A vision for journalism, if journalists will buy it

I had barely begun to absorb Brian Solis’ beautifully laid-out framework for a realistic future for journalism when I got word of more catastrophic losses at my former newspaper.

I throw Solis’ name around without first reference identification not to be a name-dropper. Journalists probably don’t know who he is, and I didn’t either until I got immersed in the world of online media a few years ago.

But Solis is the kind of new media figure that journalists need to know about — people outside their fields who have more influence, ideas and innovative approaches to journalism than what’s been fomenting (or more precisely, what hasn’t) inside traditional newsrooms.

Solis is a public relations executive and an expert on the subject of convergence in media as it applies across the communications spectrum — public relations, advertising, marketing and yes, journalism. He’s acutely aware of how technological change has drastically altered all of these knowledge industries, and how professionals in them can use it to their advantage. Instead of the alternative, getting run over and defeated by it:

“I guess I’m saying that at a time when traditional routes to journalism careers are being questioned, exceptional journalists can create their own destiny. Their future is in their notepads (or laptops), ready to escape from paper to online and the real world.

“The connection with readers, once established, multiplied, and fed, is seductive and unquenchable.

“Personality, motivation, determination, and the ability to embrace risk and venture into unchartered and unpredictable territory is the only way to champion change and influence the direction of professional adventures.”

A bit further down he writes:

“If you are a journalist, it’s now your responsibility to create a dedicated tribe that supports, shares, and responds to your work and personal interaction in both the Statusphere and also at the point of origin. It’s the only way to build a valuable and portable community around you and what you represent.”

This is not an entirely new set of realities he’s articulating, and neither are his solutions, which to many print-oriented journalists smack of quackery. The comments at the end of the post are rife with such skepticism:

“I used to follow the blogging journalists who have adapted to a new way of presenting their personal opinions and calling it news, because, after reading thousands of self-promoting pieces, their personalities and opinions became the overriding theme — not the news and not a balanced view. The names you name are big, huge, and ego-driven personalities, not journalists. They are driven by their need to be known for who they are and how important they believe they are, instead of the issue they have chosen merits their (oh so valuable and expensive) attention.”

And this:

“Who is going to pay for journalism?

“You list a bunch of people on Twitter and what they provide but you don’t explain what they’re getting in return.

“It’s great that these people are sharing and building relationships online but you miss the point that syndication without monetization is worthless.

“This is the problem with you new media folks: you talk about audiences, sharing, relationships, conversations. Touchy feely stuff.

“But when it comes to what’s really needed to save journalism — a business model that makes PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISM a viable profession — you have absolutely nothing to say.

“So here’s a suggestion: in your next post, please explain HOW the statusphere can save journalism.”

And still more:

“It’s not about getting all warm and fuzzy with your readers/viewers/followers/audience — it’s about HOW TO MAKE A LIVING while doing it!

“As an experienced journalist who spent more than a year looking for a job after being downsized, I can state unequivocally that all the blogging etc. I did during that time did not keep me from burning through my retirement funds or going on food stamps to take care of my family.

“The average journalist doesn’t expect to get rich — but we gotta keep a roof over our heads and we gotta feed the kids.

“Until you can demonstrate a way that your ‘statusphere’ can result in an income someone can live on, you’re just blowing smoke up our collective posteriors.”

Let’s toss in one more crabby zinger:

“So let me get this straight, all journalists need to do is bang the crap out of Twitter and Facebook, and then money will roll in?”

They’re taking this well, aren’t they? Ask some of them to think outside the confines of their insular newsrooms, and it brings out the worst in them.

What a bunch of incurious grousers! They truly do reflect the fear and willful ignorance of a dying newspaper industry that has shielded itself, and its journalists, from the whims of the market. A market that has been blown wide open by the Web and technology that makes information a cheap commodity, rather than the scarcity it was during the days of newspaper dominance.

Public relations folks — whatever you think of them — have a much more finely tuned ear to these trends and we ought to learn how they are reaching out to consumers if we want anybody to read our journalism in the future.

Solis provides only what I said at the top — a framework — for how journalists can leverage the Web to continue in their profession. Like the Web itself, it’s a much more interactive process, as opposed to the passive nature of our lives in a newsroom. He’s asking journalists to get off their hard-boiled butts and play a more active role in reshaping their profession. This isn’t an assignment that’s going to be handed to you by an editor; you’ve got to make it work. Even more so if you’ve been handed a pink slip by an editor.

Also, ignore Solis’ cringe-inducing phrases — “statusphere” and “news ecosystem” drive me up the wall — as well as his penchant for celebrity name-dropping. He does less of it than other new media evangelists. Pay attention instead to what he says about the new skills and techniques that journalists need to employ (they’re not so new, except to us) to reach and engage their audiences online. I’ll bet you haven’t been hearing too much about that from print-oriented editors, except in pangs of desperation as they lurch from one failed strategy to another.

As another commenter states:

“I think the point of the article isn’t really about how the money will roll in for journalists, but how in the face of media evolution do we preserve the integrity and placing of journalists as a reliable source of information, a.k.a. good journalism.”

Precisely! Look, it isn’t that I haven’t had the same concerns as these ink-stained wretches. Where’s the money going to come from? How long can I hold out until I get paid something substantial? Is this idea going to pay off? Is it going to pay at all? I have asked these questions frequently of someone who wants me to help launch a sports media startup that we both agree has great potential. Gotta pay the bills, know what I mean? I think about this constantly.

But some of my crotchety fellow journalists are convinced that the world owes them a living, since they’re doing the oh-so-important work of preserving democracy. Or whatever.

Nobody owes you anything! If you haven’t noticed, thousands of journalists keep getting laid off. A few folks I used to work with got the bad news last week. Newspapers were all they had ever known. They were all I had ever known, too, for my entire 25-year career in journalism.

It is very sad news when journalists who really, really wanted to make it work have decided that they cannot. I may face a similar fate very soon, because we are probably at the early stages of a very big gap between the demise of the print economy and the maturation of the Web economy. I’m in my late 40s, at the tail end of the Baby Boom generation, and I don’t see many online business models emerging before my so-called Golden Years that will sustain the kind of journalism that once flourished at newspapers.

There are no guarantees, even with the Web skills, energy and faith in the future that I have. Actually, there is one. If journalists continue to whine and contemptuously look upon new ideas as “touchy feely” or “warm and fuzzy” then their work, and their profession, is guaranteed to decline further.

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3 thoughts on “A vision for journalism, if journalists will buy it

  1. Pretty scary times, but also exciting. That aside, it’s clear that times are changing in regards to the media landscape, and sadly, there are some people who don’t want to accept change, or are at least scared of it.

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  2. I think newspapers went in the game to late – and it sucks, b/c they totally were in a position to become major players. I just finished reading an interview series on teh future of journalism (journalists and academics were interviewed, like John Yemma, CSM editor) and it was interesting to see the solutions they proposed, but i think its a lost battle.

    http://www.ourblook.com/The-Media/The-Future-of-Journalism.html

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  3. What’s interesting in amongst all the wreckage, is what’s been missing. This carnage has been coming for oh, say 15 years at least. And certainly an ongoing concern for a decade. Where were the papers on the topic? Nowhere. A few industry confabs here & there. Scuttlebutt in the office and on the blogs (but only occasionally!) much before 5 years ago. Up until then what were most of the papers doing? Well in particular, (besides deep in denial)? Not really covering the news. Certainly not all the news, as they once tried to. Worse still, They Never Really Talked About This Coming Crisis with their Readers! You know, their audience & customers, day in & day out?! Nadda. It was like a big secret until the big ships went down and then it’s like ‘Well yes, there Are German subs lying in wait just off shore, but don’t worry too much…’ Yeah. Like that. The story & the concern was almost wholly MIA from the papers own coverage of their own industry, which was always lousy & from a strictly business perspective too! If you actually took the time to involve your readers & audience in the problem earlier, some suggestions and hopeful interactions might have been in the offing. As it is? You’ve just managed to PO even more people by being now unable to actually cover the news properly.

    Which leads to more people giving up the paper as ‘pointless’, & even more cutbacks as a self fulfilling management prophecy of ‘they’re not into news anymore, just ‘infotainment’. So we get so little news that even the headline services, (one & 2 person bureaus of ‘rip & readers’) are now deemed as wholly adequate to be ‘reliably informed’, and No One covers what actually goes on as far as State legislation is concerned. Which was the whole damn point of even having papers in the first place. A place to go where you could see actual reporting on ‘What went on’ and the ‘doings’ at the state capitols & town halls. And now they’re even wholly unable or unwilling to fill that function, and have emasculated themselves to where ‘headlines’ are about all you’re getting in any paper.

    Me I gave up on the AJC when they dropped their regular business coverage. I took the FT. With the AJC ‘retreat’ back to the center city, that has to now be mailed to me. 1800’s style. But hey, they’ve hired a new ‘conservative columnist’ & the editorial board will be devoid of any real libs! Hooray! Now try and keep up circulation of a now much redder paper (editorial anyways) in the last Blue bastion in Ga., Atlanta. Smart move Julia! Geez. It’s the boneheaded management decisions that would have had me jumping ship more than a decade back.

    As with GM: ‘Poor management will beat great workers, every time’ You can bet on it. Thanks for the notes & links however. It’s nice to find out where the real writers went in this town! Cheers, ‘VJ’

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