The Journalist Dilemma

By | July 23, 2006

Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine says there are too many journalists and newspapers would do well to cut back on reporters and reinvest digital interaction on the local level — in other words, to build connections with communities and have them report. Cheap/free local citizen Journalists, in other words, replace jet-setting, expensive correspondents:

So maybe the problem with journalism today isn’t that there are too few reporters and and editors but too many. I’ve talked before about the foolishness of sending 15,000 reporters to the political conventions, about papers sending TV critics to junkets or golf writers to tournaments. Inside the newsroom, too, there are overwrought processes. Meanwhile, of course, revenue is sinking and staff will follow.

But rather than treating this as an endless retrenchment, the ballsy editor would take this bull by the horns and undertake an aggressive reinvestment strategy. Why not cut that staff today? Find your essence — hint: it’s local, local, local. Streamline now to put out a better focused and better print product.

I definitely agree with the absurdity of having thousands of journalists all covering one single-dateline story, whether it’s a convention or a Michael Jackson trial. But I wonder, too, how this obsession with new approaches to media — citizen journalism, community interaction, local coverage vs non-local — is going to look a few years down the track. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for breaking down the barriers between newspaper and community between professional and amateur reporter/photographer/editor. But this movement will also have some heavy long term effects that aren’t really discussed in this blogocratic world.

  • “Going local” is nearly always going to mean narrowing horizons. Newspapers and their portals (and their successors) with thinner or nonexistent foreign pages, what coverage there is based on wire reports. Is this what we want?
  • I’m all for interactivity and respect for active reader/contributor participation. But to me it’s somewhat shortsighted an argument that goes “newspapers are less profitable so fire the people who actually differentiate, or should differentiate your product from everything else out there”. Surely we should be talking about how journalists might raise/alter their game to match this challenge? Since when was responding to a change in the market a question of throwing the value overboard and investing in fewer skills, not more?
  • The issue closest to my heart is international coverage. Baltimore Sun, LA Times etc are cutting back on international staff. Fine, people say, replace them with bloggers. No question bloggers are good, and have good things to say, but who is going to do the legwork to explain, in an objective and engaging style, the complexities of issues such as terrorism (al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah), disaster relief (earthquakes, tsunamis) to an international audience? There may be no interest in these issues right now, but when another disaster happens, who is going to do the coverage? 9/11, anyone?
  • Foreign coverage is only a “worthy” (rather than profitable) investment because it’s seen that way, not because it need be. I certainly agree with one commenter that journalists tend to hunt in packs, not because they lack imagination but because they tend to be rewarded by nervous editors looking for “matching” copy. The result is a foreign news page that tends to look similar from publication to publication. This needs to change; most foreign correspondents work their socks off satisfying editors’ hunger for matching copy (“Java Earthquake Kills Hundreds; Briton Forced to Cut Short Holiday”) and then, when everyone else goes home for the weekend, traipse off to the jungle to weave a telling story about environmental destruction/global warming/species extinction.

In short, I think we need to explore ways of reinvigorating coverage of news beyond our own local niche and recognise that the idea of the foreign correspondent, while dated and definitely in need of updating, has been around since the Boer War because it works. For sure there’s plenty of room for amateurs (some of my favorite writers about Indonesia aren’t journalists) but there’s also room, nay a need, for professional reporters to explore and report back on what they see. In an increasingly complicated world we need them more than ever.

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