Posted by: Ciaran | October 13, 2009

The children of the revolution

It’s the world’s worst kept secret – if it’s a secret at all – that attempting to be a print journalist is a pretty rotten occupation right now.  One of the main reasons for that is that the concept of the ‘print’ journalist has been so effortlessly deconstructed; everyone can now be a journalist, with today’s Twitter-orgy (Rusbridger/The Guardian/Twitter v. Carter Ruck) a great example of the interaction between the public and the media.  One of the many impacts of user-generated content (UGC) is the need for quality journalism; in a world where everybody can claim to be a reporter – whether through their blog, Twitter, YouTube or some other medium – those who are doing so for a living must be right at the coalface, or they will be superseded.

With this in mind (broadly speaking, anyway – I’m sure they’d have put it in grander terms) a group of German journos recently collaborated on an Internet Manifesto (check it out at http://www.internet-manifesto.org/) to tell the modern reporter ‘how journalism works today’ by compiling a 17-point checklist on the effects of the internet.  In a nutshell, they agglomerate reasons as to why the internet has the potential to spur journalism on to be better than ever, with its profusion of voices and freedom of expression. 

My disclaimer – and my problems with the online boom

Now, I’d never do anything to even remotely suggest the suppression of free speech, but my concern is this: it’s like quantitative easing, but with words.  People are throwing thousands of words around, and they don’t quite know what it means all the time.  Thus, the quality material is diluted and potentially lost, and erroneous information can take precedence.  ‘Individuals can now inform themselves better than ever’, point five states; ‘When in doubt, the “generation Wikipedia” is capable of appraising the quality of a source, tracking news back to its original source, researching it, checking it and assessing it’, says point 17. 

I’m not entirely sure.  The web is such a transient environment, and the hypermedia nature means that users can bounce around freely without recourse to ‘tracking news back to its original source’; yes, this is undoubtedly possible, but I would wager that fewer people do that than just read something and believe it is true, especially if the source looks reputable.  The manifesto does emphasise that quality is still the most necessary prerequisite for successful journalism, and says: ‘Only those who are outstanding, credible and exceptional will gain a steady following in the long run.’ (Point 16).  Point taken – but whose definition of credible is being applied?

Curmudgeon?  Moi?

This is where I again sound like a stick in the mud; I appreciate the undesirable nature of regulation, but I disagree when the manifesto states that ‘the forfeiture of print media’s inalterability is a benefit’ (point six).  I disagree for two reasons:

i) Print media can be altered, albeit in a post-hoc fashion.  Corrections can be printed in a later edition or the following day/week/issue in just the same way that a web page can be updated; maybe not so immediate a change, but a change nevertheless (and as well consider how much misinformation is liable to spill out when journalism is done on the hoof).

ii) The tangible nature of print media, its very physical presence, means that it is not so disposable.  Yes, I can turn the page or throw it away, but if I sit down to read an article in a paper I at least know that I will probably get to the end rather than be interrupted mid-sentence by a tweet popping up and telling me to read a different article entirely.

This all makes me sound very curmudgeonly, so let me try and make my point succinctly; I’m all for multi-platform journalism and the future of journalism being undertaken in a dialogic and interactive format.  I just don’t think it requires the denigration of newspapers to make it work.

The way forward

I enjoyed reading Alison Gow’s response to the manifesto on her ‘Headlines and Deadlines’ blog (http://headlinesanddedlines.blogspot.com/2009/09/five-phrases-to-outlaw-in-newsrooms.html); she describes journalism’s online future as ‘the new elephant in the newsroom’, arguing for five fundamental steps in making reporters more technologically savvy.  Her approach is not so brash, instead adopting a more reasoned, pragmatic approach and addressing it in more direct and applicable terms than some of the overblown rhetoric which the manifesto favours.

Gow argues, for example, that reporters who “can’t do” the internet ‘need time, training and encouragement’.  This approach – taking modernisation in a planned rather than wholesale way, thus not pulling the carpet from under the feet of journalists with a more entrenched approach – is something I favour, and have discussed with my colleague Joe on his blog (http://curtinho.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/down-to-business/).

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