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Vive la révolution: The pluses of 'Post-Industrial Journalism'

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It was the best of reports, it was the worst of reports. Journalists and news organizations reading the Tow Center report released last week on ‘Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the present‘ by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky will have come away with a certain queasiness, and for good reason.

The bad news: “On present evidence, we are convinced that journalism in this country [the United States] will get worse before it gets better, and, in some places (principally midsize and small cities with no daily paper) it will get markedly worse.” Which casts the authors’ subsequent pronouncement –  that journalism matters, and so much so that there’s a whole subsection under that very heading – in a grim light, considering their sense of the profession’s deterioration. According to Anderson, Bell and Shirky, journalism, or at least a certain kind of journalism, must and should survive, given its “irreplaceable role in both democratic politics and market economies.”

Journalism in this country will get worse before it gets better.

Still, the bad news doesn’t stop there. The report suggests there is “no way to preserve or restore the shape of journalism as it has been practiced for the past 50 years.” And frankly, there’s no way to counter that statement. They’re right. Things have changed and they’re not going to change back.

But for a journalist – or even a consumer of journalism – to stop there and slide into permanent despondency would be to miss the good news, as well as a vital call to action for those of us in the business. “We believe that the role of the journalist–as truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer–cannot be reduced to a replaceable input for other social systems; journalists are not merely purveyors of facts,” say the authors, adding that now, and for the forseeable future, we need journalists.

But didn’t they just say the end was nigh? Look again, because the authors of this report don’t just examine the present circumstance, but also cast a little into the future, and the news is not all bad.

How about this bit, for example? “The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation, bringing sense to the streams of text, audio, photos and video produced by the public.” This marks a clear role for journalists, and it’s one that must have appeal beyond the egos of those pandered to by the prospect of a vertical move up the editorial chain. At a time when many journalists decry the requirements of a 24-hour news cycle which does not allow the time to think, analyse, synthesise or understand before reacting, it looks like making sense of things will be more important than ever, and the key journalistic skills of digging for information, sourcing, analysing and storytelling will make a welcome comeback.

People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves.

And there’s this: “Individual journalists who create high-quality journalism, regardless of how it is supported, will exercise more autonomy and creative control over their work. Larger and more diverse audiences will be available to them at low or no cost.” More autonomy and creative control – isn’t that what so many have been looking for as they butt against the commercial requirements of a news organisation and its imposed editorial lines? Not to mention access to a bigger audience.

The report also makes clear that our very humanity will be an asset, even as technology automates elements of the work that was once a journalist’s remit: “People follow people, and therefore just by ‘being human’ journalists create a more powerful role for themselves.”

Anderson, Bell and Shirky also include a recommended mantra for journalists:  “Proceed until apprehended.” In other words, we’re making it up as we go along, and this new arena in which we’re playing offers journalists a chance to experiment and find new ways of doing their jobs. Sure, you might be apprehended – and there’s an interesting double meaning at work there – and not every journalist trying things out will get the seal of approval received by NPR’s Andy Carvin during his “invention of the curated Twitter news feed.” (He was reportedly told by an NPR executive: ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing, but please keep doing it.’) In fact, proceeding in such a manner is a risky business. But given what’s at stake – remember how journalism is getting worse? and yet how much we need it? –  failure to proceed is a far riskier choice.

In short, this report  sets out the current circumstance, defined by its instability, and looks at how journalists can shape a key role within that, and have a hand in shaping the future of their profession. And don’t take my word for this, read the report in full, add it to every J-school curriculum, disseminate it and discuss it, because it is an important document about a very specific moment that has wide societal implications.

Finally, it’s worth noting, as this report does, that “All of us are adapting to this changed environment; the existing institutions and the new ones, the full-time shapers of the news and the part-time ones, the generalists and the specialists. And perhaps the single most important adaptive trait is to recognize that that we are in a revolution, in its sense of a change so large that the existing structure of society can’t contain it without being altered by it.”

It’s the best of times and the worst of times. Vive la révolution.



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This entry was posted on December 4, 2012 by in Uncategorized.
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