Monday, May 30, 2011

Traditional-form journalism a "luxury"?

I read an interesting online exchange between two social media thinkers whose opinions I really respect, and what was most interesting was how far apart their thinking was on the topic of Twitter, journalism and the place that traditional articles have in the mix of modern-day reporting.

Appropriately, I was alerted to the exchange from several tweets.

It started with a post by Jeff Jarvis on his blog Buzz Machine that led off with the comment "A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process."

That prompted a response from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm making the point that as important as stream-of-news coverage is, more fully fleshed-out articles that add meaning and context are just as valuable. (Both of their posts were later updated to include the other's reaction, and their own reaction to the reaction, which later evolved into a lengthy back-and-forth on Facebook.)

The crux of Jarvis's argument is that when journalists' time is so precious, he'd rather have them putting that time into reporting, and dispensing it to the audience as rapidly and efficiently as possible, primarily via Twitter. That's why he calls articles summarizing news events after the fact as "an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps."

The gist of Ingram's response is that considering articles a luxury goes too far off in one direction because "while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more."

My own view lies closer to Ingram's. The contemporary environment is incredibly rich in information, much of which is original on-the-ground reporting from professionals and also from citizen journalists. While I see Jarvis's point about journalists making the best use of their time, arguably there is no shortage of reporting out there. Sense-making is what is in short supply.

The exchange reminded me of an article in Nieman Reports a fews years ago by Simon Waldman, who at the time was director of digital publishing for Guardian Newspapers. He wrote that “The disciplines of traditional media aren’t just awkward restrictions. Deadlines, limits on space and time, the need to have a headline and an intro and a cohesive story rather than random paragraphs, all of these factors force out meaning and help with understanding. Without the order they impose, it’s much, much harder to make sense of what’s happening in the world.”

In the 2005 article, Waldman said with regard to citizen-witness contributions to coverage of the December 2004 tsunami in southern Asia, the power came from the vividness and volume of the comments. “But out of this sheer volume, " he also wrote "the movement’s great weakness was exposed – the lack of shape, structure and overall meaning to all that was available. There is a fundamental difference between reading hundreds of people’s stories and understanding the ‘real’ story. … Making sense of it all needed the sort of distillation, reduction and, yes, the editing process that happens in traditional media.”

Even when the reporting is being done by professional journalists -- as in the several examples cited in Jarvis's post -- I think that holds true. The ongoing process of the reporting is important, but so is the follow through of articles that provide context and summary.

I also found it interesting that a number of comments attached to Jarvis's and Ingram's posts compared after-the-fact curation to the old journalistic practice of the rewrite desk, which I think offers a good analogy and a good perspective on the worth of traditional journalistic values and practices even with all of the modern tools and techniques at journalists' disposal.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Failing to try

This month's Carnival of Journalism entry is supposed to address "A failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons. It must be your failure and you must take responsibility."

Given that I sat out the past couple of month's worth of J-Carns (does that count as failure? It feels like it) because I was buried in grading (oops, that's the forbidden apologizing -- or maybe excuse-making, which is even worse), this seemed like a good time and a good topic for which I could return to the fold.

I have to say I've never failed spectacularly at anything; I don't expect to be in the running for the "fight at the end for the biggest failure of the lot," as David described it in the assignment. But a major reason for not failing at anything spectacular is not trying anything spectacular. Which is essentially the failure I'm choosing to discuss.

Early in my career, while working as a beat reporter for a small newspaper, what I wanted more than anything was to be an independent free-lance writer, supporting myself with my work outside of the context of an institutional employer. I'd spend free time combing through Writers' Market, looking for ideas of places to pitch for my work. I had some small successes at it, getting a few small contracts for trade journal pieces and such.

But where the failure came was passing up a golden moment to make the move at trying to carve out a career path along that line.

I had left that staff job to spend two years back in school, full time, earning a master's -- an MBA in fact, which gave me a certain level of knowledge and expertise about businesses that could have been leveraged into writing, perhaps, for finance magazines and the like. My wife was the primary breadwinner the whole time I was in school. I had those occasional free-lance pieces and a part-time job at the local daily, but we mostly lived on her paycheck.

Then even the part-time job ended when I finished school and the paper said they had no openings and no plans to hire me. So there I was: no steady job, lots of free time (with no classes to worry about), finances reasonably well covered. We weren't rich but we weren't starving either, and this was before the kids came along to complicate life and family expenses. Hence, the golden moment.

And I blinked.

Rather than take the opportunity that was presenting itself to really see if I had it in me to be a self-supporting independent free-lancer, I sought out (and fairly quickly found) another newspaper staff job. It was in copy editing, rather than reporting, and I found that the tasks of editing fit my skills and personality better than writing. I had a long and successful career as a copy editor that led to my current academic position, so I have no complaints or regrets really about how things did turn out. (Like I said, not a spectacular fail.)

But it's impossible not to wonder where things could have gone had I chosen the other path. The story I've told happened in the mid-1980s, when personal computer technology was just starting to explode on the scene. Dozens of technology and computer magazines appeared over the next few years; with that as a specialty I might have had more work than I could handle.

Or, one of the things I liked, and was pretty good at, as a copy editor was page design. Could I have been on the ground floor as a Web designer, and maybe founder/owner of a design shop, as the Internet took off a few years later? Who knows where I might have ended up -- if not for a failure of nerve.