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The biggest roadblock to media success? A traditional culture of journalistic hubris

There have been plenty of post-mortems written on the traditional newspaper industry, and there are likely more in the works — and many portray the problem as a classic version of Clay Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma,” one in which the main players see the storm of disruption approaching, and yet still can’t respond. In a new book called Rebuilding the News, journalism professor C.W. Anderson tries to describe some of the reasons why this happened, and one of his main targets is traditional journalistic culture.

In the book, Anderson — who was also one of the co-authors of Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present, a recent report on the future of journalism published by Columbia University — looks at the evolution of the media industry in Philadelphia over the past half a decade. In particular, he describes the rise of community-led journalistic efforts such as the Philadelphia Media Network, and the simultaneous decline of the city’s twin bastions of traditional journalism, the Daily News and the Inquirer.

Collaboration blocked by journalistic hubris

These two themes are inextricably linked, Anderson argues in an excerpt published at the Nieman Journalism Lab, because the traditional media failed to see the potential for collaboration with new digitally-focused entrants, and maintained that they were the only ones who could reliably fulfil the goal of informing the public about the news. As Anderson puts it:

“In particular, local journalism’s occupational self-image, its vision of itself as an autonomous workforce conducting original reporting on behalf of a unitary public, blocked the kind of cross-institutional collaboration that might have helped journalism thrive in an era of fractured communication.”

newspaper boxes

Anderson says his research shows that legacy systems — both the mechanical and other systems that were used to publish the city’s traditional newspapers, as well as the management systems that governed their behavior — made the news organizations he studied “behave in deeply irrational ways.” And one of the underlying concepts that made the situation even worse, he says, was the idea that traditional journalism had to consist only of reporting original news.

Anything else — including curation, aggregation and other practices common to digital-first media outlets such as blogs and social media — was seen as a lesser form of journalistic life, Anderson says, and scorned by most journalists working for traditional outlets.

“My research demonstrated that the practice of original reporting was far from being either pure or unproblematic. The kind of work that constituted “original reporting” seemed increasingly difficult for journalists to define. Reporting existed side by side with other forms of newswork such as blogging and aggregation, often within news organizations that heaped rhetorical scorn on these so-called lesser practices.”

Roadblocks to a post-industrial version of the news

The author — a journalism professor at the City University of New York — also describes another roadblock to change: namely, the newspaper industry’s devotion to the traditional industrial approach to the news, which he says one executive in a 1970s study of the business by Herbert Gans called “screwing nuts on a bolt.” This assembly-line process is one of the reasons why the Columbia report (which Anderson helped write with media theorist Clay Shirky and Tow Center director Emily Bell) said the industry should be thinking about “post-industrial journalism.”

Road closed

The road to this kind of post-industrial future has been filled with potholes and detours, Anderson says, and a big part of the problem has been the inability of traditional outlets to collaborate with new members of the digital-media ecosystem, which they invariably see as not worthy of their attention:

“Developments in the local Philadelphia news ecosystem seemed to be creating a situation in which it made rational sense to ‘network the news’ through institutional collaboration, hypertext linking, and formal and informal partnerships [but] such collaboration and innovation not only did not occur; it seemed to be purposefully thwarted.”

As newspapers and other traditional outlets have continued to cut back on staff and resources (layoffs and buyouts have been announced recently at The Guardian, the Financial Times and the New York Times, among others) there has been more of an effort in some parts of the industry to collaborate and find new partners or models — although some of those, including the Chicago Tribune‘s experiment with a journalistic outsourcing service called Journatic, have been problematic.

In some cases, collaboration has been beneficial for both sides, as American University’s J Lab recently noted in an in-depth study of some new-media ecosystem efforts in San Francisco, Portland and several other cities — although coming up with revenue models continues to be difficult. And just like Anderson found in his research, the J-Lab report said that hostility towards non-traditional sources was a huge barrier to collaboration in many cases. Until mainstream media can find a way to shed those kinds of prejudices, real adaptation or collaboration will be difficult.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Klobetime, George Kelly and Jason Parks

10 Responses to “The biggest roadblock to media success? A traditional culture of journalistic hubris”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’m a former broadcast journalist who transitioned to public relations. I now help organizations develop marketing and communications strategy to connect with their audiences. Social media is now at the top of the list and bloggers have become an important partner for both journalists at organizations. As noted in the piece newsroom budgets and staff … slashed. Non-traditional media–bloggers, citizen journalists are providing a much needed forum to cover a community or issue effectively. As a former journalist all we ask is that the facts are correct and we don’t rush to hit send.

  2. chuck cain

    Being in the eye of this storm, It’s become clear that the ever changing market forces, the disappearing revenue from traditional sources require that a more new/creative and traditional approach, that combines a 70% digital to 30% traditional mixture of resources(hard and soft) needed to produce a good product. Working more closely with the many different community and civic organizations, re-establishing and rebuilding the kinds of relationships that endure long past the last insertion order, almost seems like a blast from the past, The task is now to re-define and re-align those once highly valued relationships between business and the news outlet while becoming a very hyper-local news outlet for the community that’s served, As a local weekly in the midst of the storm, our focus now is to get back to the basics of relationship building in the community that we are proud to serve.

  3. txpatriot

    “hostility towards non-traditional sources was a huge barrier to collaboration”

    Who can blame traditional media for being hostile toward “non-traditional sources” when old media (e.g., CNN and The Weather Channel) get slammed for relying on then reporting as fact some bogus tweet during Hurricane Sandy about the NYSE being under water? It was the old media that get slammed, not the lying SOB who tweeted the original falsehood.

    So how exactly is this “collaboration” supposed to work when new media “sources” can lie at will with no accountability whatsoever?

  4. It is not the news that makes money….its the ads and the flyers…as long as the companies using flyers to reach their potential customers continue printing and distributing in local papers….newspaper owners will continue to flog along lamenting about the loss of money. ..and drive their papers into the ground. It’s so last century.

  5. Paul Knox

    Mathew, there are just as many prejudices on the other side: there’s no such thing as independent news-gathering; nothing a legacy news organization reports is independent/true/new/worthwhile; citizens and indies are the only trustworthy fact-checkers; reporting is the same as “truthmaking;” startups have no self-interest — the list goes on and on. Do something different for a change. Do what everyone wants legacy newsroom leaders to do: challenge your own followers. We know what you believe needs to be destroyed. Talk about what needs to be saved and built upon. That would be real news. Best regards, Paul.

    • Thanks for the comment, Paul — I would never argue that certain things about traditional journalism need to be “destroyed,” except maybe a culture that sees anything external or new as being of questionable value. And I have also never argued that everything new is flawless or should replace the old — the point I’ve tried to make is that new and old can support and extend each other.

    • Chanders

      Hi Paul,

      Chris Anderson here, author of the book Mathew is discussing. You might be interested to know that the book casts just as skeptical an eye on blogger / startup / citizen journalism culture as it does traditional journalism, though that isn’t as emphasized in the excerpt Mathew is drawing on here.

  6. It’s like you wrote somewhere else, Matthew. The “production” of “truth” was always a process involving many people, not only journalists. But many journalists where able to delude themselves that they in fact where the sole truthmakers, because before the internet, most of the times they didn’t see regular folk fact-checking and scrutinizing their work.

    Now that the whole process is out in the open in real-time, egos clash with reality.