Is “layered journalism” the future?

Stephen Ward

Stephen WardNewspapers in peril, journalists laid off, ethical standards challenged, and the economic basis of mainstream journalism collapsing.

We are witnessing more than the collapse of an economic model of journalism. We are observing the collapse of a democratic model. For more than a century, we have relied on advertising and subscriptions to pay for the newspapers and broadcasts that inform citizens. When that model implodes, all citizens should take notice. 

This is no time for critics of “mainstream media” to be triumphal. If we lose newspapers and broadcast news programs, who – what? – will fill the gap in serious, often expensive, skillful journalism in the public interest? Who will watch corrupt lawmakers and power brokers? Paul Starr wrote a powerful piece on this issue in The New Republic, called “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption).”

In a recent class of my International Communications course, we asked: Is there a future for good journalism amid this media revolution? We were helped by my colleague, Prof. Lewis Friedland, who explores how new media can be harnessed to encourage civic engagement. Last year, Friedland worked on the Obama for President Urban Policy Committee, constructing policies that might stimulate civic engagement on public issues.

When Friedland thinks about what might fill the gap created by declining newspapers, he imagines an online newspaper characterized by a “layered journalism.” Layered journalism combines professional and citizen journalism through the creative use of new media. The newsroom staff would have several layers, starting at the “top” with traditional managing editors and some professional journalists and editors. There might also be new types of editors who act more like producers. They would go out into the community to encourage and to train people to tell their stories.

The newsroom would also contain paid citizen journalists for serious news stories.

By paid citizen journalists, Friedland means ordinary citizens from around the world who are not professionally trained in journalism yet are willing to do news reporting according to the style and rules of traditional news journalism. The professional journalists in the newsroom would make sure that the paid citizen journalists followed rules for impartiality, accuracy, and fairness. Eventually, these citizen journalists would come to resemble freelance reporters. In addition, the online newspaper would contain stories from unpaid citizen journalists who are free to comment on and write about what engages them, with fewer ethical rules to follow.

Why paid citizen journalists? Because, as Prof. Friedland argued, his own experiments in creating community web sites, such as the Madison Commons, has taught him that most citizens are not willing to carry out the demanding job of reporting on serious news according to rules of accuracy and fairness. They prefer to write more freely about issues in which they are engaged. Therefore, Friedland concludes, the gap of serious news reporting cannot be filled by unpaid citizens alone. But layered journalism comes at a price, ethically speaking. We have to be tolerant of writers who do not pay much attention to traditional standards of journalism such as fairness. To put it in Friedland’s own language, the producers and consumers of the future online newspaper will have to accept writing from unpaid citizen journalists that do not meet the strict standards of traditional journalism ethics.

Now that is an interesting implication. How can news outlets justify different standards for different writers for the same online newspaper?

One line of argument is based on what I call the idea of “ecumenical ethics.” According to this idea, all communicators abide by general ethical rules such as to tell the truth. But when we come to different forms of communication, we find different values and norms. News reporting will value accuracy and impartiality. But online blogging or citizen journalism will value immediacy, transparency, and strong opinion. The ethics of the future will not be one set of rules for all but a “mixed ethics” of different rules for different forms of journalism.

Perhaps ecumenical ethics has always existed. The political cartoonist or the editorial columnist of a print newspaper is not bound by the same rules of fairness and impartiality that restrain reporters. True, but today such differences go deeper. People advocate different norms within reporting  – depending on whether the journalist is a professional reporter or citizen journalist.

I do not know whether layered ethics is the best way forward. But it is worth exploring.

There is one other concern with layered journalism. Who will pay for serious news in the online newspaper of the future? One idea is “micro-payments,” such as are being pioneered by web publications Oh My News and Readers support stories they like by providing money to the writer or the newspaper. But such revenue models presume that enough people are interested in serious news to pay for it, beyond the political and business elites. Is that a safe assumption in a culture built on entertainment, sports, and indifference to civic life?

That new models raise questions is to be expected. They are experiments not fully tested in the real world. Nevertheless, journalism leaders and media scholars, like Friedland, have a responsibility to put forward new visions of good journalism, especially in difficult times.

As an ethicist recently said at a conference: “Sometimes when you blow something (journalism) up, something new and good can emerge.” Out of chaos may come new opportunities and new inventions.

J. A. Ward is the James E. Burgess Professor of Journalism Ethics in
the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison and an adjunct professor at the University of British
Columbia (UBC). He is the founding chair of the Canadian Association of
Journalists’ (CAJ) ethics advisory committee and former director of 
UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.