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Advice on How to Reinvent Journalism

I am preparing for a panel discussion in Memphis tomorrow, Thursday, with Geneva Overholser and Chris Peck. The conference is about remaking journalism and Overholser will be talking about her Manifesto for Change, Peck about the Newspaper Next: The Transformation Project and I about my Reinventing Journalism paper.

So what will I say? I am working on it, but most will come from the paper; however, I wrote the paper more than six months ago, so I will be adding some things. My personal motivation is that I have spent endless hours thinking about journalism because I want it to get better not worse. Given that premise here is a little outline, some of it taken verbatim from earlier blog posts here at the (forgive the typos, these are more notes than finished ideas, but I have to start packing.)

  1. We have to think first about smartening up and stop making the fear of dumbing down the center of out focus, it is distracting and prevents seeing the upside of change. However, that means coming up with smart ideas that are better than the dumb ideas–and there will be plenty of dumb ideas, some of which will be heralded as great ideas because they will improve profits.
  2. We have to keep Instapundit Glenn Reynolds advice in the forefront of our thinking: “The secret to getting ahead in the 21st century is capitalizing on people doing what they want to do, rather than trying to get them to do what you want to do.” That’s a central theme of the Newspaper Next Blueprint.
  3. We need more of the Web 2.0 mentality which says in part we have to tap into collective intelligence. Here are two important reminders from Tim O’Reilly’s defining essay What is Web 2.0. First: “The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence.” They produce sites that get smarter with use. Second in Web 2.0: “Every significant internet application to date has been backed by a specialized database.”
  4. Now some stuff from the reinventing journalism paper. Since we are talking about collective intelligence we are talking about audience. Our users. Here is what Linus Torvalds the man behind the open source Linux project says: “The thing that makes ‘real users’ so interesting is that they have so different usage patterns from most developers, which is why a product that is solely targeted to developers usually lacks a certain stability and finish.” Which means we just can’t sit about noddling what will be best for our audiences. We have get them fully involved. Or better yet we will take the advice of Eric von Hippel that, “It is becoming progressively easier for many users to get precisely what they want by designing it for themselves,” adding , “In the case of information products, users have the possibility of largely or completely doing without the services of manufacturers.”

    Individual users with just a little understanding of RSS feeds and other simple to use technology or ready-made platforms can have build their own customized online news pages. News operations can ignore what these individual innovators are doing, or they can solicit ideas for product improvement from them or provide toolkits to help the users customize content. Other industry manufacturers are doing so with positive results, in part because active users suggest changes that meet their needs, and thus are more apt to be grounded in real user needs. von Hippel writes, “Given access to a user-developed prototype, manufacturers no longer need to understand users’ needs very accurately and richly. Instead they have the much easier task of replicating the function of user prototypes that users have already demonstrated are responsive to their needs.” Here is more:

    von Hippel reminds us that: “It is striking that most new products developed and introduced to the market by manufacturers are commercial failures.” He argues manufactures which work with what he calls “lead users,” those who modify the product to meet their individual needs, will be better informed than manufacturers who rely solely on internally produced predictions. Our lead users might very well be our bloggers, podcasters, vloggers. So let’s stop asking if they are journalists or not and find what the best of them are doing that will improve journalism.

  5. So to get to those lead users, and everyone else in our communities, we have to build an ecosystem of users — users and non users, lead uses and the totally clueless. I like Beth Simone Noveck’s advice who says put it online and let your users add to it, subtract from, and move groups around. Let’s see your universe of audience possibilities.

  6. Of course, none of this happens without an attitude check. Just what kind of newsroom does everyone want? A mindless information center telling where to buy the best pizza or a place that builds smarter, more connected communities. Here is, by now, a much needed anecdote. My first public journalism project was at Minnesota Monthly magazine. It was the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence. I had spent months on the project and wanted a picture of a gun on the cover. My publisher had spent months putting together a food show and he wanted chocolate bon bons on the cover. Eventually we reached a compromise. Home deliveries got the gun cover, rack sales the chocolate bon bon cover. I came up with a motto: “We want to End Gun Violence and Eat Chocolate Bon Bons too.’” We can do both and probably we should.

  7. Newsrooms will have to re-examine how they report the news and come to terms with objectivity and other professional journalism ethics. Here is something that James Carey wrote 40 years ago: “… reporters mediate between the audience and sources, they are pulled in two directions: serving the interests of the sources or the interests of the audience, which are rarely identical. Often, if not usually, reporters develop contempt for both parties they serve: the audience because it is so often apathetic and uninterested, the source because it is so often dishonest. But in the end Carey believed that since the reporters were closer to their sources than their audiences, they turned their sources into their “ultimate audience,” and became more “allied structurally if not sympathetically with the persons and institutions,” about which they reported.
  8. So that brings us to citizen involvement. How will we treat the people we serve. How will they treat us. Here is a Cole Campbell quote: “I have no doubt that citizens…either will become our collaborative partners or will marginalize us as bit players in the give-and-take of common life.” If he is right, then collaborative partners makes the best sense, the only sense. So how do we help our former audiences become collaborative partners. I think I provided that answer earlier: we figure out what they want to do and help them do it. And what do they want to do: All kinds of things from counting craters on Mars, to gathering for a massive Christmas bird watches, to making goofy videos or themselves. Those who want to make better journalism will have to help pick and chose.
  9. Plus we always have to keep in mind that people do share nicely, a Benkler term. In fact, I make the separation between sharing nicely, which is doing small grained tasks, when they want to do them, as opposed to more granular tasks, like doing a citizen journalism story. Mike Caputo is here and he can tell us more about Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism, which has found to use the collective intelligence of its audience. But I think with one failing. It seems to me to be one way directed, help us make better news. Why not have a database that helps us make better journalism, while we help you tap into the collective intelligence for whatever purpose you want to use it for.
  10. Which brings up the questions of how much are we willing to give away? Do we open our archives for the whole world to use? The BBC is experimenting with it and a report suggested that public broadcasting here should consider doing do the same. But there are many questions from rights to unions to deal with.
  11. Then once you open the doors to the public, you have to also ask which public. Who gets invited, who gets excluded and by all means be sure to have mechanisms to keep out the vandals and the incompetents.
  12. Also how transparent are you going to be. Spokane has their news huddles live streamed. CBS has its Public Eye column.
  13. Then we also have to deal with timing. How often do you release stories. The trend seems to be immediately with a 24/7 news cycle. But should some journalism be more high end? Special reporting, away from the fray. Can that niche pay for itself? Should it?
  14. Christensen says sometimes that new businesses have to set up as subsidiaries because they just will not fit in the economic model of the bigger enterprise. So when we see a reporters leave the Washington Post for a new web venture centered on politics, we have to ask, why didn’t the Post think of that themselves.
  15. We also have to ask do the hierarchy, the power relations in journalism institutions have to change to free real innovative thinking and change. Can’t we find out what motivates the reporters? And be sure to play into that motivation.
  16. However, most of all we all have to believe we can improve things, make for a better world and then start working in that direction. After all that’s what Craig Newmark has done with craigslist, Jimmy Wales with Wikipedia, and Linus Torvalds with Linux. It can be done. We just have to do it.

Here are pieces of advice I provided earlier on the blog that I think still make sense.

1. Every newsroom anticipates that more people will be fired. So before that happens try to save some jobs. Take selected folks off the news beat. The LA Times has sent a team of reporters to investigate the changing media landscape. A good idea. Here is another. Kick a group of journalists out of the newsroom and tell them to get 100 percent active in the participatory culture. Join, write for Wikipedia, hang out in MySpace and Facebook, get an avatar at Second Life, sell stuff at eBay and make videos for YouTube. Do it all with passion, not as a dispassionate observer. Then come back to the newsroom and figure out how being a member of that participatory culture relates to you as a journalist or as an information provider.

2. The Newspaper Next blueprint includes six opportunity areas to connect with nonconsumers. They include: Enlighten Me, Educate Me, Enrich Me, Entertain Me, Engage Me and Empower Me. They present some excellent opportunities for journalism or for providing worthwhile community and civic building information.The blueprint sees further opportunities in developing:

(1) databases, (2) user knowledge exchanges (unlocking the “collective wisdom”) and (3) community (providing platforms for communities to form).

An innovative journalist or better yet a collaboration of innovative journalists, might see real possibilities in any of those three areas. Let others worry about the sites, you seek out ideas that will take the great traditions of journalism and build upon them. If you can develop ideas to build community and civic life through community collaboration, you will get a shot because the blueprint stresses having lots of projects being started all the time. Failure is okay, it is part of the Newspaper Next worldview. So nod to their jargon and then take their time, money and resources and truly innovate. It’s a golden opportunity. Unfortunately the list of attendees at this conference includes very few in-the-trench reporters. They are mostly academic and editors.

3. Which just got me thinking. And this might be my most original idea so pay attention to it. Every newsroom has a bunch of renegades. Really good, hard working journalists, who have figured out how to get great work done in spite of the bosses. So sponsor a big national conference with the newsrooms’ best, but least pliable journalists. They have one mission to come back with ideas to reinvent journalism or to work with others nationally to reinvent journalism.

4. Each of the pieces of advice from above works on the principle that the inmates in the asylum know more than the people with the keys strapped to their belts. Let’s start practicing collective, bottom up intelligence right in our newsrooms. Let’s stop waiting for the Gannett bosses to provide all the ideas, even though some of them might be okay.

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