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The journalism we need is changing, but can journalists make the transition?

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There’s no question that the journalism industry is in upheaval — not just because the business model underlying it has been disrupted, but because the whole way we create and consume information has been changed by social media and the internet, and the democratization of distribution they have created. Publishing used to be an industry and now it is a button, as media theorist Clay Shirky put it, and tools like blogs and Twitter allow sources to “go direct,” which has altered the traditional balance of power. Unfortunately, media economist Robert Picard says he believes many journalists may simply not be able to adjust to the kind of value-added journalism the market requires now.

Picard is the director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, a former fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Kennedy School of Government and the former editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies and the Journal of Media Economics. In a blog post on Sunday, he said that news organizations “need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere” and focus on adding value by telling readers things they can’t find out somewhere else, adding context and analysis, and so on. But Picard says he is not sure some journalists are ready for this new role:

“Most journalists spend the majority of their time reporting what a mayor said in a prepared statement, writing stories about how parents can save money for university tuition, covering the release of the latest versions of popular electronic devices, or finding out if a sports figure’s injury will affect performance in the next match.

Most cover news in a fairly formulaic way, reformatting information released by others: the agenda for the next town council meeting, the half dozen most interesting items from the daily police reports, what performances will take place this weekend, and the quarterly financial results of a local employer. These standard stories are merely aggregations of information supplied by others.”

These kinds of stories used to serve a purpose when newspapers and other journalistic outlets were the only source of information, Picard says, but now this kind of routine content “has little economic value” because the original providers of it have their own ways of distributing it — some of which are just as effective if not more effective than sending out a press release. This is a phenomenon that blogging pioneer Dave Winer has described as “the sources going direct,” and Om has also written about how it is changing the landscape for media of all kinds. Picard goes on to say:

“To survive, news organizations need to move away from information that is readily available elsewhere; they need to use journalists’ time to seek out the kinds of information less available and to spend time writing stories that put events into context.

Unfortunately, many journalists do not evidence the skills, critical analytical capacity, or inclination to carry out value-added journalism. News organizations have to start asking themselves whether it is because are hiring the wrong journalists or whether their company practices are inhibiting journalists’ abilities to do so.”

That last question is one that media entities of all kinds need to answer if they are going to make the transition that Picard is talking about. And while paywalls may look like a solution, as Dean Starkman at the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a recent piece, they don’t do much good if the content that is behind the wall isn’t really worth paying for.

12 Responses to “The journalism we need is changing, but can journalists make the transition?”

  1. Brad Collins

    The recent political season exposed the real frailty of our current journalism world. As Deborah noted, journalists almost always reported exactly what candidates said without any context, irregardless of how untrue or ignominious the statements were. The need for instantaneity and brevity may partly be to blame. But often the reporter simply never followed up with a defining question or any balanced frame of reference. Lies and distortions were passed along as if they were facts (Let the fact-checkers catch it?). We need journalists to report the news with annotation of what can be proven or substantiated, or at the very least what is stated by the opposing view (fair and balanced reporting!), not what is the opinion of the reporter. We need objective journalism, not more advocate journalism.

  2. Picard says that journalists must now, “focus on adding value by telling readers things they can’t find out somewhere else.” Isn’t that called “getting the scoop?” Isn’t that what journalists were supposed to be doing all along? The real news here is how lazy some mainstream journalists have gotten in the last 20 years. And how digital publishing is shining the light on those who dig deeper and find the story no one else does. i.e. working their asses off.

  3. in Italy old journalism’s style is stile winning… it’s a shame ’cause a lot of young journalists are trying to chance but it’s quite hard. it seems like the press is scared about new media… and the situation is a disaster!

  4. I’m not convinced that the scarcity of information is what makes it valuable or what will drive journalism in the future. Scarcity of attention is a bigger issue. So journalists who can build and engage audiences will be the most employable. Being the first to nail new forms of communications and learning to relay stories and info so it’s more approachable are key skills. Will journalists make the transition? It depends who you call a journalist. Is a statistician or graphic designer a journalist? These formerly supporting roles may emerge as the key ones.

  5. It’s not journalists who can’t or won’t dig, it’s a compensation system that doesn’t pay them to do so, but rather to produce as much content as humanly possible, lending to the constant regurgitation of press releases and prepared statements.

  6. NewsJunkie

    You might look at, the largest hirer of journalists in the US in recent years, and how they are filling a critical need in small communities or neighborhoods of cities with a new brand of professional journalism.

  7. txpatriot

    Isn’t this blog post itself an example of what it purports to criticize? Isn’t just a repackaging of material that originated elsewhere?

    Neither Ingram nor Picard give an example of “value added journalism”. Then again, it is always easier to criticize than to offer a constructive alternative.

  8. Like most stories along these lines, the writer confuses community newspapers with bigger news outlets. In small towns and counties, many readers still look to the local paper as a digest of what’s important. They don’t want to go to every town or library website (or get a million email newsletters); the function of the newspaper is to have an edited distillation of all the news. And while investigative journalism is a fine thing, it’s simply not feasible to expect small newspapers to do a lot of it on a regular basis. First, there’s not that much that needs to be investigated in Anytown, and the economics of a small paper mean you can’t hire, much less retain, that kind of talent.

  9. Jassa Skott

    Picard is basically talking about focusing more on investigative journalism. Not sure where he gets his generalizations about journalists. Most of them are highly motivated these days to learn and do just about anything, if only to keep their jobs. The problem with implementing his solution is that most newspapers have laid off a lot of their highly skilled journalists in order to cut costs. Those were also the journalists that young reporters often learned from, either by example or mentoring. Newspapers will have to invest in training and mentoring and/or start hiring back some of the people they’ve let go if they want more in-depth reporting. Few owners seem willing to do that right now, with the exception of papers like the OC Register.