Friday, May 8, 2009

Thoughts on journalism

A clarification. In yesterday's post, I talked about an incident that occurred in a journalism class involving a student and her video project. It may look as if I was deriding the UA School of Journalism and its journalist-professors. I was not.

Instead, my scorn was aimed at the student and her project. The fact that she could make such a project and try to pass it off as journalism is ridiculous. Just as there are some articles and events that do a great disservice to the credibility and staff of the Arizona Daily Wildcat as well as the UA community, the same can be said of what goes on in the School of Journalism.

The point I was trying to get across was that the classroom is not the same as the work environment, yet both are vital. The classroom can be a laboratory where people can experiment in a safe place without fear of reprisal from the general public. This is no different from an artist drawing in a sketchbook or a choreographer dancing in an empty studio.

But this experimentation is not the same as displaying one's paintings or performing a dance piece — or writing for a regular newspaper. As that student may have perceived it, her class work was not under public scrutiny, so there was little or no consequence.

So you turn in shoddy work for a journalism class. Your classmates may not respect what you've done and your grade may have taken a hit, but there's always the next assignment to boost up your grade. That is, if you even care about your grade or the class.

But turn in shoddy work at the newspaper and you'll get complaints from students, faculty, alumni, parents of students, local businesses, special interest groups, other staff members, etc., and you may never get a chance to regain their trust again. There are real and lasting consequences involved with working at a newspaper — even a student-run newspaper — and that student, for better or worse, didn't get to see and feel those consequences in the safe confines of the classroom.


Since I'm on the topic, there has been a national discussion going on about how to save newspapers. Guests and callers on a recent episode of The Diane Rehm Show offered a few suggestions including nonprofit status, new business models, and a government bailout similar to what the auto industry has received. Wednesday's Democracy Now! showed an excerpt from David Simon, creator of The Wire, who testified before a Senate hearing led by Sen. John Kerry about the state of journalism and the need for "high-end journalism," that is, professional journalists. He advocated for a nonprofit model for newspapers. Ariana Huffington of The Huffington Post, and Steve Coll, former managing editor the Washington Post, also testified and presented different views as to what can be done for the newspaper industry.

I wonder if it's possible for the newspaper industry to survive. I doubt it can continue in its current physical form. I also doubt we can get the same quality of reporting from online sources without significant capital to finance it. As Simon summarizes so well, the major blogs and news aggregators feed on the primary sources of news and those who follow these secondary and tertiary sources do not have to pay for the content. But they still need the newspapers to provide the news.

People have become accustomed to getting free information online. However, people are also willing to pay for online content so long as they get perceived value. When selling something online (and the news is a product that is sold), the buying process needs to be so quick and easy that even a child can do it. (Amazon and iTunes are good models to consider.)

Given that two-thirds of North America's population uses the Internet, I'm surprised that industry leaders haven't moved faster to transition online or create a stronger print/online hybrid. It's almost like the American auto industry and hybrid cars...

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