Saving Ourselves: Thoughts on My RJI Fellowship Experience

Scrawled on the lower corner of the wall that serves as both window and whiteboard for RJI Executive Director Randy Picht is this message:

Dear Randy –
Please save me!
         – Journalism

For much of the last 10 months, I’ve considered that request. Journalism, as it has been practiced at least since the Missouri School of Journalism was founded 100 years ago, is in upheaval. What passes for – and is passed around as – news via social media is as often as not a frightening array of shabby reporting, advertising tarted up as “content marketing,” and thinly veiled opinion. The economic forces driving digital media – traffic and page views – demand that journalists produce more copy more quickly to feed click metrics. Entertaining lists, nonsensical headlines, and repurposed social post are fast and cheap to produce. And when media-grazing consumers snack on these sensational stories they reinforce the idea that this is the news consumers want and want more of, as if the first rule of journalism is to give the public what they want, rather than what they need.

Credibility of all media is at an all-time low, and it is no wonder, although that is not where I started this Fellowship at RJI. My assumption was that consumers, drowning in a flood of social media, hadn’t the tools or training to discern credible journalism in a non-stop flow of media. That media was not credible was a consumer problem, I theorized, and if we could identify ways to emulate in digital media the signposts that work in traditional media to separate hard news from entertainment and editorial from advertising, then just maybe we’d have a chance to crack this credibility problem.

The more I dug on this consumer “problem,” however, the more I came to realize that news media had a strong hand in creating the challenges they now face.

Culling through nearly 40 years of Gallop research on public perceptions of media credibility, I discovered an interesting correlation: each new wave of media fragmentation and consumer choice was accompanied by a precipitous drop in perceived credibility of news media itself. It appears that as news organizations splinter to create highly-targeted and presumably -profitable media products, they support a kind of tribalism that pits one perspective against another. News consumers attracted to conservative media, for example, become distrustful of all other “mainstream” and “liberal” media, while consumers of left-leaning news organizations are equally dubious of “conservative” and “right-wing” media. Fast forward to the present day and news media become the subject of one another’s coverage with “analysts” on one side of the divide parsing the reporting of media “personalities” on the other. In many regards, news media have created a cacophonous echo chamber that serves to rile up supporters and turn off many more consumers.

That’s a far cry from Walter Williams’ Journalist Creed that journalists be “unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power; constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient . . . unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob.”

A daily dose of bickering media is bound to affect public trust.

That’s not to say that all journalism is tribal journalism as it is practiced on the not-so-objective corporate news machine. Indeed, most of the journalists practicing today are sincerely striving to survive in an economic reality that is fundamentally restructuring the business environment in which they work. The pressure to perform for clicks is immense and the old model that separates journalists from the economics of the media business will no longer work.

It is easy to look at the state of journalism today and blame its challenges on the forces of disruptive technology, the democratization of media, and the market shifts that have torn the traditional advertising base asunder. That would be true, yet it isn’t enough. Journalism as it has been practiced for the last 100 years is not journalism as it will be practiced in the next century. Nowhere was this more clear than in the Journalism and Democracy capstone class I worked with during my Fellowship. Students about to embark on their careers in the brave new world of journalism were being mentored by journalists who were winding down their careers in the frightened old world of journalism. 

The gap is immeasurable. Yet one thing became clearer and clearer as my Fellowship progressed. Journalism would not be saved by some external force, even one as insightful and innovative as RJI. If journalism is to be saved, it will be saved by journalists.

That notion, which first took hold early in my Fellowship, became more evident in February, when a lone freelance aviation journalist broke and reported what is arguably the first and best example of real-time social journalism. Over a period of several hours, John Walker thoroughly and responsibly told the story of a hi-jacked Ethiopian Airlines jet as it happened, using a band of aviation enthusiasts as sources fact checkers and Twitter as his publishing medium. No newsroom, no editors, no publishing or broadcasting infrastructure. Just one guy, reporting a breaking story directly to his public.

Walker’s example galvanized the capstone class in their research on the use of Twitter in the newsroom, a project that I was proud to present on their behalf at RJI’s Mobile First Symposium in early April, and that the class documented here and here and here. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mizzou’s and The Missourian’s Tom Warhover and his students, not only for their great work on this project, but also for the boost of confidence that the future of journalism, no matter how it unfolds, is in very good hands.

And it’s not just a new wave of young journalists who will be about the task of saving journalism. My Fellowship concluded with a 2-day event in San Francisco to “Hack the Future of Journalism.” What my RJI colleagues Mike McKean and Ruben Stern imagined as an intimate brainstorming session among couple dozen journalists and coders quickly evolved into a round-the-clock ideas fest as nearly 100 reporters, editors, broadcasters, students, and even a few developers prototyped about 15 concepts for apps, Websites, tools and protocols that leveraged social media and digital technologies to bring journalists closer to their audiences and to rethink how that work is paid for and rewarded by consumers.

Those projects are documented here, and it is my sincere hope that as I return to the world of technology journalism (I start work today at MIT Technology Review) these journalists-turned-entrepreneurs and others like them will continue the work of re-inventing (some might say “saving”) journalism.

Note: This essay has been concurrently posted on the Reynolds Journalism Institute website.

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