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

Superman

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

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