Journalism's New Values

November 14, 2008

Time is the new currency"Time is the new currency," Bob Jeffrey, CEO of J. Walter Thompson, noted in 2004, and it's no wonder. The amount of leisure time the average working American has is much less than that of previous generations. According to Roper, the average American worker had 26 hours of leisure time per week in 1973. By 2003, that was down to 19 hours. Less leisure time means we either need to pack more into it or find ways to cut the time that used to be required for specific tasks. This includes how and when we catch up with the latest news, weather and sports.

It's why people love their DVRs. Skipping the ads isn't so much about their lack of appeal as it is about how the ads waste time. Who needs the extra hour of prime time that's dedicated to ads? That's right. You thought prime time was three hours? In terms of actual programming, it's really only two.

Norman Rockwell's famous Thanksgiving paintingThis business of time is one of the great cultural drivers of the postmodern, post-colonial world, and it impacts nearly everything — from relationships to eating. We may wax nostalgic for the Rockwellian family meal, but with every person in the house stretched for time, it's tough to make it a priority. If it isn't homework, it's soccer practice. If it's not the part time job, it's the dance class. If it isn't the overtime, it's the dash to the grocery store.

Our drive for more has come with a price, and that price is time.

The networked world in which we find ourselves is also a fruit of fewer hours in the day. I often hear, "Who has time for all that social web stuff?" but the truth is it's a lot less time-consuming to interact online, assuming socializing is on your regular agenda, than it is to attend gatherings that can actually be much less intimate.

To be sure, there are those who find deep problems with all of this. They are the cautious naysayers of the world, those who would have us all go back to simpler times. They feel strongly that we're all marching down a path to destruction in a licentious world gone mad with lust for more, more, more. They may be right, or it may just be fear of the unknown. The human mind's ability to access knowledge through the machine we call the Web is the world's second Gutenberg moment, and those who found comfort in the church in 15th Century Europe felt the same way back then. We've only just begun to explore what life will be like in a truly networked universe.

For journalism, this is truly a turning point. The hierarchical, colonialist "media" days are being replaced by what Jeff Jarvis and others are terming a "postmedia" world. Media is one-direction, from the source to the mass. Postmedia is a two-way street, and with it comes the need for new values that all journalists need to adopt. The authority of journalists can no longer be assumed, nor can the public trust. Like all one-way institutions, journalism has morphed into that which is self-serving, something a networked culture must reject. It's true that the rejection has been building for many years, but the growth of the machine has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored.

Values determine the identity of organizations and people, and the sacred canons of journalist ethics themselves are badly in need of a makeover. Created to help guide us, they have produced a laughable caricature of themselves, for the people formerly known as the audience no longer believe our mission. Is that their fault? I don't think so.

And so we find ourselves in need of a course correct, if we are to remain relevant in the postmedia world.

Michael Smith heads the Media Management Center at Northwestern and speaks of a new set of values for journalism. What's interesting is that Smith equates these values to doing business, which is unlike the values that have driven journalism in the past. I find this strikingly honest, because "professional" journalism really has always been about business. For all the squawking about journalism needing protection from the bottom line, Walter Lippmann, the father of professional journalism, was very much driven by business. Moving the practice from one that's restricted to a detached newsroom to one that's actually seen as a business is a step forward.

In addition to the defining new norms for the internal newsroom culture, including who and what we celebrate, Smith says there are three values that we all must adopt.

"Speed is number one," he told me in an interview. "Within 3 minutes of something happening, it has to be on the web." He acknowledges that speed doesn’t mean recklessness, and that’s where training and the restraint of an professional internal governor come in.

"Transparency is number two," he continued. "There's so much information out there and such great suspicions about the media and their motivations, that the more transparent you can be, the greater the likelihood the audience will be accepting."

"Number three is authenticity," Smith added. "That means trying to connect the end user — as well as you can — with the original source of information and getting the filters out of the way.

All of these fit nicely into meeting the news and information needs of people with the condundrum of less time on their hands, and they all work together. As much as we'd like for people to sit through the depth of our labor — and as much as we may think that's necessary for the good of our culture — it simply isn't a part of the networked, postmodern, postmedia world. The assumption that the collection of our daily efforts places us on any form of hierarchical pedestal is very dangerous, for people are infinitely capable of figuring things out for themselves, given the above-stated values.

Speed obviously addresses this, but speed without transparency and authenticity is just rocketship on its way to nowhere. We can be so transparent about ourselves that people feel we're kin, but what good is it, if the information we provide isn't timely and authentic? And we can deliver the mayor's news conference live and unfiltered, so that people can judge for themselves, but this disrespects the not-so-small matter of time.

Howard Rosenberg and Charles S. FeldmanThe speed with which information can be — and is being — transmitted these days is, not surprisingly, a source of pain for traditional journalists. Investigative reporter Charles S. Feldman and Howard Rosenberg, media columnist and former critic for the Los Angeles Times have written a new book that blames most of what's wrong in media (and, by proxy, culture) on the media's obsession with speed. They argue in No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle that the level of inaccuracy and garbage in the press rises each time we go through another cycle of incremental speed increases, and much of their ire is aimed at the blogosphere.

In an interview with CondeNast's (ironically, on Jeff Bercovici's blog), the two authors complained about everything from blogs to cable news channels, but they make the case nicely that a solution is transparency. The two rightly discern that nobody's going back to the good old days, so they point to education as the solution. We need to be teaching children at a very early age about media, they suggest, and make a comparison with nutritional labeling.

(Feldman)If the audience, if the viewer has a better sense of how the product is put together, what it's made of, where the biases are, what the hidden agendas are likely to be, they're still free to participate in it, but at least they have a fighting chance of understanding what they're looking at.

So these three values — speed, transparency and authenticity — work together to provide a check and balance system, which can be used to help us meet the news and information needs of busy people, and hopefully regain a measure of trust that we so badly need today.

In a blog post earlier this year, Jarvis wrote that "The first level of transparency in your dealings with the public is identity."

I hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. The goal of the press is transparency. We want to shine sunlight on the powerful in public.

2. The press must be transparent. Not to be transparent is to be hypocritical. Opaqueness is not an act of trust.

3. Public means public. When something happens in the public, whether it is seen and heard by one person or by 100, it can now be seen and heard by the world thanks to any one of those witnesses. That’s what public means.

In the traditional world of media, personal transparency was anathema to the goal of maintaining an image of detachment and authority. This need to separate ourselves from the public we were serving is really what brought us down, and the evidence is in the decades old shrinking trust level demonstrated in research by the Gallup organization. People don't trust institutions anymore, and especially if they suspect a hint of self-serving in their behavior.

Two years ago, Wired editor Chris Anderson, posted six ideas about transparency that serve as a great starting point for any journalistic organization that wishes to implement the idea.

1) Show who we are. All staff edit their own personal "about" pages, giving bios, contact details and job functions. [e.g. -ED] Encourage anyone who wants to blog to do so. Have a masthead that actually means something to people who aren’t on it. While we’re at it, how about a real org chart, revealing the second dimension that’s purposely obscured in the linear ranking on a traditional masthead?

2) Show what we’re working on. We already have internal wikis that are common scratch pads for teams working on projects. And most writers have their own thread-gathering processes, often online. Why no open them to all? Who knows, perhaps other people will have good ideas, too.

3) "Process as Content". Why not share the reporting as it happens, uploading the text of each interview as soon as you can get it processed by your flat-world transcription service in India? . . . After you’ve woven together enough of the threads to have a semi-coherent draft, why not ask your readers to help edit it?

4) Privilege the crowd. Why not give comments equal status to the story they’re commenting on? Why not publish all letters to the editor as they’re submitted (we did that here), and let the readers vote on which are the best? We could promise to publish the top five each month, whether we like them or not: "Harness our tools of production! Make us print your words! Voting is Power!"

5) Let readers decide what’s best. We own Reddit, which (among other things) is a terrific way of measuring popularity. Why should we guess at which stories will be most popular and give those preferential treatment? Why not just measure what people really think and let statistics determine the hierarchy of the front page?

6) Wikifiy everything. The realities of publishing is that at some point you push the publish button. In the traditional world, that’s the end of the story. It is a snapshot in time, as good as we could make it but inevitably imperfect. The errors (and all articles have them) are a mix of commission and omission—we hope for the best yet brace ourselves for the worst. But what if we published every story on a wiki platform, so they could evolve over time, just like Wikipedia itself?

Authenticity is a little more difficult to grasp, much less implement into the workflow of day-to-day news presentation. It includes such common sense practices as verifying the validity of both the source and content integrity of a document and being honest, real and genuine. In many ways, the more transparent you are, the greater the authenticity of your work.

There are many useful definitions of the word that will help us build our authenticity as a news organization.

  • Wikipedia: Authenticity refers to the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.

  • Princeton wordnet: genuineness, legitimacy (undisputed credibility)

  • Wiktionary: The quality of being authentic or of established authority for truth and correctness; Genuineness; the quality of being genuine or not corrupted from the original; truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, and intentions; not a copy or forgery

  • Authenticity typically means the integrity and trustworthiness of data or an entity.

The idea of genuineness is what's so compelling about authenticity, and that requires being close to the action and delivering that action without the filters inherent in the gatekeeper concept of news. Technology and the cable nets have made live coverage commonplace, and people bring a certain expectation of that to news on the Web as well.

Tim Porter, long time newspaper writer, blogger and author of the new book News, Improved: How America's Newsrooms Are Learning to Change, sees another great benefit to authenticity and being our genuine selves in covering the news. "Somehow over the decades," he wrote, "somehow in the march toward bland professionalism (even at the smallest of papers) we drove the fun out of journalism - both for our readers and for ourselves."

Few professions are as obsessively self-absorbed yet so stubbornly averse to honest self-criticism as the news media. This combination produces plethora of blather about the press, journalism and the future of all things media (to which I confess to contributing.)

This is why authentic voices of journalism ring so true. They emanate from people who care about news, care about community and care about finding - or preserving - the journalistic means to connect them.

Deborah Galant speaks in that kind of voice in her essay on Pressthink about the founding and flourishing of Barista, the hyper-local, blog-powered community news operation she started in Montclair, N.J., where she lives. Galant, a former non-staff columnist for the New York Times, writes about the joy of local journalism, of news writ small but smack-full of personality.

At AR&D client station KTBS-TV, Anchor Sherri Talley struck authenticity gold when two hurricanes went through East Texas earlier this year. She turned a web cam on herself at her desk, and offered chat software to concerned people via the Web. Hundreds of people tuned in to what was a raw, unedited version of an ongoing news story. She made phone calls and invited guests to join her, including those staffers who normally worked only behind-the-scenes. It was strangely compelling, and its genuineness was one of the reasons.

Speed, transparency and authenticity are but the most visible of the new values of journalism in a postmedia world. People without a lot of time still need the news, but they want it quickly, from people they know and trust, and in a form that is demonstrably authentic.

We do well when we give it to them, but let's also remember the lesson of the first Gutenberg moment. For all the complaining from the clergy in Rome at the time, the printing press didn't destroy the church, only its absolute authority. There will always be a need for other forms of journalism, especially investigative work. Changes of this magnitude are rarely "all or nothing" things, although it may seem like it at the moment.

The new values of journalism don't replace the old, therefore. They merely modify the course.