Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Are journalists doomed?

There was a time -- not so long ago -- when all that journalists had to worry about was getting credible facts checked and assembling a cohesive story about a topic.

That's harder than it sounds. People are terrible sources of information for a journalist. They forget stuff, they remember important details wrong -- sometimes they just lie in order to get attention or to get the journalist to stop talking to them. Journalists are taught this early on and are expected to wade through a lot of information, follow the consistencies for a thread of truth, and then tease out that thread into a story that is as well-rounded as possible.

Granted, not all journalists actually do this, but this is how they are trained.

We're awash in information from television and Internet -- say nothing of those informative folks in your car pool or standing around the proverbial water cooler. Let's look at H1N1... or breast cancer screening... or the war in Afghanistan. There are lots of very credible-sounding people passionately saying things that are polar opposites of each other. Is one person or group wrong? No. Typically they are both right at some level, but you have to really pick through the details to figure out what applies to you.

Try it. It's really hard to do.

I recently ran across an article on Mashable.com about the eight must-have traits of tomorrow's journalist that made me laugh. You can read the article to get the real traits... I've paraphrased these to serve my own nefariously bloggish purposes.
  1. They need to be entrepreneurial and have enough business savvy to start their own publications when the ones they work for inevitably go under. *smirk* Yeah.. there's some motivation for you.
  2. They need to be a computer programmer with the skills to not only tell a story across different media, but also build and manage the computer platforms the story appears on.
  3. They need to be able to keep a completely open mind about... well... everything. That means encouraging more facts/opinions than fewer while somehow still finding a coherent story to talk about.
  4. Have the skills and experience to tell a story using video, text, graphics, audio and photography -- all at the same time.
  5. Become an online community manager to build and grow a community who think you (the journalist) are the cat's meow. You do that, of course, by routinely engaging in some kind of thoughtful back-and-forth with with the people who follow you -- often one individual at a time. If you do this well, this means thousands of people.
  6. Create and maintain a blog of your own, and also constantly scan the whole Internet to find and identify "the good stuff".
  7. Be "multi-skilled". No shit.
  8. Have and maintain the fundamental journalism skills of good writing, ethics, news judgment, investigation, and verification.
This list is... ummm... how should I put it... COMPLETELY INSANE. Mastering storytelling on every possible media? Tough, but probably doable. Building and maintaining the computer platform that your stories appear on? Oh, please. Creating and growing an online community that is large enough to have any kind of impact in our fragmented information world is sort of a lot of work. You can't do that over a couple of hours a day.

I believe that the industry of journalism is going through some fundamental changes. Many of the basic principles I learned in school -- namely around the disdain of those who aren't professional journalists and the inherent credibility of large publishing organizations -- will be very different in ten years.

I do not believe, however, that a single person will represent these eight traits. Web sites and web communities (as well as small businesses) are built and maintained by teams of people -- even Mashable.com.

I believe they always will be.

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