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Is journalism as we know it becoming obsolete?

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There have been plenty of obituaries written for the newspaper business, most of which have a kernel of truth to them — but is journalism as we know it at risk as well? Dave Winer, a programming guru and visiting scholar at the New York University school of journalism, says it is. In a blog post on Friday, Winer argued that “journalism itself is becoming obsolete” because now anyone can do it. Is he right? In some ways, yes. One thing is for sure: Journalism is being transformed by the web and by real-time publishing networks and what Om calls the “democracy of distribution.” Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view.

Winer’s post was actually about the recent kerfuffle over TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington’s launch of a venture-capital fund, a topic that has received more than enough coverage already elsewhere. But in the process of talking about that issue — and how Arrington has never made any claims to be a journalist — Winer said that as far as he is concerned, journalism as we know it is becoming obsolete, in part because non-journalists can do it just as easily as journalists can. The bottom line, he says, is that journalism itself was “a response to publishing being expensive.”

It cost a lot of money to push bits around the net before there was a net. They had to have huge capital-intensive printing plants, fleets of trucks and delivery boys with paper routes. Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It’s still early days for this… but in a generation or two we won’t be employing people to gather news for us. It’ll work differently.

If it’s important, the news will find me

Winer is certainly right about the fact that the way we consume “news,” and even where that news comes from, has changed dramatically in just the last few years. For many people, as we’ve described before at GigaOM, news now comes from their social graph via Facebook, or through a Twitter stream — possibly read in a news-curation app like Flipboard or Zite, (s twx) or through an aggregator like Techmeme or Memeorandum, which collects news hits published on blogs by people who may or may not even see themselves as journalists.

But is it right to say that journalism was a response to the fact that publishing was expensive? Not really. Newspapers and their whole business model, which involved becoming a mass medium in order to aggregate eyeballs and then sell them to advertisers, was a response to publishing being expensive. And many of the things that are most criticized about the newspaper approach to journalism — including what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” and the omniscient tone that many journalists take — are definitely an outgrowth of that model.

But none of those things are really journalism, which is why media theorist Clay Shirky says that rather than focus on saving newspapers, he would prefer to focus on saving journalism. And what is journalism? Everyone has their own definition, but I think it’s fundamentally about a spirit of inquiry, of curiosity, of wanting to make sense of things. It’s something like the spirit of scientific inquiry, as Matt Thompson noted recently in a post at the Poynter Institute. It has very little to do with specific tools or specific methods of publishing.

Random acts of journalism

Winer is right about journalism changing because anyone can do it, however, as we’ve also described a number of times. That trend, which has turned sources of news into publishers (allowing them to “go direct” as Winer likes to say) began with blogs and has continued with Twitter and Facebook and other tools. Andy Carvin, who has become a one-man newswire by curating news about the Arab Spring on Twitter, says he prefers to think of journalism as an act rather than a profession. So people like Sohaib Athar, a Pakistan resident who live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden as it was happening, engaged in what Carvin calls a “random act of journalism.”

Instead of saying journalism is obsolete, I would rather say it as evolving and expanding — and I happen to believe that’s a good thing. What does it consist of now? Most of the things it used to, as well as some new ones: building connections with your reader community is a journalistic skill, and curation of the type Carvin does (and the NYT (s nyt) is experimenting with via its @NYTlive Twitter account) certainly is. And we still need people to confirm facts and ferret out misinformation when news is breaking, which is what makes Snopes one of my favorite non-journalistic journalism sites.

We need people who can interview other people and make sense of what they say — which is why Reddit has some aspects of journalism to it, and Quora does too (Winer recently asked why a newspaper like the New York Times hasn’t adopted an approach like Quora). All these skills and more are required — and the ability to aggregate things in a smart way, and the ability to understand and make sense of large amounts of data.

Will journalism as a whole suffer because some people engage in conflicts of interest or abuse anonymous sources or break any of the other so-called rules of journalism? Not really. Most of the popular newspapers and media outlets of the last 50 years have done all that and worse (yes, even worse than News Corp.’s (s nws) phone hacking). Newspapers may come and go and bloggers may rise and fall, but journalism continues — not so much as an institution, but as a state of mind and a series of beliefs, and a way of behaving. There are just more ways to do it now, rightly or wrongly.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users ShironekoEuro and Zarko Drincic

32 Responses to “Is journalism as we know it becoming obsolete?”

  1. Once again, those who argues that anybody can do what journalists can do, are forgetting one simple thing: the payment. Yes, anybody can write a blog post, or a thousand. Yes, anybody can cover a fire on its corner street.

    But could anybody do a two years inquiry on shale gas, as the journalists of Pro Publica have done it? Nope. Unless, of course, they are paid. The more you are saying that “anybody can do it”, the more you are giving a free ride to editors who are paying more and more badly their freelance journalists, and the more you are depreciating the value of real, socially useful, information. (that doesn’t include the majority of “movie stars” magazines).

  2. Markzware

    Journalism is not dead, it is actually more alive then ever! Yes, it may have to move a bit faster on one hand, but has the same core need on the other.

    First, journalist can do what they always have done. Report. Second, now they have this awesome set of assets called bloggers, Twitter addicts and FaceBook users. Yet the general population cannot verify if @BigDogInTown is accurate in their reports or not. True journalism could.

  3. The bottom line is change. You just have to see it or you will look up and everything you once known has changed from the way we use to no it. Take the 8 track to the tape to the CD now music is easily ready on your phone or you can now plug your phone into the car. What about the people that worked just with tapes. Some didn’t embrace the change and many went out of business. I don’t think journalism is dead, its just changing and you will have to find your platform. Yes, anyone can do it. Content and context will still be valuable no matter what forum you use. Why would I ever buy a newspaper when I can look it up on my phone?

  4. Lee Hayhurst

    I do a fair bit of gardening, not a lot, but I’ve got a biggish garden so someone has to. Does that make me a citizen gardener? Am I at risk of putting my neighbour’s landscape gardening business under? No, of course not. Journalism is like being a politician or a football manager. Much of what you do (your output) is put up for public scrutiny every time you do it, therefore, people always think they can do it better without ever really trying. There are plenty of critics out there. And yes lots of people can write sentences, can tell a story, can ask other people what they think and then report that fairly and accurately or these days record things on their iPhones or update Twitter feeds, some non-journalists can even do shorthand but they choose to do other [paid] jobs for most of the time, so tend to leave that work to the journalists who chose their profession. Journalists aren’t failing in their work just because they seek to report from the middle ground. At the end of the day it’s the very idea that someone who hasn’t taken a particular side but is reporting the words of people who have and is putting both sides of the argument fairly that makes some of the best sort of journalism. Citizen journalists are usually motivated to use their precious spare time through some sort of issue they have and want to pursue. That makes them a valuable source of material for real journalists, not an alternative.

  5. spot on. And I’m a journalist. With blogging there are also no standards of accuracy (or morality, ethics, etc.) Journalists take their work serious, we check our facts, we check the spelling of names, and we do original reporting. The barriers to calling oneself a journalist may be low, but it’s more than a name and it’s more than an act. It’s a profession and for some, even a calling.

  6. Well. Like any other media, journalism is evolving to new grounds.The pleasure of holding and smelling the fresh print of a newspaper is still there within anyone reach, so journalism as we know it is not obsolete. Its evolution embraces what the virtual and the real world together are asking for, revolving itself like a ballerina onstage to keep up with the changes of an already changed world. The web, Google plus, Internet are changing the way we percieve the news, twitter and Facebook have helped the African’s people revolution. So why journalism would have to stay stiff and idle while other media are changing? A great example is the show (hangout) that Sarah Hill is creating on Google Plus. She interacts with people from all over the planet showing their comments and faces on a live stream as she broadcasts the new. This is really the new frontier of television as we know it. Anyone can virtually participate to the show actively with his news from the spot of the world he happens to be. This is the real revolution we all wanted to see, and if it means to put aside the journalism as “obsolete” we can give it a try.

  7. Listen, just because most people can drive a car, it doesn’t mean they are a professional race car driver. And reality TV is not the same as 60-minutes.

    I fail to understand how someone with the same tools as a professional, could be considered at the same skill level or with the same authority. I also fail to understand how people can be confused about what real journalism is.

    In my mind, journalism is a culmination of traits, training, ethics, rules and guidelines. Going to your local Best Buy and stumbling across a future ad for an iPhone 5 and then writing about it, doesn’t make you a journalist. And that seems to be the extent to what most of these online sites are doing.

    “Real” journalists are supposed to do research, interview sources and provide non-bias information to the reader. You don’t report that one day one thing is true and the next day your previous story is false. You get it right the first time because you did your diligence. Half of these blogs out there contradict themselves on a daily basis.

    “Real journalists” follow a code of ethics, which in the case of Arrington, and Om Malik, means you do not write about companies you invest in. You do not have personal gain by covering the companies you write about.

    Journalism isn’t dead, it’s very much alive. The system needs to stop providing a platform for amateurs to use that confuses the public population into believing that anything they read is true – and credible.

  8. It’s mostly dead because “journalists” are agenda driven and they do not seek the truth. If they worked to seek the truth, then their agendas would be undermined – so they are stuck and people don’t trust them.

    This is why we have a nothingness and a lot of airheads who end up saying nothing.

    Part of this goes back to political correctness and other left wing “requirements”. We are all taught to tolerate bad behaviors and to not judge. So much so that it becomes impossible to learn anything new. Reason requires a discriminating mind and we’re taught to not discriminate!

    Today’s “journalism” is a symptom of bigger problems and the current dominant system should fail.

    Thomas Sowell has been talking about it for a while in terms of “objectivity” vs “neutrality”:

  9. Ask anyone who has ever worked on a newspaper, or for a radio or television station about “reader generated content.” They will roll their eyes and tell you 99.99 per cent of it is crap. Winer should stick to technology. When it comes to journalism he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    • The true role of anyone who want’s to wear the badge of ‘journalist’ should be to inform.To gather and disseminate accurate and straight forward facts about anything that a person could or should know about. Therefore I would have to say that journalism has in fact been molding in the grave for many years now.

  10. Brian Robinson

    Winer and others like him have always had a very parochial take on journalism. Take a look around the world and you’ll see that, unlike in the fat and happy land of America, journalists of the “old” school are out there digging for the truth, printing (in which ever way that means) their stories, and a lot of them are dying for it. In those places journalism still means something, and can be a dangerous profession. So, for the sake of those hardy souls, let’s be a little more expansive about “journalism” shall we?

    Even in the U.S., journalists of the old school are still doing a job and trying to make themselves heard. It’s just really tough with the cacophony of opinion “journalism” that seems to have taken over these days to get themselves noticed.

    So, is journalism dying? Hell no, and in situations where journalism really matters still it’s a noble profession — I’ll even use that word. It will change, no doubt, but there will always be a place for the wretches, even if they will no longer be ink-stained.

  11. Jonathan Andrew Sheen

    It’s interesting to me, and very telling, that wordbeeps, in giving his example of why Journalists are necessary, had to go back to 1972. That was the “good old days,” when Journalism “worked.”

    I submit that that’s largely no longer the case. As “Mainstream” Journalism is increasingly owned by large corporations with a greater and greater interest in moving social policy in the service of profits, the fundamental conflict of interest faced by every reporter gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and the actual journalism practiced by these outlets gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

    Most Journalism these days seems to consist of either verbatim quotes of press releases, with no further reporting or investigation, and re-presentation of the output of other news sources, again without further reporting or investigation.

    Press-Release aqs Journalism? A few months ago, one of the better TV News stations in the Boston market teased a “story” on its morning newscast about a tool to help parents of teen drivers stay safe. After three teases, the story: The announcement of a smartphone app parents could install on their teenager’s phone, which uses the phone’s GPS to prevent them from texting if they’re moving at over 15 miles per hour. Read straight from the press release. Now, think a moment: In a nation where Amber Alerts are common, would it be good for a teenager stuffed unceremoniously in the trunk of a car to be able to communicate with the outside world silently? Are issues like the possibility that someone moving at over 15 miles an hour may not only be safely able to text, as they aren’t operating the vehicle, but may actually need to to safeguard someone’s well-being, worthy of consideration? I think so, and I’d expect a reporter, handed a press release, to think enough about it to come up with similar, and maybe even better questions. What had previously been the crown jewel of Boston’s television journalism didn’t.

    Re-presenting work of other news outlets? A few months ago, a popular young English actress, who had been going to school at an American University, announced that she was taking a semester off to complete professional obligations. A gossip columnist at a New York paper wrote a carefully-worded piece, dredging up year-old and already-debunked claims that the actress had been harassed by classmates, to claim that she’d been “Bullied out of her school.” Within days, this was being carried, with phrases like, “It has been reported” (or, in a few cases, citing the particular newspaper,) without making any effort to learn if the story was true. Five minutes with Google would have proved it false, but not one news source took the time for that.

    The gargoyles have taken over the cathedral. It can be taken back, but not if we pretend they haven’t and everything is fine.

    Journalism is dying, not from being outcompeted by “Citizen Journalists,” but from self-inflicted wounds of incompetence, carelessness, laziness, and apathy. To save it, that cafard is what must be cured.

  12. Mike Beauchamp

    Journalism isn’t “dead”.

    It’s just evolving. Like everything else. As it evolves, it might not look and feel the same, hell it might not even work in the same ways. But that doesn’t mean it’s dying. If anything, it’s becoming bigger and better.

  13. Elizabeth

    Maybe the answer to the future of journalism lies in its past. Didn’t the earliest journalism consist of recounting the just-finished hunt to members of the tribe gathered around the fire? If so, there’s no reason to believe that journalism won’t continue to morph to suit the times.

  14. The question isn’t whether journalism is dead. It was never very good to begin with. Topic du jour stories, parrot stories, stories with siomple missing info and yellow/slanted/opinionated journalism has always existed. Just todays brain dead citizen brings out the worst of it because the audience buys it.

    The question should be whether investigative journalism is dead, reporters with the sharp questions that are two steps ahead of their interview subject, that’s the real loss. Yep, dead and now long gone.

  15. Roy Posner

    When new disruptive technologies come along, they have a disruptive, large impact on things, though over time they are assimilated in some fashion, strengthening the corresponding institution, in this case Journalism. The ability of many to contribute to truth of any issue that arises is s good thing. Still that impact has to be filtered down to what is actually truthful and helpful. Over time, standards will emerge for bloggers and others that will enable Journalism to thrive in new ways. Just now we are in the period of the breakout of the masses in contributing to that truth of knowledge. Somewhere down the line we will need to develop methods that turn hard opinions into harder truths. And yet these developments, these many-sided contributions from a myriad of source indicate the dawn of a Golden Age for Truth; so long as methods are developed to turn the dross of infinite opinions into the gold of the many-sided truth of things.

  16. No, it’s not obsolete. There are some simple flaws in his logic. Sure, almost everyone can write and almost everyone will. But as newspaper editors can tell us, there’s a huge gap between people who can write and those skilled at unearthing what’s really going on, accurately and quickly. Also, look at the $ revenues in traditional media and it’s not over yet. Pick up the daily papers this morning and they don’t seem to be hurting, in page count or revenues. Online reading trends as well, show there’s a wide breadth of sources, but newsrooms remain key content generators on all fronts. So rumours of journalism’s death are greatly exaggerated . . .

  17. I challenge you to name the top five ‘journalists’ working today. It’s hard because people have lost the skill it takes to be a ‘journalist’ … AND, our education system has almost no curricula to support studying to become a journalist !!! It’s real disappointing that our analytic abilities have vanished, with no one replacing them for the next generations. 140 characters and you’re done…. True insanity.

  18. John Proffitt

    For me, Journalism (with a capital J) died sometime around 10 years ago, with 9/11. In the midst of media consolidation and in the opening days of the broadband revolution came an event that shook up the country, including Journalists. Rolling into 2002 the Bush Administration revved up the gears of war and Journalists either cheered it on or did nothing (yes, I know there are exceptions).

    The watchdog role I had been taught was Journalism’s role had been set aside somewhere.

    This would have been forgivable if Journalism had owned the mistake and gotten back to its roots. Some folks did. But nearly all just went about their he-said-she-said and view-from-nowhere business. Meanwhile, Journalists were given the boot through mergers, acquisitions, universal access (redundancy), and just plain competition. That put a whole group on notice that their corporate masters would kick them out if they got out of line. So much for being a watchdog. The victory of Republican media (via Ailes and Murdoch) sealed the deal, as Journalists seeking to be “objective” joined the Church of the Savvy and walked away from their better selves.

    We’ve seen some fascinating new business and editorial models (nonprofit news, HuffPo, TPM, ProPublica, etc.), and the rise of non-professional journalism, a combination of which may help find a new way forward. And thank God that Jay Rosen is charting what’s broken and what can be fixed and Clay Shirky is explaining just what the hell is going on in a broader sense.

    But Journalism with a capital J? Long dead in the ways I was taught about it. There are vestiges and shadows of it today, but nothing terribly serious, nothing with meat on the bones.

    We need a new grammar for journalism, one shared by pros, semi-pros, and active amateurs alike. Kind of like Astronomy — agreed-upon rules and nomenclatures in which everyone can participate and everyone can cross-validate (or invalidate).

    Rosen has introduced some of the elements very recently. We’re hopefully approaching a new journalism now.

    • Really? Dead? That sounds a touch extreme.

      I read TPM, Juan Cole, Calculated Risk, as well as a few mainstays like the Economist. Personally, it is a search for quality, and one of the reasons I ditched my television nearly 20 years ago. I’m just tired of reading crap.

      This is an interesting issue where the truth lies somewhere between both positions. The landscape is changing. The internet is a major change in distribution. But, effective communication is as rare as it always was.

  19. wordbeeps

    What utter bullshit- to use a word journalists should use often.
    I’ll tell you two stories.
    There was journalist- they aren’t called that, they are called reporters- who was woken up and told to attend night court, which he really didn’t want to do, because a) it was at night, and 2) he really thought he was above that sort of thing, having been with his newspaper for a couple of years. Night court was for the new reporters who needed seasoning. But he went. It was his job. Once there he found duty counsel, or whatever its American equivalent is- wasn’t needed. Some people being charged had hired their own lawyer. That was unusual. His ears perked up. He went in and listened to their appearance before a judge. It turned out that not one, but five people had been charged with burglary. The judge asked one of those charged where he was employed. The man said he was retired from government service. What service? the judged asked. CIA, the man answered. The reporter, Bob Woodward, moved up to the front. So began the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate.
    Journalists go to subdivision development appeal board hearings and attend civil suits where bloggers don’t go. They have no interest. That’s how it’s discovered a toxic waste pond is planned to too close to a school or a lawsuit will crush the rights of students, for example, from being able to sue post-secondary institutions.
    My second story is less interesting. I’ve covered so many of those meetings if I added all the time up I’m sure I would be owed a second life. You know how many bloggers and interested citizens were there to give their tweets or equivalent to the world. None.
    Bloggers and citizens with iphones will tap out for internet broadcast when things go bang and boom and how some celebrity is doing with her baby bump. They will give opinions about dog poo on their lawn or the price of gas or if there cul-de-sac is not cleared of snow, or if that movie star should have slept with that other movie star.
    But in civil courtrooms and never-ending municipal meetings where you have to be there for the meat of the news, you will need journalists, however they are paid.

    • paul martin

      Last night on UK TV there were many minutes devoted to the Edinburgh Tram Fiasco. Bumbling municpal dignitaries tried to explain the latest U-turn on another civic waste of public money. The bulk of the story was a voxpop of citizens in the street by tramlines rusting away bemused that elected officials in large palaces with hundreds of staff again waste waste waste. To quote the people everything before the word But is BS so coming to your final paragraph … in these modern times there is no need for people to sit in fancy rooms listening to so-called politicians and judges chewing the fat. If necessary these people usually employ cohorts to generate, for example in the UK, parliamentary verbatim transcripts called Hansard and for actual live coverage a dedicated TV channel; and for what: knockabout slapstick comedy for the most part. Some say that there is too much democracy, with again the UK having : Parish councils, City Councils, Shire Councils, Kingdom Councils, European travelling Councils, unelected bands of Councillors; if only all the hot air could be recycled then there would be some benefit. I don’t think we need Journos or whatever to sit and suffer and for what – the Google soap opers is far more fun.

    • Alex Garcia

      “however they are paid.”
      And there in lies the failure of newspaper journalism and the hardship of the zero barrier to entry model of web “journalism”… +1 though, I agree completely that while bloggers and the sort do a sufficient job of reporting to the masses what has already been reported on, there needs to be reporters with beats and a passion to get to the bottom of something that doesn’t sit right.

    • Wordbeeps

      The general public’s trust in journalists has diminished greatly since Watergate. Findings from a recent trust barometer show that people are trusting their peers more than ever which is partly due to the rise of citizen journalism.

      And if that doesn’t convince you perhaps you can explain wikileaks and the global interest it has spawned on and offline……