Last week, Hamilton Spectator editor-in-chief Paul Berton asked: What is a journalist? His answer was reasonably affable, and he even made positive reference to local community media sites like Raise the Hammer, The Hamiltonian and OpenFile. "Most of these local news websites do some great work, and like all media, help the community."
At the same time, a certain amount of FUD slipped in with oblique warnings about "alternative startups ... setting the news agenda." Berton asserted that established media like the Spec are still positioned "to bring you the best overall news package, simply because we have a bigger staff and have been at this for more than a century and a half."
His conclusion tied these two sentiments together: "sometime soon we're all going to have to cut out some of the cacophony and choose to listen only to those we trust."
These days, that is the central promise of the professional media: compared to those scary, anonymous, vituperative blogs, the professional media are folks you can trust.
A year ago, when I sat on a panel discussing the future of local media, the professional journalists sharing the podium with me were appalled when I suggested that readers/viewers should be skeptical of everything they see in the media.
Connie Smith, the host of Always Good News on CTS-TV, was mortified that anyone might feel they couldn't respect the authority of the mainstream media. Bill Kelly, host of the Bill Kelly Show on CHML, insisted that his job is to vet the news for credibility and thereby protect his listeners from being misled.
When journalism was a capital-intensive enterprise requiring expensive printing presses and broadcast stations, professional journalists and editors were needed to stop crap from getting into publication - not to protect the audience, who can recognize crap all by themselves, but to protect the shareholders, who can't afford to produce stuff no one wants to consume.
Somewhere along the line, the professional gatekeepers of the means of media production forgot this crucial distinction. They convinced themselves that their role was paternal rather than fiduciary.
The result is top-down journalism that feels increasingly condescending to an audience of engaged citizens who come to realize that they collectively know more about many of the stories they care about than the journalists do.
So what happens when the cost of producing journalism collapses? What happens when, say, you can launch a media publication with household tools, no upfront capital investment and an operating cost around $10 a month?
What happens when determined amateurs from various walks of life are willing to write about their community and share it freely? More to the point, what happens when people actually start reading that stuff?
How are the professional gatekeepers to respond when they can no longer simply ignore it?
One response, of course, is to close ranks and decry the amateurs as unreliable, agenda-driven, and unprofessional. Another is to redefine it out of the professionals' domain: the blogs are at best "community partners", not competitors.
The trend at the Spec seems to be toward the latter approach, which at least holds open the possibility of decorum. Still, it gets awkward. Consider this article posted last night on the Spec website:
Burlington will be an extreme "long shot" to become the site of a controversial Pan Am Stadium without the event organizers extending a Feb. 1 date for the site selection.
That's the view of Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring in response to public comments by Toronto 2015 CEO Ian Troop that the Feb. 1 deadline stands. [emphasis added]
Those "public comments" are in all likelihood comments Mr. Troop made in yesterday's interview with RTH.
I'm glad the Spec followed up on the news from Mr. Troop by contacting Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring. That's another valuable piece of the Pan Am stadium story, a story readers will get most fully by linking together information from a variety of sources.
It's the linking part that frustrates the professional media. Linking, aggregating and sharing characterize the internet. It's why we cite sources at RTH and link back to the original: nothing encourages accountability like knowing your readers can and will call you out on sloppy, lazy, unfair or otherwise inaccurate reporting.
This idea of accountability through a decentralized web of linked resources is a real problem for traditional media organizations, which present themselves as full-service, one-stop news shops - even when that means doing their own upstream aggregation through commodity wire services to fill the gaps in their coverage.
Citing sources does two things, both of which weaken the claim to authoritativeness: it announces and legitimizes the source to readers; and it acknowledges, however tacitly, that no media entity is a self-contained island.
In Berton's essay on journalism, he asserted that the Spec is best positioned to provide news "we can trust" because it has more staff and more experience.
He is half-right. I'm perpetually frustrated and depressed by the number of stories RTH does not and cannot cover because we're volunteer-based and just don't have the resources. At the same time, a central idea at RTH is that we don't have to be a traditional one-stop shop. It's the web of resources that matters: we're merely a strand.
As for the value of a long institutional memory ... well, the simple fact is that journalism per se isn't all that hard. It mostly amounts to clear, expository writing, awareness of where to gather information - not just soundbite quotes but also the details buried in studies and reports - plus the ability to ask good questions and determine what is relevant.
It definitely helps to have an active BS detector, though as I already argued, the best approach is to treat all sources with a healthy dose of skepticism.
It also helps to have domain-specific knowledge that goes beyond what a reporter can pick up in the day or two spent getting the background on a story. I'm by no means the first person to notice that the most interesting journalists these days are those who blend deep knowledge of a subject with the ability to communicate clearly to lay readers.
Again, this hints at a journalism moving away from professionalization: that the real value-add is not mastery of the inverted pyramid but the communication of useful knowledge. This is the idea of journalism as public communication among peers, rather than the top-down dissemination of a comprehensive suite of information that writers and editors consider important.
Can the professional media embrace journalism as public dialogue? Can they embrace news as a web of resources in which the value of their contribution is directly tied to its integration with the web? Can they stop thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of authority and start thinking of themselves as fellow community partners?
If they can marshal their still-considerable resources to enable this kind of journalism, they will indeed retain a central and invaluable role in an increasingly connected society.
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