The future of journalism

First, let me state the obvious: The high-water days of journalism as many of us have known it are over. Now here’s a question: What should we do about it?

Think about what being published in a newspaper or magazine can give to a writer:

  1. A paycheck
  2. A separation between editorial decisions and financial ones that brings the freedom to not write with an eye to pleasing anyone except one’s editor
  3. An audience
  4. Legitimacy in the eyes of the reading public
  5. Legitimacy in the eyes of interview subjects

And what have publications meant to readers?

  1. Predictability of publication schedule (daily newspaper, weekly magazine, etc.)
  2. A standard of quality (articles will be subject to copy editing and fact checking)
  3. A standard of trustworthiness (the reader could trust that the journalist was writing an honest reading of the facts and wasn’t being “paid off”)
  4. In some cases, an image to aspire to or a community to belong to (business executives read the Wall Street Journal, entertainment executives read Variety, smart people read the New York Times, adventurers read Outdoors, and so forth)

Now, some or even all of these values could and have been breached. But at least the ideal was there.

What do we have now? A push-button publishing world has given us millions if not hundreds of millions of websites, which include but are not limited to blogs. That presents a number of problems.

For the writer, the proliferation of the Internet has meant:

  • Reduced income–or no income
  • Loss of “guaranteed” access to readers, who are now free to find trusted authors from anywhere in the world.

For the reader, the proliferation of the Internet has meant:

  1. Freedom to choose and specialize
  2. Needle in the haystack: how to identify the best websites? Search engines are useful but aren’t foolproof.  There may be no financial cost to accessing information on the Internet (sometimes even a connection is free), but there are costs in terms of time.
  3. The problem of knowing who is giving the straight scoop and who is on the take.

So, what should we do? We should certify each other as trusted sources. This is one way of addressing one question of our new world: How do we establish credibility? Let’s frame this question by looking at everybody’s buzzword, “blog.”

A blog is either a column within a larger website/publication (such as http://blog.nj.com/skiing/index.html, written by NASJA member Martin Griff), or it defines the publication (see for example, http://www.shayboarder.com/, written by Shannon Johnson, who is not a member).

Bloggers (like any writer) can gain credibility through the masthead (see Megan McArdle: http://www.theatlantic.com/megan-mcardle/) or through their own site (see Glenn Reynolds: http://pajamasmedia.com/instapundit/).

Readership is one factor in determining credibility–if you’ve got eyeballs, people start paying attention to you. But it’s not the only one, as some publications are sheer fantasy (see: World Weekly News) and others are legitimate authorities in the field but have microscopic readership (see: The New Republic, Commentary.)

To a large extent, NASJA members have lost the “cover” that mastheads and editors give, since they’ve lost their outlets. On the subject of self-published authors, perhaps it’s time for NASJA to embrace them by establishing some sort of internal credentialing mechanism. While there may be a subjective element to the credentials (much as the famous definition of obscenity), here’s a start:

* A minimum frequency / word count in a season. I believe 5 articles work right now. So how about 5 articles, self-published or not, blog entry or not, that have a minimum of 500 words each?

* I think there may even be a place for prolific Twitter users–say, 50 “Tweets” in a season. After all, the business of journalism is to impart news, opinions, features to people. A collection of Tweets doesn’t have the elegance of a feature article, but it can still inform.

* Does the author demonstrate a minimal competency in grammar and usage? I’m not talking about pulling out the red pens and counting violations of the AP Stylebook or Strunk and White, but can the author put together coherent paragraphs?

* I think we should consider some uses of Facebook to be publishing, too. Facebook has evolved from being a platform for college students to discuss their latest party to include “Groups” and “Pages,” both of which can use elements of an interactive publication.

At bottom, I think we need to think of “what we do” rather than “where we do it.” And “what we do” is tell stories and inform people about skiing, snowboarding, and the alpine environment generally.

Actively embracing self-published writers may seem like a risky proposition, but NASJA is in perilous times already. It can die a slow death, or rethink how it defines itself.

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6 Responses to The future of journalism

  1. Barry ZeVan says:

    Great thinking, John, in my opinion. A dilemma, of course, but nonetheless a foundation from which to grow rather than die. BZ

  2. Mike Terrell says:

    John, all valid points. I don’t know where we go with it. I don’t tweet, or whatever it is. But, yes, print publication is drying up. I do most of my writing for the internet now; seven articles per week for OnTheSnow covering the Midwest, Ontario, and five Colorado resorts, plus breaking news like a storm or the fire at Big Powderhorn. I’ve done four articles for print publications.

    Embracing the internet is where we have to go. Unfortunately, so can everyone. With Yahoo anyone can post incoherent thoughts and be a “writer.” Somehow it has to be tied into income for articles. If not, we might as well let everybody in and become a snow sports club. We’ve lost membership, but those left are still producing. In some cases it may be culling the organization.

  3. Mike, seven articles a week? Wow. Would you say that the total production (measured by words, articles, or whatnot) has increased, decreased, or stayed the same?

  4. Bill Semon says:

    Interesting. In MOWA, the Michigan Outdoor Writers Assn., watch what we’re trying as well. Our own Website. We’ll see a mock-up at this winter’s meeting. If members sell ads, or if we get an ad rep involved, who knows. I know it’s been tried before in Traverse City, but this will be an interesting approach.

  5. Bill, I wasn’t thinking of a group website, but that is certainly compatible with what I’m thinking of. A critical mass might bring in the income piece that Mike referred to.

    Some NASJA members in other regions appear to be trying out a similar arrangement. See for example http://blog.snowsportsna.com/. I see blog entries by Peter Hines and Richard Butler. Another page (http://snowsportsna.com/aboutusnew.cfm) says that Mike Roth and Chris Dehnel are involved as well. They’ve got some advertising links, and the site uses WordPress.

  6. Group websites can be problematic to work. I prefer a more loose coalition such as what NASJA offers. I have been a part of a group website in the past and it has its own set of problems, sooner or later a normal editorial process and hierarchy develops and then people start talking about posting frequency and griping how some do not post often.

    The criteria John points up IMO is a bit light, but I tell you, during the summer if I put out more than 4 posts/month it is a prolific month, during the winter I have managed to publish one/day (admittedly, I was out of day-job work) but this winter was a good one for me in terms of visits and published pieces, and most importantly in terms of photography.

    Twitter, Facebook, etc all play an important part of pushing your Internet works. We all know the best advertising is word of mouth and essentially that is what Twitter and Facebook are.

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