Renaissance journalism

Last week, I took part in a chat amongst journalists, designers and progammers on an internal e-mail list about how we work together. It was touched off by the e-mail interview with Adrian Holovaty at the Online Journalism Review.

One of Adrian’s sage bits of advice:

It all starts with the people, really. If you want innovation, hire people who are capable of it. Hire people who know what’s possible.

He says hire programmers, which news organisations are doing. But even journalists – like myself – who can’t programme but still know what’s possible are important. I took one programming class, ever, and that was Pascal back in the late 80s. I dropped it after one semester when I realised that my brain just didn’t work that way.

Yet my journalism school specifically and my university – the University of Illinois – more generally prepared me well for what was to come. I learned about all aspects of journalism, including design. I got the basics, plus I did lunch with the developers who worked on Mosaic, so got an early introduction to the web. There are journalists who aren’t programmers who know what’s possible, and quite honestly we are just waiting to be unleashed so we can get on with it.

What’s holding us back? Lots. As journalists, we’re obsessed with today’s deadlines. But too often, that focus comes at the cost of innovation that, for most of the internet, happened a while ago. We haven’t burned the business cards as Jeff Jarvis suggested and are stuck with organisational structures that concentrate solely on putting out a daily newspaper or feeding the beast of the 24-hour broadcast news machine, but which aren’t flexible enough to free up innovators to work on other projects. In a world of Google and nimble start-ups, news organisations need to invest in a little R&D and give us room to experiment.

Instead, the hungry innovators get pigeonholed, even when our skill set defies categorisation. I’m a journalist, a blogger, a podcaster, a cameraman, a photographer, a hacker (albeit not a very good one). As my partner in podcasting, Ben Metcalfe, says, if I were a town, I’d be San Luis Obispo, halfway between the content capital of LA and the geek creativity crucible of Silicon Valley. Don’t try to shoehorn me into your org chart. You’re org chart is part of the problem. You’ll get less value from me in an old school position than you’ll get if you let me do what I love: Get up every morning, work like a dog and create a brand new medium.

I am passionate about journalism, and I’m passionate about what journalists, designers and programmers can achieve together when unleashed on this amazing canvas called the internet. I get excited thinking about what I can do with all of this new fangled mobile communications technology. How does that transform journalism? Live, immediate, raw, real. Must read, must see, must participate in, be a part of content. That’s what it does.

Second class citizens, still

And while you’re at it, as Adrian says, stop treating us geeks like the hired help. Adrian uses the term IT Monkey, I believe. New media isn’t new anymore. In the UK, online advertising spending surpassed radio in 2004, and it is expected to surpass national newspaper spending this year.

And notice this:

Excluding internet spending, total UK media advertising would be in recession with television, national and regional press all reporting revenue declines this year, it said.

This isn’t the lates 90s when people said of the web, “Show me the money”. The money is there. The audience is there. The news industry needs to shift its priorities both in hiring and spending.

How to change?

There are some small organisations like the Lawrence Journal World and in Lawrence, Kansas (where Adrian Holovaty worked before joining the Washington Post), Nord Jyske in Denmark and many others, who understand multimedia, participatory media and are doing it really well. These are small shops where the editors, journos, developers, designers work together in a much more seemless and collaborative way.

But while Adrian is doing some great stuff when it comes to the innovative packaging and presentation of news at the Washington Post, what other possibilities are there? What could we achive when programmers, designers and programme makers work together during the whole process, rather than just the last few steps? Add in a little WiFi, 3G, radical in the field/on the ground newsgathering, and right away you’ve got a journalistic revolution.

I’d love the chance to focus on a single project, with the web at its heart and with on-demand audio and video. (No broadcast – broadcast would subsume this project. The media could be used on TV or radio, but it’s not a goal unto itself.) I’d work with a multi-skilled team with overlapping skills so they are literate in each others’ specialities and understand the challenges each will encounter. They would be the sort of people who understand that web isn’t just a publishing medium. Community and participation would be central to this project, both for promotion and co-creation. This is an X-project. A news incubator.

There are a couple of key issues that I need to think more about. Some stories would be perfect for this treatment, but not all. Some audiences would eat this up, but not all. We should focus on the right stories for the right audiences – you might call them ‘edge cases’ but perhaps ‘early adopters’ is a better way of thinking of them. IM, RSS, sharing. Mash ups. New news. News for the MySpace generation.

News has to evolve if it is to survive. And there are already journalists and geeks with mad ninja skills just waiting for a chance to show the world what can be done.

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