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Retrain Journalists to Save Biz? OK, But What About Civilians?

If We're Really Serious About Preserving Journalistic Values, Let's Nurture Them Beyond Newsrooms

By Published on . 3

EXHIBIT A

"The Minnesota Job Skills Partnership program has given the Duluth News Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the University of Minnesota's journalism school a total of $238,000 to help retrain the newspaper staffs."

When I spotted that last week on Jim Romenesko's media blog, I assumed the obvious: that the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership was helping retrain laid-off newspaper people to use their skills in new fields. But no. The money is for training newspaper people to be, well, newspaper people -- circa 2009. Apparently somebody just noticed they were frozen in amber and needed some learnin' to bring 'em up to speed.

Genie's out: 82 million people in the U.S. created content online last year.
Genie's out: 82 million people in the U.S. created content online last year.
Get this, from the AP report: "Kathleen Hansen, director of the university's Minnesota Journalism Center ... said training will be tailored to the skills of the newsroom and advertising-sales staffs at the newspapers. She said a primary goal for both departments will be getting them away from print-based thinking. Some journalists 'don't know how to start thinking about stories without thinking about what's going to be in the print newspaper,' she said. Journalists will likely study new ways of telling stories and new ways of delivering content, and perhaps get some training in using software."

Oh dear God.

Now consider this:


EXHIBIT B

"Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny."
-- Princeton Professor Paul Starr
in the New Republic, also via Romenesko

Well, sure, we know that. But what if we applied to the logic of Exhibit A to the reality of Exhibit B? Meaning, since there's this great unwashed profusion of (largely) undisciplined content creators out there, maybe we should be offering more/better programs to "retrain" the most talented of these civilians to be more ... journalistic. And find smarter ways to reward them for becoming/being so.

There are, of course, plenty of programs that professionalize bloggers from a business standpoint -- rolling them up into ad networks, for example. And there's the rise, too, of the "citizen-journalist" blogger -- but the best of these folks are usually regarded as sort of freak occurrences (i.e., the gutsy blogger who has preternaturally good interviewing skills, who isn't afraid to corner a politician on a rope line). But there needs to be a better plan for citizen journalism than just hoping for more random lightning strikes.

As it is, despite the highfalutin civic-mindedness implicit in the term "citizen journalism," the truth is that a lot of big media organizations seem to regard the phenomenon as, mostly, a way to get more content for free or on the cheap. Consider the Huffington Post's much-hyped (and now discontinued) "Off the Bus" election-reporting project, which generated a ton of posts with a sometimes journalistic-ethics-be-damned m.o. (Mayhill Fowler, for instance, got her big scoops by failing to properly identify herself as a HuffPo blogger). Or consider Hearst's shameless crowing last week about its new deal with freelance content-mill Helium: "Sourcing Helium's top-notch writers will allow us to continue to deliver superior local and lifestyle content to our readers," said Lincoln Millstein, a Hearst VP, in a statement, "while also taking the necessary steps to get our costs in line with today's economic realities." Hot air, helium -- take your pick. Still, consider this:


EXHIBIT C

"More than 82 million people in the U.S. created content online during 2008, a number expected to grow to nearly 115 million by 2013. ... 71 million people created content on social networks last year, while 21 million posted blogs, 15 million uploaded videos."

In other words, we can't put the genie back in the bottle.

We're all obsessed with saving a supposedly dying industry: journalism. And yet there are millions more active storytellers -- many doing quasi-journalism (and sometimes actual journalism) -- than ever before.

So what if, instead of spending money on "retraining" journalists to function in the 21st century, we focused on creating systems and programs and media enterprises that helped quasi-journalists not only monetize their content-making, but helped them do something more solidly journalistic? There are actually good models for this around the world, with OhMyNews, the groundbreaking South Korean news site ("Every citizen is a reporter") perhaps the most inspiring, given that it not only fact checks reader submissions, but runs a citizen-journalism school in Seoul.


EXHIBIT D

"If all the newspaper newsrooms go away, so too does an entire base of knowledge about proper journalism practices. The ethos of the web is very different from that of a newspaper, and not that the web it is in itself bad, but it is a different way of looking at how we disseminate information. 'Blog first and ask questions later' is not always the most responsible way to report the news."
-- Ann Marie Kerwin (my editor, and editor
of Advertising Age's MediaWorks)

A few years back, there was a brief flurry of discussion on the Poynter Institute's website along these lines. Journalist Steve Outing, for instance, wrote a short post titled "Training Citizen Journalists: News Industry's Responsibility?"

Now it's 2009 and, geez, we're still talking about teaching professional journalists how to be ... citizens of the internet.

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