24 March 2010

Entrepreneurial Journalism and Rebuilding Trust

My boss has asked me to take a long look at media convergence issues - you know, how the Internet changes the way people consume news and how journalists report it - and I'm incorporating much of it into some social media training materials for the company. More and more I'm realizing this isn't a story about technology, and it really isn't a story about journalism.

"Media convergence" is really just one of countless stories about entrepreneurship. It's nothing new. It's about large companies clinging to the methods and products that made them successful 20 years ago, and remaining steadfast in the belief that any effort spent doing something other than selling that product or using that method is a wasteful distraction. (For example, television news has become formulaic, almost rote in its delivery.) It's about smaller companies and individuals trying something new, most of them failing, and trying again.

The Pew Project's State of the News Media 2010 Report came out last week. I found it via Tom Johnson's post on Media Convergence Matters. Johnson cites one of the report's conclusions:
For online news to become a profitable enterprise, either consumer attitudes need to change or the industry must do more. That more could be developing new better-targeted products that people are willing to pay for; new forms of advertising that work better, including local search; or new forms of revenue other than display advertising, including perhaps online retailing.
The "consumer attitudes need to change" is a reference to consumers not being willing to pay for a lot of content or clicking ads. In truth, consumer attitudes are constantly evolving. The report includes a lot about how news needs to move online, and it has. It includes a lot about aggregating and curating content to better fit the needs of the consumer. This is all good, but to me it doesn't get to the heart of the matter.

Sadly, it doesn't have a lot about improving the quality of journalism generally or helping people understand why the news is relevant to them. In America at least, I think people have developed a significant detachment from what we commonly refer to as "the news." I think there's a strong mistrust of the news industry. People want to know who's paying for it.

At the source of it, I think, is the news industry's oft-repeated "if it bleeds, it leads" mantra has devolved into the basic formula "conflict = news," and if information doesn't have loud, competing sides, it really isn't newsworthy. I see science bloggers express some version of this sentiment on a regular basis.

The most important recent example of this is the coverage of health care reform over the last year. Some conservatives had legitimate disagreements with the Democrats' proposals, and other people decided to equate reform with genocide. The media made its choice early on what to cover - and so we heard wild tales about socialism and death panels. And once that decision was made, conservatives realized that the only way they could get their message out to the general public was to push the rhetoric further and further out, past the fringes of sanity.

As a result, people still don't know what actually passed in the health care reform law, after a year of debate.

Of course there are people in journalism who do a great job and should get more attention. But ask yourself - is that where the media industry is as a whole?

So yes, innovation in how news is developed, curated, and delivered is a must. (I like the idea of a business incubator for journalism.) But so is quality control - and that's the hard part.

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