Professional Journalism is its own worst enemy

Step aside son. This is a job for PROS.I’m angry.

Professional journalism will never save itself unless it gets off its pedestal. Since this is a nearly impossible human task, I have no hope that the answers to forces destroying professional journalism will ever come from inside the institution. It’s just not going to happen. We have seen the enemy, and he is us (but we can’t admit it).

I come from a unique class of television professional journalists, having worked in the industry both before and after it was taken over by corporations, corporate lawyers, shareholders, and the rules of being a profit center. I can honestly say that it was all about gathering the news before (see my 1998 essay “The Lizard on America’s Shoulder”), but it drifted to the industry of managing audience flow afterwards.

This was brought to mind this morning after reading yet another Chicken Little account of the collapse of professional journalism, and I need to point out a few things (again). “Without professional journalists,” wrote Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely for CNN.com, “who are paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest, the very health of our democracy is in peril.” This statement is absurd on two grounds. One, professional journalists aren’t paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest. They are paid to help their owners make a profit. That’s not cynical; that’s simply the truth. Two, and this is the most damaging, the people, the audience whose trust they assume, know it. Puh-leeze!

That which is important has taken a back seat to that which is easy and that which will attract, for the core mission of any business is to make money. In today’s business climate, things are really problematic, which applies even more management heat to control costs and earn more, more, more. The bottom line runs everything, and those who write stories warning of dire consequences for journalism and democracy are not examining the facts and, therefore, simply demagoging for attention. C’mon, people. Read the signs. People are sick to death of what we’re feeding them, and they’re revolting. That’s the problem, not our precious mission.

Once again, here’s the Gallup data. We’re at an all-time low in press trust. Note that the decline in press trust began in 1976, not 2000 or 2004.

Gallup trust in media 1973-present

Glaisyer and Stonbely’s piece (which you should read, BTW) concerns the FCC’s recent report on the state of the news, specifically television. That, of course, they govern, but the problem is much deeper than just TV. Moreover, the FCC report is highly biased, because the government has the deep pockets voices of the Telecom industry tickling their ears about using those public airwaves for broadband. Nevertheless, the article drones on about journalism.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the inequalities created by changes in media or the harmful effects of the loss of journalists, newsrooms, and oversight. Local communities are suffering from a vacuum of relevant local news and accountability in news coverage.

I’d argue that the opposite is true and that communities are beginning to be served as never before — from the bottom up — by people who aren’t bound by the same corporate necessities of the pros. If I lived in Lewisville, a neighboring suburb near me, I’d be VERY grateful for the work of Steve Southwell, for example. Steve’s blog, whosplayin.com, has kept the heat on a school board that needed heat and has since been largely replaced by informed voters. How were they informed? Steve. Is he a professional journalist? He makes enough money to pay for his hosting, so I guess so. Did he go to school for it? No. Does he work for a big media company? No. He simply performs, as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis and many others call “acts of journalism” that have resulted in elected officials being held accountable.

Steve’s not alone. This is taking place all across the country, mostly in small ways so far, but journalism is alive and well in the U.S. Only the fatted calves of corporate journalism are being whacked.

The Great Horizontal is responding to the Gallup numbers, because they know that we’ll never do anything about it.

The mistaken view of the replaceniks

Nobody's out to replace the pressSince even before the first blogs were launched at the end of the last century, the professional press has reacted largely from a fear that media in the hands of amateurs was some kind of direct attack on journalism — that there was some cosmic conspiracy to replace them like a worn out light bulb. This has always been to miss the forest for the trees, but the idea rages on all these years later, and the most amazing thing to those of us who’ve observed all this is how otherwise normally intelligent people can continue to perpetuate the myth. NYU professor, author, blogger and philosopher Jay Rosen calls these people “replaceniks:“The replaceniks are people who ask if new media *replaces* the old. They claim lots of us believe it will, which is bull.”

The extent to which this myth lives on is astonishing. Sunday, for example, was “The Fat Lady Has Not Sung: Why the Internet Needs the News Day” sponsored by the Association of American Editorial Cartoonist (AAEC).

Courtesy Phil Hands, Madison.comAt Madison.com, Wisconsin State Journal editorial cartoonist Phil Hands produced this cartoon and wrote: “Without newspapers there wouldn’t be a good platform for my cartoons, and without good reporting of serious news, I’d be stuck drawing cartoons about the latest YouTube video of a baby saying something cute.

But more importantly, without credible news about current events, gathered by journalists and vetted by editors, we would have an uninformed electorate and our democracy would suffer…even more.”

It’s hard to disagree with that, but here’s the thing. Nobody does, which makes the statement seem absurd to those of us who are paying attention. There’s no question the newspaper industry is in trouble, but it’s not being caused by everyday people taking up arms against them. It’s a vastly complex matter that has much more to do with the revolution in advertising on top of a troubled economy than it does the content produced by amateurs.

Courtesy, Steve Breen, San Diego Union TribuneWriting on the topic last year (Academics measure new media (again) by old-media yardstick), Steve Buttry summed up what many think:

For academics studying whether “citizen journalism” is going to “replace” traditional journalism, let me save you some time: It won’t. It’s not trying to. It shouldn’t.

Journalism is not, never has been and should not become a zero-sum game…

…The title of a report on the study by Missouri School of Journalism researchers Margaret Duffy, Esther Thorson and Mi Jahng describes the flawed premise: “Comparing Legacy News Sites with Citizen News and Blog Sites: Where’s the Best Journalism?

The two should not — and actually can not — be compared, for they are apples and oranges. Jay Rosen told me via email that the real danger of making the comparison is that it keeps people from asking the right questions, and he has some advice for all replaceniks.

Once you get rid of the image of replacement you have to start asking yourself useful questions like, “what’s different about digital?” or “what do these people who participate in social media get from it?” or “what’s really new here?” Or: “why does everything feel so disrupted?” Those are better questions than, “is this going to replace.…?” They take you farther.

There’s no question that personal media is disrupting many things in our culture today, even and perhaps especially media. The ability for people to talk to each other and back up to any hierarchical authority will change life in the West forever, but the thought that so-called “citizens media” or the tools of personal media are in it to “replace” anything is simply untrue. The role of the pro may be evolving, but it’s not going anywhere, especially away.

The diminishing power of sources

who really runs the press?The Great Horizontal is Jay Rosen’s new term for the era-shifting communications disruption that J. D. Lasica first termed the “Personal Media Revolution.” I like it. It’s the ability of everyday people to use the tools heretofore reserved only for deep pockets, whereby they can communicate back “up” to media and, of course, with themselves. So low are the costs for entry today that you’ve heard me say “everybody is a media company.”

This has, of course, brought out the worst in the journalism profession, because it is their ox that’s being gored by all of this. I’ve written many times about the arrogant presumption that “real” journalism is done only by the pros, and that this amateur “movement” is simply unreliable poppycock. The ultimate demonstration of this for me came at a gathering of media thinkers in Chicago a few years ago during which a video by NBC News anchor Brian Williams was played. He “welcomed” the group by warning of the dangers of the Great Horizontal, and he did so by referring to a blog about nasal hair. There was widespread chuckling in the room as Williams mocked the content of the blog, comparing it to the “real” stuff produced by professional journalists. I was embarrassed for Williams, although he thought he was making a valid comparison.

While journalists kick and scream, there’s something incredibly significant taking place as the hegemony of the industry is disrupted. Those who really run the news — the sources — are finding it increasingly difficult to realize the results of their manipulation. This can only be good for journalism, those who practice it, and especially for the culture itself. For too long, outsiders who know the rules have applied them to their best interests, and the result is a convoluted and confused system of ethics that serves not the industry but those who use the industry to get their way. All of that is changing — and will continue to change — as the Great Horizontal marches forward.

Whether it’s the ease of social media or the more complex local blogs, those who are getting into the game have a sense of mission-simplicity that is refreshing, passionate and oftentimes very raw. These people — like the rest of the people formerly known as the audience — view with transparency attempts to control, in any fashion, the way they think and present their thoughts.

In 1990, I was news director at KGMB-TV in Honolulu. I got a magazine (The Animals’ Agenda) in the mail from an animal rights organization that contained a section called “Activist Agenda.” This particular month’s was penned by Richard Krawiec (“a nationally-published freelance writer and author of the novel Time Sharing”). It was called “Dealing With The Media: Advice From A Journalist.” This article is a veritable “how to” of media manipulation, using the rules of objectivity and common sense. It’s smart.

Try to cultivate reporters who will take a real interest in your issues. Read local publications regularly and identify writers who cover animal topics. Keep those writers informed of your activities.

Think local. Why picket a traveling circus if there’s a terrible zoo in town?

Be visible. Cook vegetarian dinners for the homeless. Do street theater. A person dressed in a costume is inherently more interesting to the media than someone sitting at a booth. But don’t overdo the tactic to the point of looking like clowns.

Most of all, be realistic. Don’t expect the writer to produce a public relations release. Criticism is all right as long as it’s offered because you’re taken seriously.

Taken seriously. That’s the mission: to be moved from Hellin’s sphere of deviancy to the sphere of legitimate debate. It happens every day in the world of professional journalism, because people with an agenda know how the game is played. This may be what professional journalism prefers, but it’s not what journalism is really all about.

Wade Roush published an interesting article this week about the end of the embargo, another manufactured “rule” of professional journalism by which those with connections, those in the know can get the most bang for the buck out of their news releases. Embargoes come from “sources,” and Roush has never been a fan.

Frustration…has led a few organizations to attack the system. In 2008, notably, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington declared “Death to the Embargo” and said that henceforth his publication would work to undermine the system by agreeing to embargoes, then breaking them at random. They’ve done this with gusto, and Arrington’s campaign has worked. Embargo promises, at least in the business and technology space I cover, are now tissue-thin. If TechCrunch—now a division of AOL—doesn’t break the embargo on a given story, someone else emboldened by its example often will.

Ah, tech media, those scruffy newcomers to the game who don’t always (rarely?) play by traditional media’s rules. They, too, are a part of the Great Horizontal, for many — if not most — of them wouldn’t have launched had it not been for the low barriers to entry offered by technology today. After all, they invented the blog as a way to communicate online, and it runs circles around the portal method preferred by traditional media.

And blogs will continue to disrupt. The Nieman Journalism Lab offered another illustration of what’s happening with an article this week appropriately titled: A place for Homicide Watch: Can a local blog fill some of the gaps in Washington, D.C.’s crime coverage? Of course they can, and I believe that local blogs will be springing up like weeds over the next ten years as the Great Horizontal continues to move forward.

And one of the neat things about blogs and bloggers is that they don’t always play by the nice-n-neat rules of the professionals. They go straight to the street without the checks and balances that we take for granted and that we rationalize are necessary for a professional press. We’re learning that a lot of that is crap, and while I’ll admit that the chaos we face is a little disconcerting, maybe we need a little chaos to rid ourselves of a world where corporations and those with money can buy influence from the press (oh yeah) and those with smarts can manipulate their way in.

Personal publishing creating needs-based info sites

Pamela MaunsellWhen Pamela Maunsell of London faced hip replacement surgery in 2009, she did what most patients do. She turned to the Web for information. Not satisfied with what she found, Pamela launched her own site, hip-replacement-and-recovery.com. It’s currently one of the best, plain English information sites out there for information about hip replacement surgery.

I ran into Pamela via Twitter when I informed my followers that my surgery to replace my hip replacement was March 2nd. Pamela monitors a Twitter search feed for the words “hip replacement” and responds, person-to-person, whenever she finds somebody facing the surgery. Her wish is to be a blessing and a source of information and to perhaps solicit a story or two. It’s a smart practice, and one that will become increasing common as people pick up the tools of social media to do business.

Pamela told me via email that she wasn’t satisfied with the information she was given when she had her surgery, and she wants her site to change that.

I’d like them to be able to have an educated conversation with their surgeon — the sort of one where the surgeon looks at them in surprise and says “oh you know a lot about this” and then starts really explaining what’s going to happen and why they have chosen to do X and not Y. I also want to provide resources and ideas about recovery, the sort of aids you need, how to use them and where to get them, and how to do the exercises. I was just given a photocopied sheet of paper and left to get on with it. People also need help with motivation and I’m hoping our growing community will be able to offer support to each other.

This is the kind of information-sharing that is both a blessing and a threat to the medical community, who needs to keep a lock on information in the name of protecting their institution. Consequently, the sites are weak in terms of knowledge. The American Medical Association formed a separate lobbying organization in the mid 90s to make sure that medical information online was kept under the purview of professionals, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of websites from popping up with anecdotal support information, as more and more people recognize that the needs of the medical community are different than the needs of the patients. WebMD, for example, is filled with sections that offer “questions for your doctor” about your diagnosis rather than providing the answers. This is deliberate.

Pamela says it’s not only the lack of depth on the medical sites but the bias in their writing that makes them largely useless to patients.

My hip replacement came as a total shock. I went to my hospital appointment thinking I was having minor surgery. Next thing I knew I was scheduled for a ceramic-on-ceramic — uncemented hip replacement in 3 months. My surgeon was good but I didn’t even know what questions I needed to ask. I started searching around on the web and most of the information seemed to be of the “A hip replacement is an operation where they replace your hip” type. It was frustrating. The information is out there if you know where to look and are willing to spend hours Googling it up. I’d been signed off work for a month so had plenty of time.

So Pamela put it all together herself and is illustrative of a new breed of information entrepreneur that’s speaking on behalf of people who need the information, not those who benefit by keeping information to themselves.

Her average income per month is £75 (approx $150), mostly from Google ads. She’s happy with that for now, because it covers her costs. But she’s not in it for the money. “The bottom line is that if I didn’t get a single cent from the site, I’d still go on writing it.”

And we’re grateful for that.

The Web Is Our Friend

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Web Is Our Friend

We’re watching the world change before our eyes in the Middle East as everyday people are picking up the tools of new media to spread revolution against tyranny. Most of us “over here” see this as a good thing, although we fear the vacuum that might result. Good or not is an important question, because this idea that everyday people can connect so easily is at the core of everything that’s disrupting the media world today. If everybody is a media company then the media is everybody.

I’ve dedicated my life to the belief that the Web is a good thing for culture, and I teach that we’ve just begun to feel the ramifications of a genuinely hyperconnected world of human beings. I think it’s going to change everything we know, and if I had the money, I’d invest in that wager.

And so I think it’s appropriate for me, today, to take a trip back and explain why I think the Web is our friend. Insofar as Life moves us upward and onward, it’s important to know where our belief is, for only then will we be free to explore tomorrow.

The future face of news

Steve SouthwellLet me introduce you to regular guy, Steve Southwell. Well, he’s regular in the sense that he’s raising a family and works for a living. He’s also a blogger. His WhosPlayin.com blog has been around since 2005. In the continuing debate over whether bloggers are journalists, Southwell stands at the cutting edge. Without formal training in journalism or “credentials” from anywhere, Southwell is keeping an eye on government in the Dallas/Fort Worth suburb of Lewisville, Texas and serving the public trust in ways that today’s “real” journalists don’t. He is a textbook example (if there are any) of what it means to be a “citizen journalist,” and he could show those who have the invisible badge a thing or two.

A year ago, the Lewisville School board passed new rules — clearly designed to hamper Southwell’s efforts — stating that school district officials may turn down an interview request “if official press credentials are not presented or available.” This came on the heels of a Southwell investigation into the practice of allowing youth pastors from local evangelical churches to hobnob with students during the lunch period. He had asked three principals for interviews, and received the same email from each within 5 minutes of each other: “We follow district guidelines.”

Undeterred, Southwell has studied the laws and probably knows more about open records’ statues that any reporter in the metro area. He’s even filed an open records request for open records requests, just to see who was asking for what.

He videotapes government meetings and makes them available to anyone.

Then there was the case of a freshman city councilman who voted on a property tax law but wasn’t paying the property taxes for which the law was intended. This resulted in a confrontation, a story, and a public humiliation for the elected official.

Since Southwell began his work on local government, three of the seven school board members have been ousted in elections, and the guy is becoming a force to be reckoned with in Lewisville politics.

Southwell spoke at my class at the University of North Texas last night and said he got into becoming an activist with the Iraq War, with which he disagreed. I found him smart, driven and extremely knowledgeable about his rights. After a stint helping politicians, he moved to local government, because nobody was watching it. Since my class is an ethics class, we were most interested to hear how he understands and practices the basics of journalistic ethics of thoroughly doing the investigative work, presenting all sides fairly, and not blindsiding anybody. He makes the tough calls and does the deal, and I defy anybody to tell me this guy isn’t practicing journalism. In fact, he’s actually doing the work of the Fourth Estate that the so-called “real” press has given up on in favor of Chilean miner stories and Paris Hilton drug use.

The journalism world today could learn from Steve Southwell, but they won’t. He represents the new journalism, investigated and written by people with a passion for keeping an eye on things locally. He has two boys in the Lewisville School District, so he’s concerned with the way things are run.

To the mainstream press, however, Southwell has no right to be doing what he’s doing. He is, after, just a regular guy.