Most of my posts on this blog focus on new media, changing content, and embracing interaction with readers. I do that because I really believe those are vital as journalism evolves.
However, I think there’s much about so-called “old journalism” that should be retained as journalism evolves. I’m no newbie. I’m 42 years old, and I’ve been at this journalism game for 20 years.
To stretch a hackneyed metaphor, I think there’s a lot of bath water to get baled out, but there’s a lot of baby to be saved, too. I don’t believe saving the best of the old as you add the new is impossible. At least, I hope not.
So here are “old journalism” standards that I believe need to remain as journalism reinvents itself:
- Enterprise: By enterprise, I’m talking about the type of stories where a reporter followed a thread, found out answers, exposed abuse, ferreted our waste, documented inequities. In short, these are stories that change readers’ lives. These are the stories that newspapers have long been known for, and these are the stories that many nonjournalist bloggers won’t touch because they take too much time, training and knowledge. The Undeadjournalist has a post worth reading on this topic, noting that “The most valuable thing news organizations have to offer hasn’t changed, even though all the bells and whistles have. The most valuable thing they offer is the original reporting, the information you can’t get anywhere else.” Ask a typical journalist to name just one story he or she is most proud of. Odds are it will be an enterprise piece that was long, well-researched and carefully edited. Odds are it won’t be one of those 6-inch pieces of fluff that were supposed to save journalism five years ago.
- Accuracy: Journalism is nothing if it’s wrong. Journalists need to continue to check not just the facts of a story — but the context. I’ve started something on my beat that I find really worthwhile. Before I file every story, I fact check it like magazines do. I don’t give the source the story, but I go over every fact and every bit of context with each source. (An example: “You mentioned you have three biological children and two adopted sons. Is that how you want the relationship described in the story?” I’ll ask.) So many times a reporter has the facts right, but the source — particularly a regular Joe not used to being interviewed — couldn’t quite envision how those words would look in print. For blogs, this fact-checking becomes part of the initial interview, rather than a follow-up call. Accuracy becomes almost more important online because in 30 minutes your story or blog post can go literally around the world, and others may be linking and repeating what you wrote, mistakes and all.
- Watchdog role: This is just the basis of what journalism should be in a Democracy. Reporters should be a check on government. They should be exposing duplicity. They should be doing the math and finding the mistakes. They should be looking at the original document and seeing if it jibes with the spin. How will we afford to do this in the future? That’s a challenge that I wish I knew the answer to. But I do know this. We must find a way because we can’t lose this.
- Quoting regular folks: The best journalism relies on “real people,” not officials, not spokespeople, not flacks. I think part of the way you can judge a journalist is by how many regular folks he or she can reach quickly on deadline — how many “real people” are in the Rolodex, virtual or otherwise. Quoting the common man and woman is important because journalism isn’t public relations; it’s shouldn’t be just explaining the official view. The interactive Web can help journalists connect with more of these “real people.” It’s even more vital in the “new journalism” to expand this source list continually so readers are more engaged.
- Careful editing: I think careful editing is very important for news stories — whether online or in print for much of the reasons I brought up above about how stories and posts can go viral on the Web. Is it possible for every blog post to go through an assigning editor, rim editor and slot editor before it gets posts? Probably not in most newsrooms. Blogs need to be immediate, so forgoing the normal editing process may be part of a necessary trade-off for speed. Perhaps as blogging at news organizations evolves, we can figure out a way to edit more quickly? I guess I wouldn’t let a reporter blog whom I didn’t trust to be accurate and fair. I also think blogging is understood to be an immediate medium, so it’s OK if it reads as less polished than an enterprise piece that took months of work. With that said, bloggers still should have oversight. I edited a reporter who blogged for two years, and I’d read his posts pretty much in real time, just not before they went active. I could spot a typo or make suggestions, and the flexibility of the Web allows quick fixing.
- Quality: The Web is a free-flowing place in many ways, and it’s a place where people can experiment with video and podcasts and telling stories different ways. That’s all good, but to last journalism still needs quality. What does that mean? To me, that means whatever medium you’re using, you should strive to do the best work. Readers initially might be attracted to a new feature — videos, podcasts, slide shows, etc. But as these proliferate, readers won’t gravitate to the ones poorly done. Technorati, the authority-ranking search engine, estimates that bloggers create close to 1 million posts daily. With so many options for readers, you have to be good to expect anyone to read you and keep reading you.
- Impartiality: I like the term impartiality better than objectivity because I’m not sure anyone — journalist or not — can really be completely objective. We are all shaped by our experiences and this impacts our judgment, understanding, beliefs both consciously and subconsciously. However, we can all strive to be impartial — which to me means not using journalism to further your own agenda or beliefs. It means presenting not just two sides, but fives sides if there are five. It means giving voice to each of those sides and to the gray areas between them. Bloggers have more liberty to express opinion, and I think that’s fine as long as they aren’t taking sides in a news story they are writing about. It’s fine tight-rope to walk, but I think the Web gives readers a chance to make their own decisions because they can read the actual report or the full statement from the mayor or the news release instead of just relying on a journalist’s interpretation.