Pro Journalism’s Erroneous Assumption

By now you’ve probably heard the story of two recent Pulitzer Prize winners who had already left “the industry” for jobs in either public relations or academia. The story brought out the usual suspects saying the usual things about how that damned Internet has robbed the newspaper industry, the result being a great loss to citizens of the U.S.A. The latest is from the Washington Post: Why the PR industry is sucking up Pulitzer winners.

FT_Salary_GapThe piece says it’s all about money and displays a PEW graphic showing the disparity between journalists and PR. Then, it drifts into the cause, which author Jim Tankersley describes as “a free rider problem – if no one pays, eventually the service shuts down – and it’s a different sort of economic disruption that (sic) the ones cause (sic) by other American industries that have shriveled or disappeared or migrated in recent decades.”

When, for example, a corner grocery in Michigan is driven out of business by a big chain based in Arkansas, the people in Michigan still have somewhere to shop. If regional news outlets die, who will dig up corruption by their local lawmakers? Start-up news organizations across the country are trying, but they’re largely struggling to find a for-profit model that works.

It’s fair to ask, in the midst of this, how smaller newsrooms still do so much valuable journalism — and whether they should. As newsrooms shrink, the sort of deep project reporting that often wins Pulitzers has become “harder to justify economically,” Bhatia (former Oregonian editor, Peter Bhatia) said. But it must continue, he added, for business reasons, not just accolades: “It reminds the community of the essential role that ‘traditional media’ plays where people live.”

And there we have it, the sob story of how valuable “the old way” was and is to communities. This is not a fact, at least not anymore; it’s an assumption that is not supported by current data. Public trust in “the press” is at an all-time low. Only 1 in 5 people tell Gallup that they have any trust in the press whatsoever. So all this tearful nonsense about Pulitzers and “shoe leather” and “holding the powerful accountable” is just hyperbole used to defend the indefensible.

Moreover, PR today is another changing animal. Businesses and industries are learning that the best way to get THEIR stories out is through real stories. This is due to the growing education of the public through experience provided by life in a networked world. Attraction, not promotion, is the new paradigm, and this requires people who can write beautiful stories, not “cover” blood and guts.

As Lisa Williams wrote in 2008, journalism will survive the death of its institutions. Professional journalists, however, likely won’t be a part of it, unless they can step off this relentlessly drum-beating high horse.

UPDATE: Independent Contractors for Media

I’ve been writing about the inevitability of media companies moving to independent contractors for over a decade, and the signs continue to point in that direction. As revenues slow, cost-cutting becomes the only way to maintain margins, and the one-to-many need to wrap employees into one super brand will become less important in the profit-driven minds of managers. Besides, the Net — which is where everything’s going — is more receptive to personal brands than those of industry. So-called “social” media is where you’ll find the people formerly known as the audience, and big brands don’t belong there.

INSEAD’s Knowledge blog uses the Dutch model to make the statement: The Future for Labour Is Self-Employment, validating the ideas expressed in an essay that I published five years ago.

nonemployerIn 2005, we crossed a milestone in this country when the number of people self-employed went over 20 million. Data from the Small Business Administration put that figure over 21 million in the latest year for which the information was reported, 2008. By now, we expect that number is approaching 23 million, as more and more people — especially older people — set up eBay stores or find other ways to support themselves and their families online. These people are well-educated in the ways of the Web and don’t spend their marketing money in traditional ways. This figure bears watching, for while they live and work in our communities and neighborhoods, the money they earn comes from everywhere. They are a part of a new subset of our economy, and…it’s actually growing.

The economy is better than it was in 2008, and much of that has been due to the continued rise of self-employment. A Business Week article in 2011 put the number at 40 million and offered the advice that “To boost the economy, help the self-employed.” As an optimist, I believe this is an issue that Congress will have to address sooner than later. The article notes “By 2019, the self-employed will account for 40 percent of all American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” How can such a staggering number not include reporters, photographers and other practitioners of “the news” downstream?

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics article  published last year offers the below graph. Note that writers and photographers are already two careers with high self-employment rates.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.18.49 AM

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

Ateamsm“I pity the fool” is my favorite saying from the A-Team, the 80’s NBC drama/comedy featuring a team of actors with terrific chemistry. That line is from Mr. T, but the title line comes from the leader of the A-Team, actor George Peppard. It’s tongue-in-cheek, or sorts, because it was always used after something went terribly wrong, but the group ended up winning after all. I’m referencing it here today, because I want to share a couple of recent illustrations about my own prophecies from years past.

We’re at the dawn of the postmodern era, the age of participation (See my October 2003 essay, Participatory Journalism). While my industry, local TV, found my words fascinating, none of it made sense to them. I kept studying, analyzing and writing, but wherever I went to speak, people I was desperate to reach simply couldn’t grasp the concepts. Today, however, I can see things I predicted coming to pass, which both encourages me and makes me sad. “If only” is a phrase with much sorrow for someone who cares.

I live in Huntsville, Alabama, and while I once was the news director at WAAY-TV, my favorite TV news source is WHNT/News19. We got 8 inches of snow Wednesday and Wednesday night, so Thursday, the entire community was shut down. It was a very special snow day for families across the Tennessee Valley, and WHNT-TV led their evening news with clips and photos sent to them by average people (and some REALLY talented). In truth, the programs were filled with such stuff, so the reality was that everyday people produced the news that was on the TV station. This is what I’ve meant by the “Age of Participation.” Everybody is a media company today. Every. Body. And Jay Rosen’s “Great Horizontal” is pumping out content every hour of every day. What was “the news” yesterday here in Huntsville? Grown-ups and kids playing in the snow. The sun came out. It got up to 42 degrees. Roads cleared quickly. And through it all, everybody (well, nearly everybody) had the day off.

the dress

Then, there’s the story being featured nearly everywhere of “the dress” that’s gone viral. What color is it anyway? Is it blue and black or is it white and gold? It began as a question posed by the everyday owner of the dress on Tumblr and spread like wildfire after a Scottish entertainer passed it along. Even major celebrities got in on the act, people like Taylor Swift and, of course, Kim Kardashian. The mystery was solved by another everyday guy who simply tilted the screen of his laptop back and forth. Science then got in on the act, with Wired calling it an optical illusion.

The point is that “the news” is increasingly created and reported by you and me. Meanwhile, the debate over “real” journalism marches on, something I would suggest is a pretty serious waste of time. I mean, what IS “real journalism” anyway? The professionalization of the press is less than a hundred years old, and it has led to the cultural mess we have today, because “the pros” covet celebrity (I mean, CBS led the friggin’ Evening News with Bob Simon’s death — led the news with it! Really!).

We’ve lost our way, folks, but I trust the people to eventually find a way to keep each other informed about what’s important. The only issue is access, but that, too, has become a part of the Age of Participation.

The people formerly known as “the audience” are a whole lot smarter than we ever thought.

Fox News: A Most Dangerous Cancer

For years, I have quietly criticized Fox News for their deliberate pressing of the agenda of the Right. Today, I’m prepared to publicly and loudly call Fox News THE most dangerous cancer on Western Civilization and perhaps the whole world. I believe deeply that all of my conservative friends need to examine the matter and their own hearts. You don’t realize what’s happening, perhaps because you believe their propaganda, but more likely because you simply trust they are speaking for you. You support the Right. They are the mouthpiece of the Right. Fair enough.

I believe in point-of-view journalism. I produced The 700 Club in the early 80s, so I’m familiar with slanted news. It’s okay, but your bias must be stated up front. Fox doesn’t do this, and the problem I have is the degree the disinformation has reached, whether it’s deliberate or not.

Last night, Shep Smith described the video of the Jordanian pilot being murdered. The banner beneath him said “Islamic State Execution.” This is a deliberate, inaccurate and highly inflammatory phrase, and it comes from an ignorance so profound that it’s really difficult to comprehend. I don’t care what name this organized crime group goes by, to repeat the phrase “Islamic State” requires a person or organization with so little knowledge of history, the Islamic faith, and contemporary manipulation that it truly boggles the mind.

Moreover, here’s a quote from Bret Briar during his dinner-hour “special” report: “Tonight, we are going to show you some of the images ISIS has put out. The images are brutal. They are graphic. They are upsetting. You may want to turn away. You may want to have the children leave the room. Right now. But the reason we are showing you this is to bring you the reality of Islamic terrorism. And to label it as such. We feel you need to see it.”

Again, these criminals, as the King of Jordan said earlier this week, are NOT Islamic, so their deeds CAN NOT be described as “Islamic terrorism.” They cannot be, people! And again, this is ignorance gone to seed. I refuse to believe that it’s deliberate, for if it is, it’s a conspiracy so deep and widespread as to defy anybody’s logic OR common sense. I have family in Jordan that believes otherwise, so I have to keep an open mind.

But here’s why I think Fox News is a dangerous cancer: If this continues, we will find ourselves plunged into World War III in the place where war originated, and how do you think that’s going to go?

Fox News is war mongering, and I despise it.

Scrambling in Boston: Welcome to the 21st Century

I’ve been struck by many things in observing the professional observers deal with the amateurs in the new world of networked journalism today in Boston. I’ve got to say that none of this surprises me, neither the positive — next door neighbors live-tweeting events — nor the negative — bad information virtually everywhere.

The always astute Dave Winer tweeted this a little while ago:

 

As I first wrote long ago, we’ve entered the age of postmodernism, the working infrastructure and hierarchies of which are still be woven in the womb of time.

Premodernism: “I believe, therefore I understand.”

Modernism: “I think, therefore I understand.”

Postmodernism: “I participate, therefore I understand.”

I couldn’t have said it better than Dave. And here’s the thing we all have to understand. Those people who wish — no, must — participate or involve themselves, really aren’t as dumb as the curmudgeons would have us or themselves believe. Newsgathering has never been neat or precise. It’s chaotic, but there is a sense of order to it, as journalists execute their search for truth. Think of casting an enormous net around information and cinching it tighter and tighter, as we get closer to our goal. In my 28-year career in news management, I witnessed some real whoppers of mistakes that never made it to air, because we had the luxury of a downstream production deadline. In a crisis, Twitter becomes a listening post for media instead of a broadcast tool, and listening is a new skill that media must acquire.

Some of the stuff that the pros deem violations of the sacred canons when dealing with networked news gathering may, in fact, be necessary evils of the new world. While we sort all that out, it would be incredibly useful (and refreshing) if we stopped taking for granted what’s become the new eyes and ears of information gathering just because they don’t play by the rules that govern the behavior of the few.

As Dave said, “People want to be involved.” Like it or not, they already are.

The future of journalism is independent contractors

Dad's new master bedroom

Dad’s new master bedroom

I recently finished a small remodeling project at my house, and I learned something that validates a suspicion I have about the future of work and specifically those who work in journalism.

I turned a bedroom/bathroom combination into a second master bedroom, because my 90-year old father-in-law is coming to live with us. I wanted to give the old guy some privacy, and putting the bathroom “inside” his space did the trick. The guys who built it were independent contractors who were paid by the contractor I hired. Sears delivered dad’s new mattress and box spring, and the deliverymen, while wearing Sears shirts, were independent contractors paid by Sears. Empire Carpets came out and installed hardwood flooring. The two guys who did the work were independent contractors paid by Empire to install carpets, tile and hardwoods.

I spoke with each of these people about working as independent contractors instead of employees, and while they all bemoaned the lack of benefits, they all said that working for themselves had some advantages, especially when it came to taxes.

Clearly the business world is moving in the direction of independent contractors, and I’ve been writing for ten years that this will one day be the model for media companies. In the beginning, it will likely come about as a cost savings, but in the end, I think it’ll also be a part of acknowledging the growth of what J. D. Lasica first termed the “personal media revolution” in his 2005 book “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.”

Right now, in every community in the U.S., there are people practicing a form of journalism who aren’t employed by traditional journalism companies. Athletes, actors, retired journalists and TV people, elected officials, municipalities, police and fire departments, writers, moms, dads, students and many others are self-publishing content worthy of consideration as “news,” and tomorrow’s news organization will aggregate all of it. And if news becomes a matter of aggregating, then it makes sense for those who are currently “employed” to work for themselves and the highest bidder. This could upend the entire local media farm system, which finds young people just passing through small markets on their way to jobs in bigger markets. Smaller markets will be home to those who wish to live there, and I feel that would be quite a good thing for journalism.

Forbes is already practicing a form of this, as is the Huffington Post. Don’t be surprised when local media companies begin to move in this direction.