10 March 2009

How to save journalism from the news industry

Yesterday's post showed what went wrong with corporate news. Today, here are a few simple ideas to protect the most important thing the news industry provides - investigative reporting. These are just my ideas, and I'm happy to hear any criticism from people who would shoot them down.

Let reporters be entrepreneurs, reporting from anywhere. This is harsh, but the business model newspapers currently use has to change dramatically, and employees of those companies have to embrace the change. Right now major papers and networks hire reporters who only write or report for them. I think reporters could be more entrepreneurial - work for themselves, and shop their product to the networks who need them. (yes, I know these people are called "freelancers." I'm saying we need them to be the rule, not the exception.) I'm not talking about McClatchy. I'm talking about McClatchy 2.0.

The models already exist online - I've said it before: if you want to see the news network of the future, just look at Global Voices Online or Green Options today. These networks leverage resources (i.e., writers) that are already in the places old-school networks would establish bureaus. Most of these independent writers already have their own platforms - and since they're freelancers, they have the ability to shop their work to a number of outlets at once. Right now it may seem weird to think you'd see the same reporter working for multiple papers or networks. But I follow the reporters I think do the best work, just as I look to specific bloggers who demonstrate their expertise in certain subjects. You could still have one network send a particular reporter to, say, a war zone and pay their way for exclusive content. But getting paid by the job might work best for both sides.

This business model would still be ad-driven, I think. I like the pro publica idea but it's limited to the resources of the foundation community. BBC is also an interesting model but difficult to justify in the US.

Strengthen FOIA laws and educate the public on how to use them. Let's face it - while most bloggers aren't journalists, the "citizen journalist" is here to stay. The truth is any citizen can request information from their state or local government under either the Freedom of Information Act or a state equivalent. But most government agencies don't make FOIA compliance a priority. It's time to change that. In the social media age, a person's individual information is shared in a few clicks. If we can do that to people, we should be able to do that to the government. The challenge here is arranging the information agencies and congressional sources generate in an accessible format.

Expand the universe of reliable sources. Newspapers like to demonize social media, but they sure do use a lot of social media tools these days. Most daily papers have dozens of blogs and even "Twitter feeds." They just don't use them strategically.

For example, Twitter is quickly becoming the best source of breaking news I know. But right now newspapers only use Twitter and other tools like it to speak, not to listen. There are over six million potential sources available to any reporter with an internet connection or a cell phone. Crowdsourced news needs verification but it's an amazingly effective tool if you know how to use it.

Learn from the people who are already doing it. Independent journalists like Mark Rendeiro ("Bicycle Mark" from Citizen Reporter) use blogs and podcasts along with social networks like dopplr to build a following and share their work. Some of the other things that really impress me about this guy: he doesn't hide his world view, he works hard to make sure his work is accurate, he corrects his mistakes, he always tries to give those he criticizes an opportunity to respond, and he follows up his stories.

You know, like an ethical journalist.

There are a number of other ideas out there - I'd love to hear some from others.

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