News biz needs more “buzz”

By
Alan Bass

One
of the most striking characteristics of the news industry in Canada is
what appears to be a near total lack of commitment to R&D and
professional development.

In
fact, good research on the business, practices and audience of
journalism does exist, but this knowledge often remains unseen and
unused by the people working on the front lines. Even today, a time
when journalists face enormous challenges, this knowledge gap gapes as
wide as ever.

There
was a time – I can recall it – when working as a journalist
felt a lot like playing a contact sport. You played for a team and you
played to win. You were loyal to your team and you hated the
opposition.

We
never explained what we were doing to the public – we
didn’t believe we needed to – and we weren’t
interested in listening to critics. Teams and players changed as news
organizations came and went, but the sport of journalism was forever.

Those
were the days when newspaper and broadcast companies controlled the
mass media. Those were the days when everyone watched the same TV
channels. They were the days when mass media organizations made so much
money, with so little effort, the people controlling the purse strings
pretty much let those peculiar creatures in the newsroom do whatever
they wanted.

In
those days, journalists could claim without much thought to be the
tribunes of the people and nobody contradicted us. How could they? We
were the gatekeepers; we controlled the channels. We didn’t
have to explain ourselves to anyone.

Those
days are gone. Nowadays, daily newspapers are hemorrhaging readers and
revenue. The broadcast audience is splintered into little shards of
niche. The reach and accessibility of the Internet is challenging and
often overturning the old certainties of the mass media business.

As
for journalists claiming to be the voices the people, forget it.
It’s the age of the Internet. The people can and do speak for
themselves. 

This
is a time of gut-churning confusion for the news business and
journalism. But it is also a time that offers opportunity –
if we can find a way to seize it.

To
do so, journalists need to identify our common purposes and adapt our
methods to new realities. We need to forge a new relationship with the
mass media business and with citizens that doesn’t compromise
journalism’s mission. We need to clearly articulate what
journalism is and why it matters. We need to learn to explain
ourselves.

Above
all else, we need to talk to each other, learn from one another, and
share and absorb relevant useful knowledge whatever its source.
I’ve agreed to join J-Source as the editor of its Findings
section because I want to help this conversation happen.

Join the conversation
If
confusion and uncertainty has a benefit, it’s that it gets
people thinking and talking. That’s certainly true of
journalism today. The purpose, philosophy and practice of journalism
and the news business are being examined and debated like never before.

The conversation started to focus in the late 1990s, when journalists and journalism educators in the United States created the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and its sister body the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ). Dozens of meetings held across the United States to talk about journalism produced a short but thought-provoking book, The Elements of Journalism,
which many (myself included), regard as a must-read analysis of what
journalism has become and what it could be.  

The conversation also sparked a number of research projects – most notably, the PEJ’s annual State of the News Media
report, which, since 2004, has carefully and exhaustively tracked U.S.
journalism’s evolution in newspapers, magazines, radio, TV
and the Internet.

Many
other organizations and individuals have contributed to the
conversation. Notable examples include Geneva Overholser’s On Behalf of Journalism: A Manifesto for Change, a review of journalism reform possibilities published in 2006 by the Annenberg Public Policy Centre, and Abandoning the News, Merrill Brown’s troubling look into the future of journalism, published in 2005 by the Carnegie Corporation.

Another
organization leading the conversation in the United States is the
redoubtable Poynter Institute. Its rich website hosts Jim Romenesko, whose daily blog of journalism news has become a common, daily must-read for journalists across North America. 

Other contributors to the debate in the United States include grassroots reform organizations like Free Press and many university researchers who publish research and commentary in academic journals.

In
Canada, there is also a conversation taking place, though, as often
happens, it isn’t quite as forceful or as widely disseminated
as in the United States.

One of the vital players in Canada is the Canadian Media Research Consortium
(CMRC), funded as part of a “public benefits”
agreement brokered by the CRTC when Bell Canada Enterprises purchased
CTV. The CMRC – modeled largely after the CCJ and PEJ
– has sponsored several media research projects and
conferences since 2004, but hasn’t built much of a profile,
even among Canadian journalists.

Canada also has its own grassroots reformers, such as the Campaign for Democratic Media,
and a small but healthy community of academic researchers, who publish
peer-reviewed work in traditional subscription journals like the Canadian Journal of Communication and the open-access, web-based Canadian Journal of Media Studies.

What the Canadian conversation needs is amplification. The creation of J-Source
by the Canadian Journalism Project – funded by the Canadian
Journalism Foundation, supported by a consortium of Canadian journalism
schools and featuring contributions from a wide range of people
involved in journalism – should help achieve that. You are
reading J-Source now, so perhaps you agree.

Which
brings me back to Findings. This section’s role is to
contribute to the conversation by seeking out useful, insightful and
thought-provoking data and research about journalism and news media and
disseminating it to as broad an audience as possible. Scientists call
this process “knowledge diffusion.” I call it
feeding the conversation.

The
goal is to nourish our discussion about journalism with a steady influx
of interesting ideas and foundational facts from Canada and elsewhere.
 
As
a result of the common challenges we face, most of us involved in
journalism are coming to realize we are all on the same team and that
what’s at stake in today’s game is the future of journalism itself.
There was a time when it seemed as if university-based journalism
researchers and front-line journalists were Canada’s other
two solitudes. But that’s changing. The lines of
communication are opening.

The
conversation has started, but it’s still fragile. I witnessed
that fragility a few years ago, when I was invited to a meeting of
journalists, journalism educators and senior news executives. The
subject was how to improve Canadian journalism.

One
of the proposals made that day was for the news industry to fund an
institute to provide continuing education programs for working
journalists – a great idea and, I’m sure many would
agree, long overdue.

The
proposal had everyone in the room buzzing in conversation. Then a
powerful network news executive forcefully proclaimed there was no way
he would spend a dime of his organization’s money to train
the competition.

The buzzing stopped. The idea was dead and so was the conversation. Chalk up a win for the old team.

The
future of journalism in Canada depends on clear, creative and shared
thinking. Let’s not allow anyone to kill the conversation.
Let’s buzz.

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