If You’re a Hand-Wringing Journalist, It’s Time to Go Back to School



The future is bright for journalism, but not for the old breed of journalists

I was recently at a dinner convened around the future of media that included a handful of journalists and a good variety of individuals involved in the business of media in one way or another. There was plenty of hand wringing over the future of journalism, and over investigative journalism in particular. At the end of the evening, a vote was taken. The proposition was something along these lines: will journalism have a brighter future in ten year’s time? By then enough wine had been poured that there was a good amount of disagreement over what we were voting on in the first place.

The discussion started with someone pointing to David Carr’s pair of recent columns (here, and here). Are we at the beginning of a new golden age of digital-first journalism, or is there a bubble? Is the money people are putting into new ventures like First Look Media or plump new rounds for Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox funny money, or is there a real business opportunity for actual investors (the kind who want returns and all that)? All good questions, but those assembled had other questions, too. What of democracy? What of stentorian institutions? How many times can we use the word stentorian before dessert?

Along the way, someone moaned that the real tragedy of the contraction of legacy news organizations is the death of investigative journalism. You know, we’re talking about the chap from the movies who entertains a thousand conspiracy theories a day, works his sources late at night in the bar, stumbles across scandal at every turn and hasn’t got much of a family life. What will happen to him in this new world order, where cost structures are kept lean, speed is currency and no one wants to wage a months-long effort to speak truth to power, much less deal with the inevitable lawsuits?

I say that if you’re that character, it’s time to sober up and go back to school. Investigative journalism – and the news – has a bright future, but unless you take the time to invest in some new tricks, you won’t be part of it. Here’s why.

#1. It’s as important to know how to interview data as it is to interview people.

I’m borrowing this one from recent comments made by Mark Hansen, Director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University. His basic premise is this: we live in a world where technology is increasingly important and the amount of data being generated by everything from toasters to government agencies is growing exponentially. Being able to tune into the signals available has never been more important (insert obligatory NSA joke here). “There are more ways of understanding the world now, and it is useful for a journalist to have those tools at their disposal,” Hansen told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Oh, you might ask, can data break news? Can a computer tell a story? Maybe not on its own, but there are dozens of good examples of efforts to surface events, patterns and anomalies for the purposes of reporting. The launch of Dataminr is a good one – the company seeks to use Twitter data to help journalists find news. We can be sure that there will be many more such tools in the near future, providing feeds of information from all sorts of systems and using ever more complex algorithms to digest, compare and combine that information. It’s not hard to imagine a day when news stories are first reported by a machine intelligence that has become aware of a pattern or event no journalist could ever have pieced together, no matter the number of hours perched on a bar stool pumping whisky and sources. I predict we’ll see New York Times headlines written by Watson, or whatever comes after Watson.

#2. If you don’t know anything about audience analytics and community engagement, you are part of the problem at your stentorian institution.

Maybe it’s just that thundering stentorian types aren’t great listeners. In tomorrow’s successful digital media enterprises, ignoring your audience would be akin to working in the dark. Yet even today, some journalists still entertain the notion that they should be removed from their audience; in the name of objectivity or perhaps creativity, they prefer a kind of otherness. In the future, successful news enterprises will be built on active understanding of and engagement with audiences. Some of the tools employed will be technological, others human. Participating in social media, responding to comments on articles and monitoring analytics tools will be necessary, but insufficient.

“Journalists have to work out how to work among their communities as members of them and collaborators with them, not apart and above,” Jeff Jarvis wrote a while back in the Guardian. Surely that’s why various courses in the program he teaches in at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism focus on social media and community engagement skills.

#3. You are going to have to learn to sell yourself.

In tomorrow’s world of lean, data driven, fast-paced news organizations, the journalist who will thrive shares more in common with an entrepreneur than he does with that earlier caricature of the investigative journalist. The journalism programs at NYU, Columbia, and CUNY all focus on entrepreneurial journalism; the Tow-Knight Center at CUNY leads on this subject. Around the world, entrepreneurship has become a part of journalism training. Increasingly, we’re seeing journalism schools become incubators for startups. And the personal franchise model for journalism seems to be thriving.

Much of what makes an entrepreneur successful – rolling up the sleeves and doing the dirty commercial work, even finding or asking for money – may sound ghastly to journalists used to working in legacy media companies. But individuals who are as good at these tasks as they are at grammar will staff tomorrow’s news enterprises.

So how did that vote turn out? The one about whether investigative journalism would be in a better place in ten year’s time? It was pretty much split down the middle. Half the room looked at the new world order that is emerging for news organizations and saw the glass half full; the other half saw it half empty, and perhaps wished it were just full of whisky, like the old days. For my part, I remain optimistic that technology and human craft can meet somewhere in the middle and still create value in the market. But the human craft has to change, too.

We’re at the beginning of this transition, as Clay Shirky pointed out in an influential blog post (now nearly five years old) on this subject. He said, “we’re collectively living through (the year) 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.” One thing has become clear, though: which journalistic skill sets are part of the future and which ones are part of the past. For some, it’s time to hit the books.

Justin Hendrix is Executive Director of NYC Media Lab

Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Ahmad Hammoud

About the author: NYC Media Lab

NYC Media Lab connects companies seeking to advance new media technologies with university labs and talent in New York City. Launched by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, NYU-Poly, and Columbia University, NYC Media Lab is a public-private partnership encompassing all the universities of NYC. NYC Media Lab corporate members include AT&T, HBO, Hearst, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. The Lab tackles the big questions facing the media industry today, with the goal of generating research and development, knowledge transfer, and talent development.

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