

We’re afraid that if we “source” anybody else in the biz, we might lose a reader. After all, they might discover that our competitor does it better or that the reader might discover something about our competitor that they like more than us. And so rather than inform our readers, we deny them the story until we can prove (to ourselves?) that we can get the same thing.

I’m afraid the only people we’re fooling are ourselves, for access to everybody’s version of the news is a touchscreen or mouse click away.

Transparency and authenticity are two new values for journalism in a hyperconnected world. In these areas, the entertainment press runs circles around us regularly.

It’s time to get serious about personal branding

Time to stand outAustralian futurist Ross Dawson predicts that newspapers will be irrelevant in Australia by 2022 but that journalism is undergoing a form of rebirth. He goes on to make some specific predictions, but one caught my attention:

The reputation of individual journalists will drive audiences. Many journalists, most leading experts in their fields, will still be employed in Australia, with public reputation measures guiding audiences on how much to trust their work.

This thinking is showing up increasingly in writings by observers about the future of the news business, and it’s something I’ve been saying for years. A New York Magazine article comparing the troubles of newspapers to the troubles of the adult entertainment industry concludes with a similar thought for the New York Times: focus on their talent.

They should work harder at establishing their talent as brands — not the editorialists, like they did with Times Select; you can get opinion anywhere — but the people whose work has actual value: the reporters. Like a good talent manager, the Times could nurture and advise these reporters, guide their careers, and manage all of their creative output. They wouldn’t just publish their stories, they’d also publish their books, book them on speaking engagements, broker their movie deals — and offer them lucrative contracts in exchange. The Times already has the best talent, and it’s possible people will pay for it.

In today’s hyperconnected, social media-driven world, people follow people, not institutional brands. Moreover, the net reach via Facebook, for example, of the staff of any news organization can and should exceed that of the organization itself, because people follow certain individuals but not others. In Spartanburg, SC, WSPA-TV anchor Amy Wood garners more Facebook fans than the station’s Facebook page altogether. She works at it, but so should everybody, because people follow people!

In my 2008 essay, Your Personal Brand, I offered ten things that people can do to strengthen their personal brands. Now that the concept is becoming more mainstream, I thought it would be appropriate to republish them here:

  1. Blossom where you’re planted, because it leaves a good taste in the mouths of your co-workers and impacts your reputation. For young people especially, this includes your network, because one’s network at that age often includes people you work with.
  2. Build a database of customers and people of influence. Let technology do the heavy-lifting here, but these are the people who spread your reputation beyond your own reach. Get to know them. Remember them. Help them. Stay in contact with them. This strengthens your brand.
  3. Spread the brands of others in your network, for it’s the best way to motivate people to spread yours. Go to them as a customer, and let the shop owner know what you think. Help that person be the best they can be at their gift or chosen field.
  4. Make personal business cards with your brand and spread them everywhere. Advertise yourself with people in person and online. Talk about what you do. Share your experiences and maybe even provide tips as part of your social networking. Everything you do, especially if it’s negative, reflects on your brand.
  5. Be a good person, not an ass. People are watching, and the last thing you ever want to do is prove yourself a jerk through your behavior while your intentions tell you you’re really a good guy.
  6. Get comfortable with yourself, even if it takes professional help. People intuitively recognize self-destructive or self-centered behavior, and it’s a huge turn-off. If you use, for example, your Facebook page to constantly gripe about this or that, your brand will be that of a complainer and someone who enjoys life atop the old pity pot. You can’t control what people think of you, but you can choose not to give them ammunition with which to interpret your brand as negative.
  7. When someone asks for your help, offer it freely, for Life loves a cheerful giver, and your brand will continue to grow. This is also a hedge against those bad days (that everyone has) that contain bad behavior. People will know that’s out of character and cut you some slack.
  8. Devote some time each day to the study of your craft, and this is especially true for young people. You don’t have to pretend to be an expert when you really are one.
  9. Don’t be afraid to be human. Nobody’s perfect, although we all seem to think that we should be. Get off your own back, and soon you’ll find it easy to get off the backs of others. You will make mistakes, sometimes pretty big ones. When they happen, admit them, turn the page, and move on. Tolerate your own imperfections and you’ll discover how easy it is to tolerate the imperfections of others, and that is a good brand characteristic.
  10. Be teachable and stay teachable, no matter how much (you think) you know. Run, don’t walk, to those who can teach you and help grow your brand. Seek out such people and invest your time, for it will pay dividends beyond what you can imagine today.

Personal brands ARE the future of journalism, and that includes those outside the mainstream who are practicing the craft as bloggers. Individuals will become experts in some niche and sell that expertise to those who need or want it, either as independent contractors or employees. My guess it will be more the former than the latter, for once people taste the freedom of being on their own, it’s hard to go back.

This, of course, will set in motion a whole series of issues relating to the craft of journalism, but that will be fine. Meanwhile, advancing your personal brand should be high on the list of any professional journalist’s daily chores.

(Originally published in this week’s AR&D Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

When the press doesn’t talk about religion

Pew on religion and the PresidentSo 18% of Americans think President Obama is a Muslim. 34% think he’s a Christian and 43% aren’t sure what he believes. The data comes from a Pew study of religion and politics and underscores, I think, the remarkable and judgmental ignorance of the American public. The study notes that it is political opponents who skew the results, but that doesn’t explain the 43% who say they “don’t know.” This is not just tragic; it’s damning evidence of the how religion has been virtually eliminated from mainstream discussions of leadership at all levels.

I’ve been associated with studies of religion for a very long time. In 1988, I led a month-long study of religion in the Tennessee Valley for WDEF-TV in Chattanooga. The project, in conjunction with the Chattanooga Times, was extremely well-received by the public, and I’ve often thought that it’s the most overlooked news “beat” in the country, especially in the South. The truth is that journalists are uncomfortable talking about religion, because it’s complicated, polarizing and easy to make a mistake. It has the potential to really make the uninformed look like an idiot, too, and what reporter wants that? Nevertheless, 92% of Americans profess a belief in God, so it’s clearly relevant to the audience.

It’s this unwillingness to talk about spiritual matters in everyday life that leads to the data from Pew. If the press doesn’t talk about it, the only source of information is peer groups, and the kind of echo-chamber nonsense of groups like certain factions of the Tea Party.

I should mention that the Chattanooga religion project DOUBLED our ratings in one month, so the interest level is there. The subject just needs to be treated respectfully.

Why don’t we trust the press?

I have been using Gallup data for years to hammer home the point that blogging and bloggers are a response to the loss of trust in the professional press, not a cause. Gallup released this year’s data this week, and it continues the trend. Press trust has been slipping since 1976, and today just 47% of Americans have trust in the press.

latest Gallup numbers added

For the eighth year in a row, more people distrust the press than trust it, but the curious question is why? There’s the obvious issues of bias and the he said/she said matter and others concepts of which Jay Rosen writes, including his brilliant “Church of the Savvy.”

But I think there’s something else going on that is a direct result of the Web and the exposure people are given to other ways of thinking and, most importantly, varieties of journalistic output. People can now see the same “story” in many different forms — as it develops — and that poses a serious problem for those institutions who pretend that theirs is the only voice that matters. Moreover, horizontally-connected consumers can now share their thoughts with each other, which has the unintended consequence of destroying the authority that comes with any single voice. News competition is seen for the silliness that it really is, and all of the hype that professionals have come to believe about ourselves is laid bare for all to see.

Nobody ever mentions anybody else in the world of news gathering unless a copyright claim forces it. Before the Web, this was understandable, because as far as anybody knew, our reporters had all the angles on everything. The idea that the guy across town had it first was irrelevant, so why mention it? As far as our viewers or readers were concerned, we were the font of all knowledge. Besides, we had the time to gather everything we needed anyway. It was the world of the “finished” news product.

But now, with news in real time, everybody can clearly see stories develop across all sources. We know who got it first. We know when something is exclusive. Our hype is just nonsense.

Aggregation has made it possible for news junkies (let’s not underestimate their influence on everybody else) to be simultaneously informed by anyone of their choosing, and in the development of a story, they can “see” many things and ask logical questions, such as:

  • why don’t we attribute facts to other outlets?
  • why don’t we link to other outlets?
  • why don’t we quote other outlets?
  • why don’t we curate the work of everybody to bring the audience the whole story?
  • why is our “business” more important than the news we’re trying to cover?

Without any of the above, it appears to the average reader or viewer that we’re in it for the competition — to show them that we don’t need anybody else’s efforts — not to serve the information needs of the community. This has the effect of gutting our own predispositions and the very methods by which we operate, and I think it produces a cynicism in the audience that wasn’t there just ten years ago.

The people formerly known as the audience have always been more hip to our ways that we would ever admit, but the Web has further crystallized everything. We can “channel change” to determine for ourselves who has the best coverage, but the truth is we’re only interested in the story, not in any one outlet’s coverage thereof.

News is a process, not a finished product, and the Web is making that perfectly clear these days. Trust in the process is different than trust in the finished product, and this is doubtless impacting overall views of trust in the press. Professionals want to point to the product when examining the matter of trust, but I think the evidence suggests something entirely different. Moreover, I think we’re going to have to address all of this in order to rightly prepare for a future that is much more interested in the process than the finished product.

Application separation” threatens TV

Michael PowellIn 2003, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell made a statement while visiting students at Stanford that I’ve quoted often here. “Application separation,” he said, “is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.” He was talking about the ability to separate the package from the infrastructure that delivers the package.

In the world of code, XML does that by separating the content from the way it’s displayed. This allows the mixing of different forms of content and the transportation of content absent formatting. It has changed things forever.

But in the real — non-code — world, we’re separating things, too. This is what happened with the music industry. Technology allowed the separation of cuts from albums, and the digital music world was born. TiVo did the same thing with television. People could separate their favorite shows from the source and watch them when they wanted.

And now Google TV threatens to institutionalize that separation, much to the chagrin of broadcasters, cable companies and even Hollywood. They fear the same thing that happened to the music industry.

Chairman Powell, during that same meeting, also expressed a certain reality about those disrupted by “application separation.“I have no problem,” he said, “if a big and venerable company no longer exists tomorrow, as long as that value is transferred somewhere else in the economy.”

Sound like what’s taking place today?

Google TV makes no bones about wanting to separate programs from their sources and provide end users with simple, search-based access to the programs they want. According to an article in the Wall St. Journal, this is not sitting so well with some broadcasters, and it’s easy to understand why.

The Google software aims to play any video that runs anywhere on the Web, from clips on YouTube to full-length TV episodes that media companies distribute on their own sites. That open pipe has some media companies worried that their content will get lost amid a range of Web content, including pirated clips, according to people familiar with the matter.

Google’s push could backfire: Some media companies are discussing whether they should take steps to block their Web video from playing on certain devices, which is technically possible.

Blocking, however, would be foolish, for people WILL have what they want, and this is the problem with all disruptive innovations. The only issue is how difficult it might be for Google to sell the public on another set-top box or another expensive piece of hardware in order to experience the new world.

I think it’s a foregone conclusion that people will view television this way downstream, and that the best broadcasters, cable companies and studios can do is slow it down. TV has an advantage over what the music industry faced, because we can actually see it coming. It won’t change the outcome, however, for we’ve long ago entered the age of empowered consumers. People already watch “programs,” not channels, so “application separation” is already underway, just as it was for music.

Better than fighting, it seems to me, would be to spend some time innovating ways to move supportive ads to a VOD environment, or to be the one who offers the searchable (local) channel of video advertising and coupons. The old adage is that for every 100 people who see a commercial, perhaps one or two want more information. That’s the market for video-on-demand from the marketplace.

In the end, though, we must once again face what Mr. Powell so perfectly described eight years ago and realize that the world that supports media is changing, whether we want it to or not.