Sunday, March 21, 2010

Journalism, news work and paying the bills

In any revolution one of the biggest fights begins with language.

Today for instance, in a 24/7 world of print, cable, broadcast and Web updates, what exactly is "journalism"? Does it cover both The New York Times and my neighbor's blog?

Jan Schaffer says there's a difference between journalism and "news work." And the people we call citizen journalists, she says, might be better described as "citizen media makers."

Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, spoke March 20 at the Indiana Coalition for Open Government's Citizen Journalism Boot Camp.

She credits Columbia University doctoral student Chris Anderson with terms like news work and "fact entrepreneurs" - bloggers like Matt Drudge, for example.

Journalism is about collecting, validating, producing and publishing news, Schaffer said. "News work is bigger than journalism. It is sharing information, facilitating conversation, crowd-sourcing stories, smart curation and aggregation, data-mining and visualization ... social shout-outs."

It's less fun to talk about but I'm glad the business of news is getting some attention, too.

Schaffer's remarks in Indianapolis reflected views she's expressed elsewhere on entrepreneurism and the future of news, including at the University of Southern California in February.

"As I look at how the media ecosystem is evolving in communities large and small across the United States, I am more optimistic than pessimistic that citizens will get their information needs met," she said then.

"I also think that traditional journalists will play a smaller - albeit still important - role as the gatherers and disseminators of news.

"Others, though, will have increasingly important roles to play. They include citizen media makers, but also fact entrepreneurs, creative technologists, philanthropic foundations, universities, advocacy groups and even governments."

The J-Lab has been funding news startups around the country. Schaffer refers to "the promises and perils of this new breed of citizen journalists."

"They are not merely bloggers, inveighing against something they don’t like," she said at USC. "They are more than photographers or videographers, bearing witness to some catastrophe or breaking news event. They do more than post tweets shouting out some bit of news.

"These people have deputized themselves to systematically cover town news as best they can. Some have “beats;” they have formulated rules of governance for their news enterprises; they have guidelines for content; many have sought nonprofit status from the IRS. They edit content that comes from other contributors. They moderate comments on their sites. Many buy libel insurance."

Aside from grants, how does this work get funded?

"For the most part, they are doing this as a labor of love," Schaffer said.

"They are lucky if they can raise enough money to get reimbursed to drive to a town meeting or pay for a babysitter. They are looking to do more than just dispassionately cover their communities. They are seeking to connect and inform people in ways that might help their communities do well."

That economic angle haunts me because I teach journalism to college students. The work they're preparing for is hard, and they deserve to be paid.

Projects like J-Lab do a great job of helping us think through the nuts and bolts of content creation. The startups they fund are helping point the way to a future clouded for now by tough economic times.

We also need something like an "S-Lab," as in sales, to find economic support.

The future of news won't be decided by people who do it as a labor of love. There aren't enough volunteers for the endless hours of commitment it takes to produce serious enterprise reporting.

We'll always have blogs or outlets like them. Civic-minded volunteers will play an important role in crowd-sourcing, local-local coverage and community organizing. But if we want dispassionate beat coverage and enterprise reporting we'll need the kind of money that comes from self-sustaining businesses.

We're working on it: Online revenue is growing again, and the Web sites at some metro newspapers generate enough cash to equal newsroom payrolls. Some of us are experimenting with inexpensive multimedia tools to produce cost-effective online ads.

Ultimately, the same kind of energy and creativity we direct to the editorial side will help us through the business challenges.

We'll do the vital news work we need to do - and pay people fairly for doing it.
- John Strauss,

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