In this digital news age, there is need for the journalist as a “truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer.” That was the message conveyed by Katharine Viner, deputy editor of the Guardian and editor-in-chief of Guardian Australia, during the A.N. Smith lecture in Melbourne on Oct. 9, 2013. This is my review and retort of her presentation and accompanying article….
Viner starts by explaining how the method we receive and disseminate information has changed. Rather than only being available by word-of-mouth, through TV news stations, newspapers, books or magazines, information is now “free-flowing (in this digital environment), with limitless possibilities.”
“A newspaper is complete,” she says. “It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.”
That is the true worth of online media—the ability to update news at a moment’s notice (feeding our sense of urgency and our A.D.D. nature as a society). The digital news platform has also become a forum for instant interaction with the audience. (You’ve probably noticed your local TV news channel pulling posts and photos from local viewers’ Twitter and Facebook feeds. And you’ve probably also seen their news posted on these same social media venues before you see it on TV or read it in the paper). It’s instant gratification. Our attention spans are ever dwindling.
OK, so I’m still a die-hard supporter of news in print. I like that ink on the page and how it stains my fingers. I like that it has a sense of permanence—of reliability. … If you f*** up in print, you can’t fix it (instantly). You have to live with what you’ve written. That requires a more disciplined form of journalism.
Viner says that Danish academic Thomas Pettitt’s theory is that the way we think now is reminiscent of a medieval peasant, based on gossip, rumour and conversation. “The new world is in some ways the old world, the world before print,” he says. Now that is a radical concept! … Are we in some ways worse off now than we were before?
Maybe. With sites like Examiner.com and other news sites encouraging reader-supplied articles written by random contributors (who do not necessarily have journalism degrees), where is the reliability in their stories? Are their articles objective facts or opinion-driven?
And as much as I love sites like Yelp, which allow you to review local restaurants, they are encouraging people who do not necessarily have cooking backgrounds—much less real, experienced restaurant reviewers—to give an overly poor or overly elative review of an eatery.
While everyone has an opinion, not everyone is entitled to sharing there’s with the world on a massive public scale. These types of customer-generated reviews can make or break an establishment. And what if the review was based on something other than the food or service entirely? Maybe the reviewer just got fired or dumped by their lover and was just having a bad day.
So, as I ramble on, Viner’s academic lecture begins to reign true with me.
THE FREE ADVICE
Here are her key points about the dangers of journalism in a digital age and some tips on how to overcome them:
- Twitter is the new “town square.” Take it all in with a grain of salt.
- “Your readers often know more than you.” (Which can be embarrassing for a journalist, let me tell you).
- “You’re more accountable if you’re transparent.” Readers will eat you alive if you make an error, no matter how small. Sorry folks, but grammar and spelling Nazis are alive and well.
- Being open can bring you great story leads, so pay attention, talk to people (on social media and in person) and “do something different.”
- “Submit to the web’s architecture … rather than imposing a newspaper’s structure over it.” (i.e., Don’t do the same thing online as in print).
- Journalism is still expensive. Find a way to pay for it, or love doing it for free. Online ads don’t usually bring much income.
- Avoid linking to external sites; after all, they’re you’re competitors. (Unless you are citing a source, which is important and needs to be done more in digital journalism, especially since everything is “shared” and “borrowed”—i.e. stolen—these days.)
- “In many ways, a (story) is brought to life with the first comment. An op-ed without comments is now not only unthinkable to readers, (but writers too).” So, share your stories, ask for comments and interact with your readers!
- Pay attention to your website traffic and change the things that aren’t working for your readers.
- “People are performing acts of journalism everywhere,” Viner says, “as a service whose goal is an informed public…. Nevertheless, there is a crucial role in society for journalists to play.”
WHY REAL JOURNALISTS ARE STILL VALUABLE
Viner argues that trained and educated professional journalists are still valuable, even in this digital age, for these and many other reasons.
It’s because real journalists are able to:
- “Nurture a source over many months so they bring you their story;
- Have the ability to spot a story;
- Sense when something isn’t right and is being hidden;
- Ask uncomfortable questions;
- Get the important bits of information from a witness;
- Know how to talk on the phone;
- Know where to find a certain public record or piece of data;
- Know when to read between the lines;
- Know how to challenge someone in power;
- Know when to go with a story, when to wait (or when to toss an idea); and
- Know how to bravely resist pressure from others.”
So, I’m tipping my hat to my fellow journalists and giving you all a pat on the back. What you do is hard work. You are able to communicate effectively and report on topics no one else wants to write about in a way that frames the story so readers connect with it emotionally. You move people. You stir things up. You make a difference. Not just anybody could do it, and the world is better for it.
Read the original article by Katharine Viner here.
Watch the 1-hour lecture on YouTube.
And please leave comments below; I’d be happy to chat with you!